He was a world-renowned scholar of antiquities, enchanted into his old age by Syria’s fabled city of Palmyra, which he called among the most beautiful in the world.
Not far from the spectacular Roman ruins he had spent decades safeguarding and curating, Khaled Asaad met a brutal end at the hands of the militants of Islamic State, relatives and colleagues reported Wednesday.
The white-haired, bespectacled octogenarian and retired director of Palmyra’s antiquities and museum was beheaded Tuesday in a main square of the modern-day Syrian city of Tadmur adjoining the ruins, according to a monitoring group and Syria’s antiquities chief. His executioners then displayed the bloodied corpse, hanging it from a traffic light pole, witnesses said.
Even amid a numbing litany of Islamic State’s depravation — mass sexual enslavement, crucifixions, a captured pilot’s immolation in a cage — the gruesome killing of the elderly, eminent scholar elicited shock and horror.
An image posted online by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Britain-based monitoring group, showed a placard tied to the body calling Asaad an “apostate” who deserved execution. The placard noted that he had represented Syria in “infidel conferences” outside Syria, maintained ties with the nation’s embattled government and visited Shiite Muslim Iran.
Shiites are viewed as heretics by the Sunni Muslim militants, who last year captured significant swaths of Syria and Iraq and declared a “caliphate” where a harsh interpretation of Islam holds sway.
“This is a sad and tragic crime against Palmyra, and against a scientist and an archaeologist,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria’s antiquities and museums department.
Speaking by phone from the Syrian capital, Damascus, Abdulkarim said relatives of Asaad had told him that the retired antiquities director, a father of 11 described as gentle but fiercely determined, had been held by the militants for about a month.
Unlike many others, Asaad had rejected opportunities to flee after the Islamic State takeover of Palmyra in May, perhaps thinking that his advanced age — given by various sources as between 81 and 83 — and fame in his field might shield him from the militants’ wrath.
The militants interrogated him in what might have been an effort to recover treasures from the site that had been spirited away for safekeeping or caches of gold rumored to have been buried in the ruins, Abdulkarim said.
“They didn’t care that this was an old man, that he was an important figure in the city who spent 40 years protecting and preserving its ruins,” he said.
A renowned specialist and the author and coauthor of many scholarly books about the Syrian site, such as “Palmyra: History, Monuments & Museum,” Asaad was a prominent translator of Palmyric Aramaic texts and a frequent collaborator with European archaeological missions. The Palmyra native, who had retired in 2003 after 40 years at the helm of the antiquities department, was often photographed in the ruins, smiling as he gestured toward some priceless find.
During his tenure, Asaad oversaw much of the excavation and restoration at Palmyra, an oasis deep in the desert. He was the widely respected curator of majestic ruins, including the massive Temple of Bel, consecrated to the Semitic god. Asaad was personally responsible for several major archaeological discoveries in the ancient city, which was also the home of Zenobia, a 3rd century queen who led a revolt against the Roman empire.
Palmyra’s fall three months ago was sudden and swift. Government forces melted away as Islamic State militants overran the city, whose capture cut off a key land route from Damascus to government-held cities in the east.
The militants then embarked on a wave of summary executions, killing suspected government collaborators. They even staged one mass execution in the restored remains of a 2nd century theater in the ancient city, which before the 2011 outbreak of Syria’s civil war had been the venue for performances by many world-famous artists and entertainers.
Residents of the fallen city have been forced to live under the oppressive strictures of Islamic State. Men are obliged to pray five times daily; women who were already wearing veils are forced to fully cover up their hands and faces. An act such as smoking a cigarette can lead to severe retribution.
Although Palmyra’s main complex of ruins has so far escaped relatively unscathed, Islamic State has destroyed a number of tombs nearby and planted land mines among some larger monuments and historic buildings, according to Abdulkarim.
Khalil Hariri, who also worked in Palmyra’s archaeological department before fleeing to Homs, 90 miles to the west, told the Associated Press that Asaad, his father-in-law, was “a treasure for Syria and the world.”
“Why did they kill him?” he asked.
Other tributes poured in from around the world. On Twitter, author and art historian William Dalrymple called Asaad “a hero of our time.” In a statement, the United Nations cultural agency, which had listed Palmyra as a World Heritage Site, denounced his “horrific” slaying.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed Asaad’s execution based on witness accounts. Some activists reported that the body was also paraded and displayed elsewhere in the area, including in the ruins to which Asaad had devoted his life.
Amid the outpouring of grief and horror, the execution renewed concern about the fate of Palmyra’s magnificent antiquities. Islamic State considers such archaeological landmarks to be sites of pagan worship. During its reign in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the group released video of militants wielding sledgehammers and power drills to destroy ancient busts and statues.
Even more than a decade after his retirement, Asaad wrote frequently and eloquently about his native city and its treasures. Palmyra, he wrote in a final Facebook posting in April, “developed from oasis to village to city … one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Gaziantep, and Times staff writer King from Cairo.