The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has reportedly demolished another iconic element of Palmyra, an ancient city in the heart of Syria. The so-called Arch of Triumph dated back to Roman times and formed the gateway to the city’s colonnaded ruins.
The arch is the latest ancient artifact to succumb to ISIS’s ongoing war on the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, with the group attacking many archaeological sites with bulldozers and explosives.
The damage to the arch follows a video released in August showing the fiery destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the best-preserved ruins at the Syrian site of Palmyra. Another, larger Palmyrene temple, dedicated to the ancient god Bel, was also leveled using improvised explosives in August.
The destruction is part of a propaganda campaign that includes videos of militants rampaging through Iraq’s Mosul Museum with pickaxes and sledgehammers, and the dynamiting of centuries-old Christian and Muslim shrines.
ISIS controls large stretches of Syria, along with northern and western Iraq. There’s little to stop its militants from plundering and destroying sites under their control in a region known as the cradle of civilization.
The militant group is just one of many factions fighting for control of Syria, where a civil war has left more than 230,000 dead and millions more homeless.
The group claims the destruction of ancient sites is religiously motivated; Its militants have targeted well-known ancient sites along with more modern graves and shrines belonging to other Muslim sects, citing idol worship to justify their actions. At the same time, ISIS has used looting as a moneymaking venture to finance military operations.
Palmyra thrived for centuries in the desert east of Damascus as an oasis and stop for caravans on the Silk Road.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of Syria’s Antiquities Department, argued that toppling the Arch of Triumph went beyond religious fervor. “It is now wanton destruction,” he told the Reuters news agency. “Their acts of vengeance are no longer ideologically driven because they are now blowing up buildings with no religious meaning.”
“It’s both propagandistic and sincere,” says Columbia University historian Christopher Jones, who has chronicled the damage on his blog. “They see themselves as recapitulating the early history of Islam.”
A guide to cultural sites that ISIS has damaged or destroyed so far:
Palmyra thrived for centuries in the desert east of Damascus as an oasis and stop for caravans on the Silk Road. Part of the Roman Empire, it was a wealthy metropolis. The city-state reached its peak in the late 3rd century, when it was ruled by Queen Zenobia and briefly rebelled against Rome.
Zenobia failed, and Palmyra was re-conquered and destroyed by Roman armies in A.D. 273. Its colonnaded avenues and impressive temples were preserved by the desert climate, and in the 20th century the city was one of Syria’s biggest tourist destinations.
ISIS seized the modern town of Palmyra and the ancient ruins nearby were seized in May. The militants initially promised to leave the site’s columns and temples untouched. Those promises were empty: In August, they publicly executed Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who oversaw excavations at the site for decades, and hung his headless body from a column.
And the group released photos last month of militants rigging the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin with explosives and blowing it up. It was one of Palmyra’s best-preserved buildings, originally dedicated to a Phoenician storm god. Now it is nothing but rubble.
Just days later, explosions were reported at the Temple of Bel, a nearby structure that was one of the site’s largest, and a United Nations agency says the building was flattened.