Demolition of Famous Arch Adds to List of Ancient Sites Destroyed by ISIS

The militant group keeps bombing and bulldozing important archaeological sites.

Picture of Palmyra Arch

The Arch of Triumph, a gateway to the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, was erected nearly 2,000 years ago and brought down by ISIS this week.  

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:

SYRIA

Palmyra

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.

Picture of Palmyra Arch

Camel corps desert patrol soldiers stop at Palmyra in a 1938 photo from the National Geographic archives.

This week, ISIS brought down the Arch of Triumph, a gateway to the city that was erected nearly 2,000 years ago. Reports from local opposition activists say the supporting columns still stand, but the soaring arch tumbled to the ground after explosives were detonated around it.

Mar Elian Monastery

The Christian monastery was captured in August, when ISIS militants captured the Syrian town of al-Qaryatain near Palmyra. Dedicated to a 4th-century saint, it was an important pilgrimage site and sheltered hundreds of Syrian Christians. Bulldozers were reportedly used to topple its walls, and ISIS posted pictures of the destruction on Twitter.

Apamea

A rich Roman-era trading city, Apamea has been badly looted since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, before ISIS appeared. Satellite imagery shows dozens of pits dug across the site; previously unknown Roman mosaics have reportedly been excavated and removed for sale. ISIS is said to take a cut from sales of ancient artifacts, making tens of millions of dollars to fund their operations.

Dura-Europos

A Greek settlement on the Euphrates not far from Syria’s border with Iraq, Dura-Europos later became one of Rome’s easternmost outposts. It housed the world’s oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue, and many other temples and Roman-era buildings. Satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city’s mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters.

Mari

Mari flourished in the Bronze Age, between 3000 and 1600 B.C. Archaeologists have discovered palaces, temples, and extensive archives written on clay tablets that shed light on the early days of civilization in the region. According to reports from locals and satellite imagery, the site, especially the royal palace, is being looted systematically.

IRAQ

Hatra

Built in the third century B.C., Hatra was the capital of an independent kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Its combination of Greek- and Roman-influenced architecture and Eastern features testify to its prominence as a trading center on the Silk Road. Hatra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.

Irana Bokova “The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq.”

In 2014, Hatra was taken over by ISIS and reportedly used as an ammo dump and training camp. A video released by ISIS in April 2015 showed fighters using sledgehammers and automatic weapons to destroy sculptures in several of the site’s largest buildings. “The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq,” UNESCO head Irina Bokova said at the time.

Nineveh

Ancient Assyria was one of the first true empires, expanding aggressively across the Middle East and controlling a vast stretch of the ancient world between 900 and 600 B.C. The Assyrian kings ruled their realm from a series of capitals in what is today northern Iraq. Nineveh was one of them, flourishing under the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib around 700 B.C. At one point, Nineveh was the largest city in the world.

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