What will the world inherit from ISIS? Part I – Palmyra

These series of articles will count – or attempt to – the inheritance ISIS will leave to the world in terms of cultural destruction. Although it is impossible to calculate the value of one single destroyed site, we can talk about the destruction of thousands of culturally meaning objects, sites, buildings and even ethnic groups.

Both Iraq and Syria are located in one of the most historically active regions of the world, there we can find thousands of heritage sites that go from the ancient millennial culture of Mesopotamia to the last heartbeats of colonialism in the 1970s. In between these two extremes, we find the ancient Phoenician civilisation, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Christians, the Muslim expansion, the Crusades, Ottomans, the First World War, the rule of France and British and finally the years of Baathism.

Since the war started in 2011 thousands of cultural objects and sites have been destroyed and sacked by all parties, but since ISIS emerged in 2014, the group concentrated almost all the attention regarding cultural heritage and the conservation of  Iraqi and Syrian history.

The terrorist organisation has different objectives and motivations for the destruction of history. Their ideology, Salafism, places monotheism at the centre of its beliefs, and also the destruction of others’ faiths and history. Also, it’s easier to deny the existence of previous cultures if there is nothing left of them. Another objective is to grab the world’s attention. ISIS has found a cheap mass propaganda tool with the destruction of sites and the international community condemns that come after ISIS acts of destruction.

Heritage has proven to be a considerable source of income for the terrorist organization. Some media sources estimated traffic in looted antiquities to be the “second-largest source of revenue” for the terrorist organization. Although, another report by the ICSR considered that estimation to be an exaggeration. The report commented that the Islamic State did not earn most of this money by trading, but actually by selling digging permits and charging fees on dug artefacts. Both have in common the impossibility to exactly calculate how much has the Islamic State destroyed and earned.

A different objective is they want to leave a mark on history, their mark. This is, perhaps, one of the most important and, usually, underestimated ISIS objective. The following series will try to summarise the consequences of the group objectives in the main heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, with some mentions on other sites spread around the world.


According to the UNESCO World Heritage List, all six sites in Syria are placed as endangered sites since 2013 and all had reported damages as early as of March 2016. The ancient cities of Bosra, Aleppo, or Damascus; the ancient villages of northern Syria; the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah Ad-Din; and the entire site of Palmyra.

Palmyra (Tadmur)

The Islamic State occupied Palmyra two times since 2014 and left considerable damage in human and heritage terms.

The first occupation, May 2015 to March 2016, the terrorist organization destroyed :

  • Destruction of Al-Lat Lion (27 June 2015): The Al-Lat Lion 2.000-year-old statue, a statue that guarded the ancient temple dedicated to goddess Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic goddess. It was discovered and unearthed in the 1970s. Its size made it impossible to be moved to another part of the country, and ISIS destroyed shortly after they captured the city in May 2015.
    Michal Gawlikowski and Khaled al-Asaad
    Photo by Michal Gawlikowski (left), next to Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s director of antiquities in front of the Al-Lat Lion (via BBC)

    Photo of Al-Lat Lion after it was destroyed by ISIS members – Photo by DGAM (via artnetnews)
  • Temple of Baalshamin (23 August 2015): The Temple of Baalshamin was destroyed by ISIS as a consequence of its polytheistic and pagan history. The terrorist organization blew up the temple that dated back to the year 131 AD, one of the most complete ancient structures in Palmyra. Its destruction was considered as a War Crime by UNESCO.


Temple of Baalshamin seen through two Corinthian columns in March 2014
A picture of the oldest parts of the Temple back in 2014 before its destruction  – Via AFP
Screengrab of Islamic State (IS) video purportedly showing the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra (25 August 2015)
Image from ISIS propaganda websites showing the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin

Just a pile of rubble and dust is what remains from this, once great, site.

  • Temple of Bel/Baal (30 August 2015): Once used to worship the Mesopotamian god of Bel amongst others, its ruins were also considered to be one of the best-preserved temples of Palmyra. Intentionally destroyed by ISIS, besides being the representation of a pagan god, was also said to be because the terrorist organization was searching for treasures and “stores of gold” in the ancient site. Although some part of the temple remained, like the external walls and fortified gate, or the main entrance arch.
Satellite images from before and after a powerful blast in the ruins of Palmyra
Satellite image showing the before and after the demolition of the Temple by ISIS forces – Via BBC
  • Tomb/Funerary Towers (June-September 2015): Seven tower tombs dating back to the Roman era were destroyed by ISIS in two phases. Between June and August 2015 the Tomb of Iamliku and the unnamed tomb next to it were completely destroyed and badly damaged respectively. The Tomb of Atenaten was destroyed. The second phase, between August and September 2015, destroyed four more tombs: the Tomb of Elahbel, an unnamed tomb (which was north to the necropolis), and two unnamed tombs next to the Tomb of Iamliku.
FireShot Capture 1 - Palmyra UpdateReport FINAL I Internati_ - https___es.scribd.com_document_2783.png
Satellite images showing destruction in Tombs valley (Figures 8-9 of ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Report by Gillian Grace)
FireShot Capture 2 - Palmyra UpdateReport FINAL I Internati_ - https___es.scribd.com_document_2783.png
Satellite images showing destruction in Tombs valley (Figures 10-11 of ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Report by Gillian Grace)
  • Murder of Khaled Al-Assad (August 2015): the Islamic State beheaded the expert and museum’s head of antiquities Khaled Al-Asaad, who was 82 in August 2015 after he refused to reveal the location of precious objects. Al-Asaad worked for more than 50 years in Palmyra and many remember his spirit for Palmyra as an inextinguishable enthusiasm for the ancient city. Besides from not cooperating with ISIS militants, the terrorist organization accused Al-Asaad to be loyal to Bashar Al-Assad, to maintain contact with regime intelligence and security officials and to be managing Palmyra’s collection of idols and Gods -considered apostasy by ISIS.
Khaled al-Asaad in front of a sarcophagus from Palmyra depicting two priests dating from the first century – Photo by Marc Deville, Gamma-Rapho from 2002 via Getty Images
  • Palmyra Monumental Arch (4 October 2015): The Monumental Arch was also known as the Arch of Septimus Severus, a Roman emperor from 193 to 211 AD and linked the main street of the Colonnade and the Temple of Bel. The Islamic State blew it up with dynamite around the 4th of October 2015. Although footage from the 8th of October showed that some parts of the arch were still standing, by the time the Syrian Arab Army recaptured the city in March 2016 little remained.
A picture of the Arc du Triomphe before and after it was destroyed
Picture showing the Arch before and after it was destroyed by ISIS – via AFP/Getty Images (express.co.uk)
  • Palmyra Castle (March 2016): A medieval-era castle thought to be built by the Mamluks in the 13th century is located on an adjacent hill overlooking the ancient city of Palmyra. The site suffered extensive damage after ISIS forces located inside the castle decided to retreat while destroying the stairway leading to the entrance, some walls and one of the main towers.
The castle of Palmyra sustained slight damage in the battle to liberate Palmyra.
Image showing the destruction of one of the main towers – Via TeleSur
Picture showing walls damaged by shelling – Via SANA

During the Second occupation December 2016 – March 2017:

  • Roman Theatre of Palmyra (December 2016): Although the Roman Theatre witnessed little destruction from the first ISIS occupation -it was used as an execution site by the terrorist organization- it did suffer major damage shortly after ISIS recaptured the area in December 2016. As a consequence of Russian Mariinsky Theatre orchestra playing classical music concerts on the 100th anniversary of Syria’s Martyrs’ Day, in remembrance of the victims of the civil wars, the executed people at the site by ISIS and to celebrate the liberation of the city, the terrorist organization destroyed the facade of the theatre. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum, argued that the intentional destruction was an act of reprisal.
The Roman Theatre in Palmyra before its destruction in 2016 (left) and satellite pictures showing before (up) and after (down) it was damaged by ISIS – Author: Bryan Denton via The New York Times
  • Ancient Tetrapylon (January 2017): It used to mark the second pivot in the route of the collonaded street in Palmyra. It was built on crossroads, generally. The intentions behind its destruction are not as religious as in other cases, but rather a strong propagandistic image and message in a moment in which the terrorist group wanted to express its strength and capacity to counter the Government forces, and capacity to destroy heritage in short timespan.


The Tetrapylon in Palmyra in April 2016 (left) and satellite pictures showing before (up) and after (down) it was damaged by ISIS – Author: Bryan Denton via The New York Times


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