The Destruction of Palmyra: Ideology – or Profit?


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Before and After Satellite Images of the Temple of Bel

Satellite images confirming and illustrating the destruction of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra. Screenshot by Natasha Sheldon

The recent destruction of the world heritage site of Palmyra has shocked the world. Tombs and temples have been obliterated, and the site’s archaeological guardian murdered – all since ISIS took control of the site in May 2015.

Opinions vary about the motivation behind the destruction.

Many believe it is the extremists’ hatred of idolatry motivates the destruction – hence their targeting of religious sites.

However, the recent destruction of the Monumental Gateway suggests this is not the whole story.

So, what does ISIS hope to gain from the destruction?

Palmyra: The Beginning of the Destruction

Initially, ISIS pledged not to harm Palmyra. But within months, this promise was forgotten. In August, the extremists blew up first the temple of Baal Shamin and then the Temple of Bel.

This tragic loss was swiftly followed in September with the demise of several of the city’s unique tower tombs. The most recent victim came in October when they blew up the Monumental Gateway, which framed the beginning of Palmyra’s iconic colonnaded street.

Destruction Due to Ideology?

The militant’s extreme religious beliefs have been used as an explanation for the destruction of the temples and tombs. Islam condemns the practice of idolatry- the worship of idols, or depictions of gods other than Allah. ISIS’s ultra-extreme interpretation of Islamic law could explain the destruction of Palmyra’s religious sites.

This could explain the destruction- but doesn’t. For the destruction cannot merely be motivated by religious zeal. Earlier Muslim invaders contented themselves with removing the faces from Palmyra’s statues and friezes. Otherwise, they left Palmyra intact, even partially reconstructing the sanctuary of Bel as a fortress.

After the destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin, ISIS proudly released videos of its work. The group has continued to release video with each subsequent attack. It is as if ISIS is taunting the world- and President Assad’s forces- by holding the city hostage.

The Importance of Palmyra

A Syrian Heritage report states that as early as June, ISIS was booby-trapping Palmyra, placing explosive devices around the site. According to Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s top antiquaries official, the reason for this is simple: ISIS was planning to hold Palmyra “to ransom” by “killing them (the city’s monuments) one by one.

But why is Palmyra a useful hostage? In ancient times, the city of Palmyra became wealthy because of its strategic position along the trade route between the east and the Mediterranean. The Romans also valued it as a strategic outpost against the Parthian Empire.

Today, Palmyra lies close to Syria’s major highway system, linking the cities of Homs and Damascus as well major oil fields and strategic military bases.

In other words, Palmyra is in an area that Syrian forces would dearly like to control.

In this context, we can see ISIS as holding a gun to the proverbial head of the ancient city, while saying to its opponents: “You’ve seen what we are prepared to do so far. If you want Palmyra to live, don’t come any closer.”

Cultural Murder in Palmyra

This kind of threat carries weight because of Palmyra’s importance to Syria’s heritage. The Director General of UNESCO believes ISIS designed the destruction to “deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity and history.”

This is also a view which Lynda Albertson, the chief executive of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, holds. “It is easy enough to view the damage to these heritage sites as something that can be rebuilt, if all we see is the physical,” Ms. Albertson stated in an interview with The Guardian. In her view, ISIS demotivates her enemies while chipping away at Syrian identity through controlling and destroying its heritage.

It is far more difficult to grasp the effects of cultural cleansing in the longer term, and to truly absorb its impact on a country’s people, said Ms. Albertson. “Each time ISIS chips away at history, blowing up this, bulldozing that, there are statements from Unesco and heritage professionals condemning the acts, but little more. People need to realise that this war, and ISIS’s part in it, is chipping away at Syria’s cultural continuity.”

By destroying history, ISIS hopes to rewrite it.

The Traffic of Antiquities

But at the same time, the terrorist group hopes to profit from Palmyra, using the site’s antiquities as a valuable source of funds.

ISIS has a well-established practice of selling artifacts from ancient sites they have captured and destroyed on the black market. In August 2015, the FBI posted a warning on their website, warning dealers to be on the look out for artifacts from Iraq and Syria.

We now have credible reports that US persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq,” stated Bonnie Magness-Gardiner of the FBI art theft program.

This is no mere theory. Satellite images showing “industrial level looting” on some sites. ISIS has also been caught red-handed. In a raid on the headquarters of ISIS’s finance chief in Syria, Abu Sayyaf, a cache of ancient artifacts were found heading for illegal sale.

ISIS is not only selling artifacts themselves. They are encouraging others to do so- and profiting from it. An undercover reporter for CBS discovered that the group is selling “licenses” to dig ancient sites to destitute locals unable to earn a living legitimately in war-torn Syria.

If you find an artifact, you take 80% and ISIS 20%” her source told the reporter. “But if the equipment used to make the find is ISIS-owned, the group take a 40-50% cut instead.”

The Destruction of Palmyra: Complex Motives

The execution of former site director Khaled al Asa’ad because of his refusal to divulge the whereabouts of many valuable items from Palmyra suggests ISIS has every intention of using the city to line its own coffers. In the light of this, the destruction would be a handy way of covering up the spiriting away of anything of value.

Handy. But not the main motive. For it seems that Palmyra’s main use to the extremists is as part of a strategy to win a war through controlling and destroying a nation’s ancient roots.

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