I first got to know Khaled al-Asaad in the 1980s as a colleague, and subsequently as a longstanding friend. During my almost annual visits to Syria until 2008, I could always count on the warmest of welcomes at Palmyra, and I well recall Khaled, standing on the steps of the Tadmor Museum, his face beaming, ushering me into his tiny office and sweeping piles of papers on to the floor in an attempt to excavate a chair for me.
His enthusiasm for Palmyra was inextinguishable and, within minutes of my arrival, I would be immersed in plans, drawings and photographs of the latest research. His heartless murder has come as a great shock and he will be greatly missed.
Khaled was an outstanding scholar, a world expert on the history and archaeology of Palmyra, the site that was his passion to which he devoted much of his long and dedicated working life. There will surely be few people who visited this world heritage site who do not have on their bookshelves a copy of his book, Palmyra: History, Monuments and Museum (co-authored with Adnan Bounni), which became the definitive guidebook almost immediately after its publication in 1982.
Yet his scholarship was much deeper and he was a regular contributor to Les Annales Archéologiques Arabes Syriennes (the journal of Syria’s directorate general of antiquities and museums) with articles on all aspects of Palmyrene culture, especially those relating to the extraordinary series of funerary portrait busts and their associated inscriptions.
Khaled was a delightful person, with a warm and engaging personality and a wry sense of humour. He went to great lengths to welcome and assist scholars, students and visitors from around the world and his book-cluttered office in the Tadmor Museum was regularly full of a whole variety of people enjoying his tea and his company. As director of Palmyra, he encouraged and facilitated research, excavation and restoration and, at the same time, made it accessible for tourists as surely one of the most impressive and unforgettable archaeological sites in the world.
Built around a natural oasis, this ancient caravan city sat proudly on one of the main trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and from there to markets further east. The city was also the capital of the famous third-century Queen Zenobia, who dared to challenge the power of Rome. With its colonnaded streets, monumental arch, tetrapylon (a kind of crossroads monument), theatre, numerous temples (including the enormous Temple of Bel, dedicated to the Semitic god of the same name) and the Valley of Tombs, it is one of the most impressive and beautiful of the Unesco world heritage sites.
Khaled was particularly interested in the funerary monuments built outside the city for the wealthier citizens: tomb towers of several storeys, the earliest examples dating back to Hellenistic times; single-storey house tombs; and underground rock-hewn tombs called hypogea.
All of these tomb types contained compartments (loculi) set into the walls to hold the remains of the dead and each loculus was sealed with a plaque bearing a sculptural portrait of the deceased and a brief dedicatory inscription. It was these fascinating and highly individual busts that captured Khaled’s imagination and it is the research he undertook in respect of them that will remain an invaluable contribution to our understanding of Palmyra and its unique culture.
By: Jonathan Tubb
Source: The Guardian