Islamic State destruction of Syrian heritage ‘cultural cleansing’ says UNESCO head

SERGEY PONOMAREV / NYT.  Ancient architecture in Palmyra, Syria, Militants from Islamic State set off explosions around the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most grand and well-preserved structures in the sprawling complex of ruins in Palmyra.
SERGEY PONOMAREV / NYT. Ancient architecture in Palmyra, Syria, Militants from Islamic State set off explosions around the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most grand and well-preserved structures in the sprawling complex of ruins in Palmyra.

Islamic State militants have razed a fifth-century Roman Catholic monastery and blown up one of the best-preserved first-century temples in Palmyra, the ancient Syrian city that is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, according to government officials and local activists.

And that was just this past week — in one Syrian province.

Much like the grinding slaughter of human beings, the ravaging of irreplaceable antiquities in Syria and Iraq has become a grim wartime routine. Yet the cumulative destruction of antiquities has reached staggering levels that represent an irreversible loss to world heritage and future scholarship, archaeological experts and antiquities officials say.

It has accelerated in recent months as the self-declared Islamic State has stepped up its demolition and looting, piling onto battle damage wreaked by government forces and other insurgents in Syria’s four-year civil war. That has brought antiquities lovers on all sides to a new level of despair.

“I feel very weak, very pessimistic,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director general of antiquities, said Monday in a phone interview from Damascus, adding that with his inability to protect Palmyra, “I became the saddest director general in the world.”

In wrecking the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra over the weekend Islamic State militants destroyed a major part of the sprawling complex of stone buildings that still rise majestically from the desert 20 centuries after the city’s heyday.

Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, in a statement Monday called the destruction “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” She said the destruction threatened to erase the diversity that has characterized what is now Syria for millenniums.

“The art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, is a symbol of the complexity and wealth of the Syrian identity and history,” she said. “Extremists seek to destroy this diversity and richness, and I call on the international community to stand united against this persistent cultural cleansing.”

The Islamic State has destroyed objects and buildings that it views as idolatrous under its interpretation of Islam.

Source: The Star

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