The latest act of senseless destruction took place on Monday in a city that once attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
AFP reports three columns in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra were blown up while three people were tied to them. It was a sickening act designed to show the world Islamic State’s disregard for life or history.
Across the Middle East, in Syria and in Iraq, ancient ruins continue to fall. A 2000-year-old temple was blown up in August. Before that Islamic State militantsdestroyed statues, including a 9th Century BC Assyrian winged bull at a museum in Mosul.
IS’s weapons are intimidation and brute force, but archaeologists are fighting back. Armed with 3D cameras and technology that makes it possible to “rebuild” lost artefacts, they hope to rescue an important part of history, even if they can’t physically stop it being blown to pieces.
A TWISTED MOTIVATION
Palmyra’s ruins are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, alongside natural wonders like our own Great Barrier Reef and architectural marvels like the Great Wall of China, the pyramids at Giza and the Acropolis in Athens.
The site was popular with visitors from around the world but its prominence also made it the perfect target for Islamic State.
The New York Times published The Strategy Behind Islamic State’s Destruction of Ancient Sites earlier this year. It explained how IS reaps “enormous propaganda value” and allows the group “to extend its message widely and potentially expand its recruiting”.
There’s another reason IS targets ancient sites: They see them as competition, as idols being worshipped instead of them.
Syria’s archeology association, the APSA, says more than 900 archaeological sites have been looted, damaged or destroyed in the past four years. Palmyra’s remaining columns hardly stand a chance.
To save them, or at least preserve their memory, those with a passion for history are taking photos. Thousands of photos.
The Telegraph reports experts from Oxford and Harvard universities plan to “take 3D photographs of every artefact under threat” from IS in an attempt to prevent thousands of years of history being lost.
CNN compared the initiative to an Indiana Jones film. The archaeologists, armed with “cheap 3D cameras”, have been sent to thousands of sites under threat.
Roger Michel is the executive director of The Institute for Digital Archaelogy, a joint venture between the two prestigious schools.
“People in Syria have exactly the same cultural history as we do in New York and Boston and if that gets wiped out by the sands of the desert, that’s going to be a significant thing,” he said.
Mr Michel said the photographs would form a database and in future be used to build replicas, perhaps with 3D printers.
PALMYRA’S SAVIOR JAILED
Perhaps the greatest advocate for saving the ancient city’s archaeological treasures is a man named Bassel Khartabil.
Mr Khartabil started taking photographs and building models of the ancient ruins more than a decade ago. These days, he is behind bars, a prisoner of the Assad regime, unable to offer any assistance.
In his absence, friends and complete strangers have taken up the challenge. Wiredreports they’ve established the New Palmyra Project, an online collection of 3D models of the 1st century AD city using photographs taken by Mr Khartabil.
The political prisoner was jailed for fighting for the free access to the internet.There’s a website dedicated to seeking his release. While they wait, his colleagues are getting in on with the project. This week they released the first batch of files.
It’s a timely release given the real Palmyra is falling to the ground. Islamic State has seized full control of the region and Syrian state forces withdrew in May.
For now, IS has the perfect backdrop for its propaganda and the world is watching in horror.
By: Rohan Smith