Pan-Arab TV channel Al-Arabiya showed residents leaving the city, carrying their possessions with them (via BBC)

Pan-Arab TV channel Al-Arabiya showed residents leaving the city of Palmyra, carrying their possessions with them. (via BBC)

The ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria has been seized by ISIS fighters, fueling fears that its ancient artifacts and buildings could meet the same fate suffered by antiquities in Mosul, Nimrud, and Hatra. ISIS gained control of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the adjacent modern city of Tadmur on Wednesday after overpowering Syrian government forces, outlets including the New York Times, Associated Press, and Reuters reported.

A Roman relief at Palmyra near the Temple of Baal (photo © Erik Hermans, 2008, via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

“I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra. The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra. Finally, it is imperative that all parties respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict, by avoiding direct targeting, as well as use for military purposes.”

The monumental arch at Palmyra (photo by Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite this call to action and protection, Syrian forces have ceded control of the site to ISIS. “The city is now totally controlled by gunmen and its destiny is dark and dim,” Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria’s Antiquities and Museum Department, told the Los Angeles Times. “We are in a state of anticipation and fear” regarding the fates of “the archaeological site and the remaining artifacts in the museum … We took exceptional measures and moved hundreds of statues, but there are some things that cannot be moved.

A lion sculpture dating from the first century BCE that was once part of the Temple of Allat, now on view at the Palmyra Archaeological Museum (photo by Mappo/Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

Human settlement at Palmyra, a desert oasis, dates back to 7500 BCE, though it didn’t become a thriving Assyrian metropolis until much later, in the third century BCE. The fortified city remained independent when Rome established the province of Syria in 64 BCE, eventually joining the Roman empire in 14 CE. A period of great prosperity ensued that lasted until the third century CE. As a result, the Palmyra archaeological site and Palmyra Archaeological Museum contain some of Syria’s most exceptional and unique Roman and pre-Roman artifacts and structures, from the temples of Baalshamin and Bel and the antique theater to the museum’s collection of Roman reliefs.

The Temple of Bel at Palmyra (photo by Graham van der Wielen/Wikimedia Commons)

Though many fear the Palmyra’s antiquities will be targeted, the site also neighbors the infamous Tadmor Prison — “Syria’s equivalent of Abu Ghraib in Iraq,” as the New York Times puts it — whose inmates some speculate ISIS will set free. Nearby oil fields are also said to have attracted the terrorist organization’s attention in the area, which sits in the desert about 200 miles northeast of Damascus.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...