The much-feared destruction of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra has begun. On Monday, pictures surfaced on a verified ISIS website showing the bombing of two important mausoleums: one belonging to the Shiite saint Mohammed bin Ali (a second cousin of the Islamic prophet Mohammed) and another belonging to the medieval Sufi scholar Nizar Abu Bahaaeddine. Republished by the AP, the images show the tombs exploding in a cloud of dust and smoke.
The reports comes just a week after ISIS released photos showing militants with sledgehammers destroying Muslim headstones in a Palmyra cemetery. As First Things has observed, the Sunni extremists follow the Salafi strain of Islam, which considers the veneration of graves and tombs as idolatry. The city contains many other possible targets, including the Tower of Elahbel (103 CE), a vertical burial chamber that contains up to 300 sarcophagi.
ISIS appears intent on erasing all physical remnants of Palmyra’s diverse religious history. On June 20, Palmyra News Updates announced the group has planted mines and explosives around the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, a sanctuary to the Babylonian god Ba’al and one of Palmyra’s UNESCO-listed ruins. Though ISIS has previously said it will only target ruins it believes are sacrilegious, that might not actually be true. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters June 21 that ISIS has “planted some [TNT bombs]” around the Roman theater there.
It remains to be seen what kind of response its actions will provoke in the West. As the blog Conflict Antiquities has reported, United Nations Development Programme official Juliette Hage tweeted May 18 that the destruction of Palmyra should be “a red line” for military intervention. About 50,000 people live in Palmyra, and reports have recently surfaced on Twitter claiming that ISIS is forcing Kurds to move from Raqqa to the city.