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Khaled al-Asaad, who served as the director general of the Palmyra Directorate of Antiquities and Museums from 1963 to 2003, was beheaded Tuesday by ISIS fighters in the ancient city. The Guardian reports that the 82-year-old archaeologist had been captured a month ago and interrogated on the whereabouts of artifacts that were relocated from the city’s archaeological site and museum as ISIS approached. When he refused to give up the information, the militants murdered him.
ISIS seized control of the city — which is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra and the infamous Tadmor Prison — in May. Members of the terrorist organization subsequently blew up the prison and two early Islamic tombs, and since then, many have watched and feared that the city’s remaining ancient riches would be destroyed or eventually turn up on the black market for looted antiquities, a business that allegedly brings in millions for ISIS. Asaad was instrumental in safeguarding many of the city’s treasures, Metro News France reports, working with his son and grandson to evacuate some 400 antiquities as ISIS approached.
“We begged Khaled to leave the city but he always refused. He told us ‘I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they have to kill me,’” Maamoun Abdelkarim, the director of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), told Metro News France.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (warning: link contains a very graphic photo), Asaad was executed “in the public square in Palmyra in front of dozens of people,” while a post on the DGAM website claims that ISIS members killed him in the courtyard of the Palmyra Museum and then hung his body on one of the city’s ancient Roman columns.
“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad,” Amr al-Azm, a former colleague and Syrian antiquities official, told the Guardian. “He had a huge repository of knowledge on the site, and that’s going to be missed. He knew every nook and cranny. That kind of knowledge is irreplaceable, you can’t just buy a book and read it and then have that.”
Asaad’s extensive body of scholarship on Palmyra includes articles on the site’s Aramaic inscriptions — the ancient language was one of his areas of specialty, studies examining the site’s amphora and ancient roads, analyses of the city’s votive and funerary inscriptions, articles chronicling the excavation and restoration of the site, and a book on the textiles found at Palmyra that he co-authored with German scholars Andreas Schmidt-Colinet and Annemarie Stauffer.
“In order to fully erase the past, one must not only erase the statues and buildings themselves but also institutional knowledge, people, books, memory,” Christopher Jones, a Ph.D student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University, told Hyperallergic. “We saw them burn books in Mosul a couple of months ago and destroy academic libraries. Their goal is to create a world where there is no knowledge of anything other than ISIS’s interpretation of Islam.”
In a post today, the Archaeological Institute of America wrote: “Above all, he was devoted to the ancient metropolis of Palmyra, and its scientific exploration and interpretation. The world of archaeology has lost a scholar of distinction, grace, and humility.”