Attacks on ancient cultural sites by ISIS in retaliation for what the terrorist group considers idolatry continue with the recent destruction of two ancient religious buildings in Syria. Both incidents, in Palmyra and nearby al-Qaryatayn, drew firm condemnation from UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who labelled the militants’ actions war crimes.
On Thursday, ISIS extremists drove bulldozers into the ancient catholic monastery of Mar Elian, demolishing its walls and leaving piles of rubble in their wake because it served as a place for “worshipping a God other than Allah.” The monastery, located in the central Syrian town of al-Qaryatayn, served as a significant pilgrimage site for the country’s Christian community and hosted an annual festival in honor of its patron saint, whose tomb lay among its oldest foundations — until last week. His remains were exhumed, as documented in a series of photos shared on ISIS-affiliated social media accounts that publicized the destruction, as AsiaNews reported.
“The intentional targeting and systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria is reaching unprecedented levels,” Bokova said in a statement. “The destruction of the Mar Elian monastery is a tragic loss for the region, for women and men around the world.”
The monastery’s main structure dates to 1938, but it was consecrated in the 4th century following the martyrdom of St. Elian, who had refused to renounce Christianity. According to the International Business Times, the monastery welcomed everyone, regardless of religious affiliation: a door, now destroyed, once bore a 1419 inscription signed by the medieval Emir Sayf Ed Dawleh that read: “This is a holy place and everybody here is protected.”
“Mar Elian has been a shrine for Muslims as well as for Christians for 1,500 years,” the monastery’s custodian Emma Loosley told the International Business Times. “The Muslims of Qaratayin revered Saint Julian the same way as Christians did, and they are going to be just as devastated as them about this. That shows that IS are not real Muslims. If they were true Muslims they wouldn’t be doing this.”
Less than 100 miles away, ISIS delivered yet another attack on the ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra, which it has controlled since May. Yesterday, militants loaded the nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin with explosives and blew it up; its cella now lies destroyed and surrounding columns have collapsed, Syria’s antiquities chief told the Guardian. The temple, devoted to the Phoenician god of storms and rains, dates to the Roman era and was one of the best-preserved buildings in the city. Loosley, speaking to BBC, described its cella as “pretty much perfect” before its obliteration.
“I can’t think of another temple as beautifully preserved as the temple of Baalshamin, and what was special about Palmyra was that it was a unique culture,” she said. “It had its own gods, its own form of art and architecture that you don’t get anywhere else.”
In another statement, Bokova condemned the temple’s destruction as another “new war crime” and called for united international efforts to prevent future demolition of invaluable artifacts.
“The systematic destruction of cultural symbols embodying Syrian cultural diversity reveals the true intent of such attacks, which is to deprive the Syrian people of its knowledge, its identity, and history,” Bokova said. “One week after the killing of Professor Khaled al-Assaad, the archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra’s ruins for four decades, this destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.
“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. Extremists seek to destroy this diversity and richness, and I call on the international community to stand united against this persistent cultural cleansing. … [ISIS] is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world. Despite the obstacles and fanaticism, human creativity will prevail, buildings and sites will be rehabilitated, and some will be rebuilt.”
The attack on the temple is not the first ISIS-inflicted assault on Palmyra’s cultural sites; bombs struck two early Islamic mausoleums in June, following the destruction of Muslim headstones in a cemetery. As with this most recent incident, photographs of past ISIS acts of demolition were first shared websites and social media accounts affiliated with the terrorist group.