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ISIS has once again struck a historic temple in Palymra, although the structure is “still standing,” according to the BBC. Following last week’s devastating destruction of two ancient religious sites in Syria, militants yesterday attempted to blow up the Temple of Bel, a 2,000-year-old building that served as the city’s center of religious life. Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums, confirmed an explosion within the temple walls, but the full extent of the damage remains uncertain. He described the structure as “the most important temple in Syria and one of the most important in the whole Middle East.”
“Our information is provisional, but it indicates that any damage done was partial, and the basic structure is still standing,” Abdulkarim said.
One Palmyra resident who witnessed extremists triggering a “huge blast” at 1:45pm local time on Sunday noted that only the temple’s outer wall remains. “It is total destruction,” the resident told the AP. “The bricks and columns are on the ground. It was an explosion the deaf would hear.” Others expressed concerns to the official Syrian state news agency that the site is still rigged with traps and “could blow … up completely at any moment.”
The Temple of Bel sits on an artificial mound that dates to the 2nd millennium BCE. It was dedicated in 32 CE to the Semitic god Bel, the leader of all gods, who is depicted on the temple in a triad with two other deities identified as Iarhibol, a sun god, and Aglibol, a moon god. One of the most well preserved of Palmyra’s historic buildings, it is intricately decorated with centuries-old carvings. In the middle of its walled sanctuary, for example, is a cella with two chambers featuring carved monolithic ceilings; that of the Northern chamber boasts the signs of the Zodiac surrounding the seven planets as well as a procession of camels and veiled women. Some of the temple’s delicate decorations were documented by fashion photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, who visited it in the mid-1900s and produced beautiful, black-and-white images of its fragments.
As of this writing, no additional explosions have been reported at the temple. Mohammad Nazir Awad, head of the Antique Buildings Department, told CBS News that officials are waiting on documents and photo evidence to accurately and fully assess the destruction.
This post was originally published on August 31 at 2:20pm.
Update, 9/1, 11:12am ET: According to aerial photographs released by UN training and research agency UNITAR’s satellite program, the temple’s main structure has been destroyed.
“We can confirm destruction of the main building of the Temple of Bel as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity,” UNITAR wrote in an accompanying statement. While previous photographs from this year show the central structure surrounded by a number of columns, the new images reveal nothing there but rubble, with just a pair of columns left standing.
This latest attack, which eradicated 2,000 years of history, signals yet another tragic and terrible act of cultural destruction by militants at the UNESCO World Heritage site Palmyra, which ISIS has controlled since May. Unfortunately, the news is unlikely the last announcement of such war crimes, a dark reality that Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdul Karim has himself acknowledged.
“I feel very sad and I am very pessimistic … for the future of Palmyra,” Karim told BBC Radio 5 live. “I am sure we will have more bad images [in the future] because these people … are ignorant, they are very criminal. They don’t respect any image, any identity of the people.”