When the Islamic State moves into a region, it brings fear and unrest with it. But the militant group also brings something else: destruction to historical and archaeological heritage. Now, reports The New York Times’ Liam Stack, the group has destroyed a 2,000-year-old temple in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.
Palmyra, which is located near Damascus, has held UNESCO World Heritage status since 1980 as “one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.” Stack writes that fighters from the Islamic State destroyed the temple of Baalshamin, which is known as one of Palmyra’s “most grand and well-preserved structures,” with explosives.
Though Stack notes that there are conflicting accounts of when the structure was destroyed, one thing is clear — the extent of the devastation. BBC News reports that the temple’s inner area was destroyed and that surrounding columns have collapsed, laying waste to the structure noted for its impeccable preservation and its ancient statuary.
Lonely Planet’s guide to the temple notes that it was built in 17 A.D. and dedicated to Baal, a Phoenician god. The temple was blown up in part because the Islamic State believes that antiquities that pre-date Islam must be destroyed, writes Stack. (The group is not above selling some antiquities to fund its operation, however, as The Washington Post’s Daniela Dean reports — in February, the group smuggled Syrian artifacts into Britain to raise money.)
The Islamic State’s destruction of cultural artifacts has become one of the group’s grim signatures. As SmartNews reported earlier this month, archaeologists have been scrambling to preserve cultural heritage before militants can get to it. Museums have issued most-threatened lists of treasures in response to events like the destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud in March. And the Islamic State recently beheaded Khaled al-Assad, a Syrian archaeologist who refused to tell militants where some of Palmyra’s cultural cache was located.
As Syrians mourn the loss of an ancient temple and world leaders condemn the group’s continued ravaging of Middle Eastern heritage, the question about the Islamic State seems to be when — not if — it will strike ancient sites again.