The United Nations has confirmed the destruction of the Temple of Bel, a historically significant structure in the ISIS-controlled city of Palmyra, Syria, and the latest ancient architectural site demolished by the terrorist group.
The U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency (UNESCO) on Tuesday called the temple’s destruction “an intolerable crime against civilization” and a “war crime." The destruction of the temple, dedicated to the Semitic god Bel, is particularly devastating due to its unique architectural design and central role in Palmyra, the 2,000-year-old city that grew from a caravan stop to a metropolis and linked the Roman Empire with India, Persia and China.
“The citizens of Palmyra used that wealth to build great architecture, much of which has survived to the present day,” Tess Davis, executive director of Antiquities Coalition, tells Newsweek. “The Temple of Bel really represents the pinnacle of that artistic achievement.”
The Temple of Bel’s destruction was first reported on Sunday by activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor that tracks the country’s civil war. The U.N. confirmed the destruction using satellite images posted to Twitter on Monday. Earlier this year, ISIS destroyed Hatra, a 2,000-year-old archeological site and the capital of one of the first Arab states, and Nimrud, a 3,000-year-old ancient Assyrian city. The group has also looted antiquities from various sites in Iraq and Syria, prompting the FBI to issue a warning to art dealers and collectors last week that objects plundered by ISIS are entering the global marketplace.
ISIS, which took control of Palmyra from Syrian regime forces on May 21, justifies its plundering and pillaging of ancient sites and statues by calling them “false idols,” although the leading authority on Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar, in Cairo, calls ISIS’s actions “a major crime against the whole world.” ISIS is destroying ancient sites like Palmyra for “profit and propaganda,” says Davis. As has been seen in the Balkans, in Cambodia and in Warsaw, the destruction of property and sites will lead to the killing of people, which has already been seen is ISIS-held cities, she says.
“The attacks on culture are attacks on the people of Iraq and Syria,” says Davis.
John Grout, a Ph.D. student at London’s Royal Holloway University, has been studying Syrian and Iraqi antiquities, many of which have been destroyed by ISIS, over the past five years. Before the Syrian civil war broke out in early 2011, Grout’s original thesis plan would have taken him to Palmyra to conduct field work and might have seen him work with Khaled Asaad, the 82-year-old Syrian antiquities scholar who was beheaded by ISIS last month.
Palmyra, which was put on the World Heritage in Danger list in 2013, is the main case study of Grout’s thesis. It was his “worst fear when [ISIS] captured the city, especially after what happened to Hatra.” Palmyra is one of the best preserved sites of the Roman world and is considered on a par with Pompeii in terms of preservation, he says.
“[The Temple of Bel] was the main temple for Palmyra, so it was like a cathedral,” Grout tells Newsweek. “It would have been a spiritual home in both senses of the word…in the religious sense but also their sense of self-identity as Palmyrenes."
The significance of the Temple of Bel, which was dedicated in April 32 A.D., lies in its architecture. The layout of the temple is unique, as it subverted stereotypical temple design: Instead of having one focal point at the front of the structure, the Temple of Bel had two focal ends, both containing statues. The temple is also unique as its main entrance was built off the side instead of located at the front, says Grout.
The temple’s design combined elements of Greco-Roman architecture, seen in its columns, but is “still obviously Syrian,” says Grout. Syrian design trademarks include evidence of steps leading to the temple’s roof, which was possibly flat and may have been used to address thousands of pilgrims in the courtyard below or to call people to prayer, as well as the temple’s windows, sys Grout. A band of decoration with a leaf-and-egg motif seen on the temple is a distinctly Palmyrene design.
Grout, who studies the role ancient temples played in trade routes, says the temple had gilt-lined columns covered in gold leaf, “so if you’re a caravan approaching Palmyra across the Syrian desert, you would have seen these glinting in the distance.”
“That would have been your sign that you’re finally reaching the end of your route,” he says.
Palmyra remains in the hands of ISIS and its structures remain under threat. Grout fears for the remaining temples of Nabu and Allat; both are smaller than Bel and have been excavated and preserved.
“Those are the most obvious things one should be worried about,” he says.
Other sites in Palmyra, including the theatre, the marketplace and the distinctive curved archway seen in many photos of the site and considered “the symbol of Palmyra” are also in danger.
“The things that ISIS are destroying aren’t just religious monuments, they are the first major monuments of the entire Arab people,” says Grout. “The United Nations was quite right when it said these are war crimes.”
“It’s colossally sad,” he says.