KHALED ASAAD saw the continuity between Syrian Arab culture and that of the many peoples who had previously inhabited Palmyra, the 2,000-year-old archaeological site he had tended for almost half a century. A month before Islamic State (IS) rolled into the oasis town in May, the archaeologist described on a Facebook page the spring rituals that would have taken place in the colonnaded city during Greco-Roman times. Those rituals “fit perfectly” with pre-Islamic Arab ones, he wrote.
Others were less open-minded than the bespectacled 81-year-old. After the jihadists entered Palmyra they arrested Mr Asaad. On August 18th IS hung his decapitated body, his head and glasses at his feet, in front of the small museum where he had spent much of his life writing papers or working with teams from Germany and France. The reasons his killers gave, scrawled on a notice beside his body, were tending the site’s “idols”, attending “blasphemous” conferences, visiting Iran and communicating with generals in the Syrian regime.
Mr Asaad had worked for years for the government’s antiquities department. Some say he was a staunch supporter of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. But it seems as likely that he was killed because he refused to give up the locations of precious artefacts still buried underground in unexcavated tombs, despite being tortured. Palmyra, which flourished as a caravan stop on the Silk Road trading route, is home to temples used to worship deities before the arrival of Christianity and then Islam, as well as tombs and the ruins of a citadel.
Even though IS has destroyed large swathes of Hatra and Nimrud, ancient Assyrian cities in Iraq, so far it is only known to have smashed one statue in Palmyra: a lion representing the goddess Allat that stood at the museum’s entrance. Similarly when IS ransacked the Mosul Museum in February, it did not show itself destroying the most valuable pieces. Despite its aversion to antiquities—it argues that statues and images encourage idolatry—iconoclasm may not be its main aim in Palmyra. There are signs that it finds antiquities more valuable when they are sold rather than smashed on camera for publicity purposes. Sales to smugglers, who often take the valuables out over the Turkish border, are probably helping IS fill the hole in its coffers left by air strikes against oil facilities under its control. Attempts to stop this trade are proving as ineffective as the efforts to stop murder and maiming in Syria, whether by IS or the regime.