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Roman funerary temple in Palmyra, dating to the 3rd century C.E.

Roman funerary temple in Palmyra, dating to the 3rd century C.E.

Robert Preston Photography/Alamy

In Syria, Islamic State group apparently spares Palmyra’s stunning ruins—for now

Archaeologists around the world feared for the spectacular ruins in Palmyra, Syria, after Islamic State militants took over the city and brutalized its population last week. The group had already looted and bulldozed another World Heritage Site, the city of Hatra in northern Iraq. However, after a preliminary examination of the latest satellite images from Palmyra, Michael Danti, the academic director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston, reported that he saw no new damage to the stunning crossroads of Roman, Greek, and Persian cultures, whose ruins include the Roman emperor Diocletian’s camp.

The Islamic State group has released a video showing that these ruins are still intact. And in an interview released yesterday, the head of the group's military forces in Palmyra, Abu Laith al-Saoudi, stated that they would preserve the ruins—perhaps because some buildings lack religious connotations or worship—but destroy the site’s statues, which the group believes are religious idols.

Recent satellite images reveal no new damage, confirmed Einar Bjorgo, the manager of UNOSAT, a U.N. satellite imaging project. But he and Danti cautioned that a more in-depth comparison with older satellite images and eyewitness accounts are needed for confirmation. UNOSAT’s more complete analysis is expected to be released Friday

Palmyra, a crossroads of trade between Europe and Asia for thousands of years, “was the quintessential romantic archaeological site out in the desert,” Danti says. Famous buildings include a medieval Islamic citadel, the Temple of Bel, and barracks and temples where Roman soldiers lived and worshipped. Danti reports that sources in Palmyra told him that most of the artifacts held in the Palmyra museum were removed before the Islamic State group arrived. What might remain are the large statues and bas-reliefs that were affixed to the museum’s walls, he said.

Some damage was reported at Palmyra long before the group took over. Combat injured the ruins, and Assad regime forces bulldozed earthen berms and created other fortifications in the ancient city. Satellite evidence also showed that ancient tomb entrances had been dug out and reopened. As Syria’s civil war dragged on, artifacts from Palmyra had been showing up on the illegal antiquities market, Danti says.

Although attacks on World Heritage Sites may get most of the attention, Danti points out that the Islamic State group has put much of its effort into destroying less well known places. “The majority of the damage has been to religious heritage that is being used by people on a daily basis,” he says. “What they are doing is tearing away the fabric of community’s cultural identity in a concerted, very overt form of cultural cleansing.” In Nineveh province, Iraq, where Danti has worked for much of the past 20 years, the group has destroyed more than 190 heritage sites, including churches, mosques, and schools. He estimates that 90% of those sites were connected with the day-to-day religious life of the local people. The Islamic State group recognizes “the power of heritage to essentially resist their message,” Danti says. “People turn to heritage all over the world as a way to define themselves … so [the group] tries to wipe that out.”

As a step toward curbing demand for these looted artifacts, a bill, H.R. 1493, has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives, which would ban importing Syrian antiquities to the United States. “It’s vital that minority religious sites continue to have a place to be,” says Katharyn Hanson, a specialist in protecting cultural heritage at the University of Pennsylvania, who testified in the bill’s favor. “If they’re all erased, there isn’t even going to be a place to lay flowers.”