Shielding Syrian Antiquities, to a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands

Augast 19, 201 (NYT)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — For decades, he was the bespectacled caretaker of some of Syria’s greatest archaeological treasures. He explored the sprawling ruins in his hometown, named a daughter Zenobia after its ancient queen, and became so intertwined with its development that one historian called him “Mr. Palmyra.”

Now, months after his home fell to the jihadists of the Islamic State, Khalid al-Asaad, the retired chief of antiquities for Palmyra, has fallen, too.

After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said.

His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.

Before his death, the jihadists had interrogated him in vain about where to find the city’s hidden treasures, Syrian state news media reported, suggesting that the elderly caretaker may have died protecting the same history he had dedicated his life to exploring.

Khalid al-Asaad, the retired chief archaeologist of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.CreditDirectorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The public killing of Mr. Asaad, who had retired a decade before and had recently turned 83, his son said, highlighted the Islamic State’s brutality as it seeks to replace the government of President Bashar al-Assad with a punishing interpretation of Islam across its self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

Scholars who knew Mr. Asaad said he was less a pure academic than a self-taught scholar passionate about his hometown’s history.

Yasser Tabbaa, a specialist on Islamic art and architecture in Syria and Iraq who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Mr. Asaad was well known in the field as a man who had taught himself to read the city’s ancient inscriptions and often presented in English at academic conferences about his decades researching the site.

“He was a very important authority on possibly the most important archaeological site in Syria,” Mr. Tabbaa said.

Like many Syrian professionals, Mr. Asaad was a member of the ruling Baath Party. That surely helped him land the job he would define over decades, but his intimate knowledge of the site made him indispensable to foreign researchers.

“Anyone who wanted to do anything in Palmyra had to work though Khalid al-Asaad,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian professor of Middle Eastern history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. “He was Mr. Palmyra.”

Mr. Asaad was born in Palmyra and spent his life there, leaving only to study in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where he received degrees in history and education, according to the Syrian state news agency, SANA.

He was appointed the director of antiquities for Palmyra in 1963 as well as the director of its museum, positions he held until his retirement in 2003.

Reflecting how he often managed Palmyra’s history like a family business, he passed his two positions to his son, Walid.

The city’s extensive ruins mark the site of an ancient oasis town in the desert northeast of Damascus, and include a theater, a number of temples, living quarters and cemeteries.

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