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‘Birthplace of civilization’ faces final ruin by jihadists

Destruction of Palmyra, once fortified by Solomon, would be ‘enormous loss to humanity,’ UNESCO chief warns as Islamic State overruns town

  • Partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in Syria, March 14, 2014 (AFP/Joseph Eid, File)
    Partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra in Syria, March 14, 2014 (AFP/Joseph Eid, File)
  • A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria. (AFP/JOSEPH EID)
    A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, Syria. (AFP/JOSEPH EID)
  • The ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria, released by Syria's official news agency SANA, May 17, 2015. (SANA via AP)
    The ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria, released by Syria's official news agency SANA, May 17, 2015. (SANA via AP)
  • A Syrian policeman stands above the sanctuary of Baal in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra on March 14, 2014. (Joseph Eid/AFP)
    A Syrian policeman stands above the sanctuary of Baal in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra on March 14, 2014. (Joseph Eid/AFP)
  • Syrians stand and look out on the street of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 18, 2015, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people.  (AFP PHOTO /STR)
    Syrians stand and look out on the street of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 18, 2015, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. (AFP PHOTO /STR)

The destruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra would be an “enormous loss to humanity,” the head of the organization warned Thursday, after Islamic State fighters seized the ancient Syrian city and archaeological site.

“Palmyra is an extraordinary World Heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra (would be) not just a war crime but … an enormous loss to humanity,” said Irina Bokova in a video published by the Paris-based group.

She added that she was “extremely worried” about recent events there and reiterated an appeal for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of military forces.

“At the end of the day, it’s the birthplace of human civilization. It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening,” added the UNESCO chief.

Earlier Thursday, Islamic State group jihadists seized full control of the city, putting the world heritage site and its priceless artifacts at risk of destruction.

In the Bible, King Solomon is credited with fortifying the city, and it’s mentioned in other Jewish texts. But it was during the Roman Empire that the ‘pearl of the desert’ rose to prominence

The jihadists, notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures since declaring a “caliphate” last year straddling Iraq and Syria, fought their way into Palmyra on foot after breaking through in the city’s north.

Bokova urged the international community, including the UN Security Council and religious leaders, to launch an appeal to stop the violence.

Before Syria’s crisis began in March 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year, admiring its beautiful statues, over 1,000 columns, and formidable necropolis of over 500 tombs.

Palmyra’s richest residents had constructed and sumptuously decorated these monuments to the dead, some of which have been recently looted.

According to the governor of Homs province, the inner city is home to about 35,000 people, including those displaced by fighting nearby. Another 35,000 live in the city’s suburbs.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group counts 100,000 people living in Palmyra and its outskirts.

Hundreds of statues and artifacts from Palmyra’s museum were transferred out of the city before it fell to Islamic State, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim.

But many others — including massive tombs — could not be moved.

Palmyra, which means City of Palms, is mentioned in the Bible as Tadmor, the name it goes by in Syria and Israel, and likely a reference to dates.

Its name first appeared on a tablet in the 19th century BCE as a stopping point for caravans traveling on the Silk Road and between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

In the Bible, King Solomon is credited with fortifying the city, and it’s later mentioned in other Jewish texts as well.

But it was during the Roman Empire — beginning in the first century BCE and lasting another 400 years — that Palmyra, called the “pearl of the desert,” rose to prominence.

Though surrounded by desert dunes, Palmyra developed into a luxurious metropolis thanks to the trade of spices, perfumes, silk and ivory from the east, and statues and glasswork from Phoenicia.

In the year 129 CE, Roman emperor Hadrian declared Palmyra a “free city” within his empire. During the rest of the century, its famous temples — including the Agora and the temple honoring Bel (Baal) — were built.

Before the arrival of Christianity in the second century, Palmyra worshiped the trinity of the Babylonian god Bel, as well Yarhibol (the sun) and Aglibol (the moon).

As the Roman Empire faced internal political instability in the third century, Palmyra took the opportunity to declare its independence.

Palmyrans beat back the Romans in the west and Persian forces in the east in a revolt led by Zenobia, who then became queen.

By 270, Zenobia had conquered all of Syria and parts of Egypt, and had arrived at Asia Minor’s doorstep.

But when Roman emperor Aurelian retook the city, the powerful queen was taken back to Rome and Palmyra began to decline in prominence.

Today, Palmyra bears the scars of Syria’s ongoing war: clashes between armed rebels and government forces in 2013 left collapsed columns and statues in their wake, a harbinger of what Islamic State jihadists might do.

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