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Temple of Baal in Palmyra Is Damaged by ISIS

Middle East
A Syrian man near the Temple of Baal in Palmyra, Syria, in 2014.
August 31, 2015

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Conflicting reports emerged Monday about the extent of damage that Islamic State militants in Syria have inflicted on the Temple of Baal, one of the most important structures in the ancient city of Palmyra.

In their second attack on the world-renowned ruins in a week, the militants set off an explosion Sunday that shook the city, according to local activists and residents as well as a Syrian official.

All agree that the blast damaged the best-preserved structure of the temple, a stone building — mostly standing — that included the altar.

But with no pictures immediately available from the site, some experts clung to optimism by saying the extent of the damage was unclear, while residents and activists said reports indicated severe damage.

On opposite sides of the debate were two men who have lifelong connections to antiquities and to Palmyra — one a government official, Maamoun Abdulkarim, and the other an antigovernment activist, Khaled al-Homsi.

Mr. Homsi, a Palmyra native and the nephew of a renowned archaeologist recently beheaded by Islamic State militants, recently fled to Turkey after disputes with the militants, but remains in close contact with residents in Palmyra.

He opposes both the Syrian government and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Using a nom de guerre for safety, he has long worked to document damage to Palmyra’s sprawling archaeological site by all sides in the conflict.

Mr. Abdulkarim, the director of Syria’s antiquities department, said that the reports were being investigated and that, according to his local sources, the explosion took place inside the thick walls of the main building and did not make it collapse.

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“Our sources confirmed hearing the sound of a huge explosion, but within the temple walls,” he said. “Of course, they can’t reach the place, so we can’t assess the damage.”

Regardless, he said, “It is a loss.”

“I already appealed and called the world to save Tadmur,” Mr. Abdulkarim added, using another name for the site. “It’s not a political battle, but this is a cultural battle, and everybody should participate in defending this heritage, this civilization.”

The reported damage to the nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baal came just a week after the militants, who have held the Palmyra ruins and the modern city with the same name for three months. The militants have, destroyed another important ancient building there, the nearby Temple of Baalshamin.

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The Temple of Baal is an even grander structure. The towering altar building stands on a platform of large stone blocks at the center of a larger plaza encircled by columns and partial walls. It is unclear how much of the altar building or outer walls and columns were damaged.

“It is not as huge as the damage at Baalshamin,” Mr. Abdulkarim said.

But Mr. Homsi disputed that, accusing Mr. Abdulkarim of trying to play down the damage.

He said that much of the structure had been knocked down, including a portico of eight columns just outside its walls and the altar inside.

Mr. Homsi’s uncle, Khalid al-Asaad, 83, a former antiquities director in Palmyra, was killed by the militants two weeks ago, his body suspended from a traffic light.

Consecrated in A.D. 32 to the Semitic god Baal, the temple — also known as the Temple of Bel, a different transliteration of the god’s name — – is considered one of the most important sites in Palmyra. It is, or was, a relatively intact example of the fusion of Middle Eastern, Greek and Roman influences.

The Temple of Baal in modern times has also been a cultural touchstone for Syrians. It has been a backdrop for concerts in the annual Palmyra Music Festival, as the ancient amphitheater has been more recently for Islamic State executions.

The entire ancient city of Palmyra, which stands in the desert about 150 miles northeast of Damascus, is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The Islamic State has widely publicized images of its fighters blowing up tombs and destroying statues that it considers blasphemous under its extremist interpretation of Islam. Archaeologists and antiquities experts consider the losses to be irreparable, leading some to feel, as Mr. Abdulkarim said last week, “very weak, very pessimistic.”

On Monday, he added that among Syria’s many archaeological treasures, the Temple of Baal had special significance for him. “I visited the temple during the crisis,” he said, “and I took many pictures with my daughter, which is something I rarely do.”

He added, “It was an honor to stand in front of this great place.”

In March 2014, when reporters for The New York Times visited Palmyra, then controlled by the government, the ruins had largely survived the civil war. Local Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad had briefly occupied the Temple of Baal, damaging a modern guesthouse on its premises.

Syrian Army soldiers and museum officials pointed out a mark on a column that they said had come from a mortar shell in a government attack on the rebels who had occupied the complex, but it was small compared with pockmarks that they said had come from earlier wars and other damage over the years. At the same time, Syrian Army forces were using other parts of the complex, including the medieval citadel, for military purposes.

The ruins, once open to the public and inhabited by some Bedouin families, became a quieter, lonelier place, with tighter government security and tourists driven away by the war. They were almost entirely intact then, glowing in the sunset and sunrise with a pinkish-orange cast.

At the same time, Islamic State forces were said to be less than 20 miles away, but the front line had been static for some time, and the ruins exuded a sense of permanence.

But in May, the militants swept into the city as government forces withdrew, with some soldiers describing chaotic scenes and a lack of supplies.

Since then, some antigovernment activists like Mr. Homsi have fled Palmyra because of the Islamic State. The militant group, Mr. Homsi said, recently confiscated his house.

Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, and Kenneth Rosen from New York.

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(via NY Times)