ISIL militants blow up ancient Syrian temple in Palmyra

ISIL on Sunday blew up the 2,000 year old Baal Shamin temple in the Unesco-listed Syrian city of Palmyra, the latest in a series of cultural relics to be destroyed by the extremist group.

The courtyard of the sanctury of Baal Shamin in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra. ISIL blew up the temple in the UNESCO-listed site. Joseph Eid / AFP Photo
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Beirut // ISIL has blown up a famed temple in Syria’s ancient Palmyra, in an act the United Nations condemned as a war crime and an “immense loss” for humanity.

The destruction of the Baal Shamin temple, considered the second-most significant in ancient Palmyra, raised concerns for the rest of the Unesco World Heritage site.

It comes only days after ISIL beheaded the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of Palmyra.

“This destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity,” said Irina Bokova, the head of the UN cultural watchdog, calling for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

“Daesh is killing people and destroying sites, but cannot silence history and will ultimately fail to erase this great culture from the memory of the world,” MS Bokova said.

Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim SAID the temple was destroyed on Sunday.

“Our worst fears are sadly being realised,” he said.

Famed for its well-preserved Greco-Roman ruins, Palmyra was seized from government forces in May, prompting concerns ISIL might destroy it as it has other heritage sites in parts of Syria and Iraq under its control.

Initially most of Palmyra’s best-known sites were left intact, though there were reports ISIL had mined them and the group reportedly destroyed a well-known statue of a lion outside the city’s museum.

“Daesh placed a large quantity of explosives in the temple of Baal Shamin today and then blew it up,” Mr Abdulkarim said late on Sunday.

“The cella [inner area of the temple] was destroyed and the columns around collapsed,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the country’s civil war, confirmed the destruction of the temple.

But the Observatory said Baal Shamin had been destroyed a month ago – a discrepancy which could not be immediately explained as information on Syria’s civil war is often unclear.

Baal Shamin was built in 17 AD and expanded under the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian in 130 AD.

Known as the “Pearl of the Desert”, Palmyra is an oasis town about 210 kilometres north-east of Damascus and was a stopping point for caravans travelling on the Silk Road and between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

Before the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year.

Syria’s war, which began with anti-regime protests, has spiralled into a multi-front conflict that has killed more than 240,000 people.

On Monday, at least 12 civilians, including five children, were killed in regime air strikes on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, the Observatory said.

Nine of those killed were in the town of Douma, which regime forces have pounded with air strikes in recent days.

Regime forces also dropped barrel bombs on the Jabal Zawiya area in north-western Idlib province, killing 14 civilians including six children.

State media said 13 people were wounded by rebel fire on Damascus on Monday.

* Agence France-Presse