AMMAN: The Islamic State “completely destroyed” the Temple of Bel, the largest and best-preserved part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in the ancient city of Palmyra, Khaled al-Homsi, a member of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA), told Syria Direct Monday.
“The eastern part of the temple site was destroyed, including the temple sanctuary and the sacrificial site: the principal and most important structure of the temple,” al-Homsi said.
A member of Palmyra’s LCC confirmed al-Homsi’s statement, adding that the Islamic State rigged the temple with “tens of tons” of explosives.
“IS didn’t just destroy a part of the temple, it was completely destroyed,” Nasir a-Thaer, a member of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) in Palmyra city told Syria Direct, contradicting the Arabic and English-language media’s initial reports that IS had only blown up a portion of the structure.
“All that remains are the temple structure’s [peripheral] walls,” said a-Thaer.
The temple compound sits to the southeast of the main Palmyra archeological site, surrounded by the remnants of four peripheral walls that frame it.
The Temple of Bel, seen in this sketch circled in white, within ancient Palmyra’s limits.
First dedicated in AD 32 to a triumvirate of Mesopotamian gods, the Roman-era Temple of Bel was one of the most impressive structures in an ancient city that served as a caravan hub and trading center.
These accounts were confirmed by UN satellite images published Monday, showing that the entire temple structure was completely demolished.
The destruction of the Temple of Bel comes one week after IS forces blew up the smaller, 2,000 year old temple of Baal Shamin, about half a kilometer northwest of Bel, and two weeks after IS executed Khaled Asaad, the former head of antiquities in Palmyra and a world-renowned archaeologist.
IS captured Palmyra on May 20 from regime forces that had used the small city, located approximately 140km (87 miles) east of Homs city and 214km (133 miles) northeast of Damascus, as a defensive point for the surrounding gas and oil fields, including the Shaer fields, the principal source of gas for the energy-strapped regime.
The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, called for the “immediate cessation of hostilities at the site” this past May on the eve of IS’s storming of the city. She implored all sides to “respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage.”
After IS initially took over Palmyra, they announced they would not destroy the ruins as a form of “reassurance” to citizens, said al-Homsi.
The Islamic State has made no public comment about the destruction of either temple, and it was not immediately clear why they were targeted now.
Two sources in Palmyra told Syria Direct on Monday that while the walls around the temple are still standing, the “most important” parts of it were destroyed in the blasts.
UNOSAT images confirmed the total destruction of the temple. Photo courtesy of .
As the world laments the cultural loss of the Palmyra temples, residents of the nearby city “mourn firstly the martyrs and wounded” as a result of continuous regime air raids on the IS-controlled city, activists say.
The population that has remained in the city, only one quarter of the size since the beginning of the war, “do not care about the [temple’s] demolition because of the regime warplanes’ bombardment of their homes,” a-Thaer told Syria Direct, adding “they mourn firstly the martyrs and wounded.”
Since losing the city to IS, the regime has launched an ongoing air campaign against targets in and around Palmyra.
In just 48 hours in early July, the regime carried out more than 90 strikes in residential areas of the city, Rami Abd al-Rahman, the director of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Al-Arabiya in a July.
Al-Homsi confirmed the heavy air raids, stressing their seemingly random targets.
“The regime bombs Palmyra indiscriminately without set targets,” said al-Homsi, adding that the majority of the victims are civilians.
Without electricity or running water, and IS prohibitions on the internet and outside contact with the world, “the city is in a state of the utmost disgrace,” a-Thaer told Syria Direct Tuesday, adding the few activists that remain in the city rely on batteries and generators to communicate with people outside Palmyra in secret.
“The world turns its attention to the ruins and forgets the people, but the civilians don’t have time to pay attention to them,” said a-Thaer.
“People are more important than rocks.”
An estimated 40 percent of the houses in Palmyra have been demolished by air raids and ground fighting, said a-Thaer, adding that in a year’s time “the city will be nothing more than a heap of rubble in the middle of the desert.”