Thousands of years of history wiped out by ISIS: Shocking new pictures show how the terror group has obliterated Syria's ancient treasures

Mail, UK/May 12, 2017

By Gareth Davies

Shocking new pictures have revealed how Islamic State has wiped out thousands of years of Syrian history by obliterating the country's ancient treasures. 

As desperate militants are driven out of the towns, villages and cities they used to run, the terrorists have made sure the new occupants are left with nothing.

Not content with massacres and bloodshed, the terror group has taken to annihilating religious buildings, artifacts, tombs and graveyards in Syria and Iraq. 

By doing so ISIS has torn down pieces of architectural history that has stood for thousands of years, with some calling for the destruction of significant cultural sites to be classed as a war crime.

Zaki Aslan, Director of ICCROM-ATHAR - an international body that works to conserve cultural heritage in the Middle East, said: 'World nations should unite for heritage protection as this is part of our human story. 

'We are facing cultural cleansing in countries such as Iraq and Syria - images we’ve received are appalling. 

'Destruction of heritage should be treated as a war crime by the international community at large. 

'We need to plan well for the recovery phase guiding all parties involved in the reconstruction process.'

Conflict continues to dominate the Middle East resulting in air strikes, gas attacks and combative fighting on the streets.

As the death tolls rise, so too do the cultural catastrophes as heritage is deliberately targeted by terrorists who are blowing up, looting and ultimately abandoning Syria's artifacts.

Historic buildings, artistic treasures, monuments and neighbourhoods are repeatedly dismantled or destroyed.   

The Temple of Bel was destroyed in August 2015 by ISIS, wiping out the building that had been dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilizing rains for 2,000 years. 

Palmyra resident Nasser al-Thaer said ISIS militants set off a huge blast and added: 'It is total destruction,' he said of the scene of the explosion. 'The bricks and columns are on the ground.'

'It was an explosion the deaf would hear,' he added. 

Constructed in 32AD, the temple was dedicated to gods worshipped by the Semites - a group of different cultures in the Ancient Middle East including Assyrians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Arabs.

It stood on an artificial hill which dates back more than 2,200 years and lavish carvings of the then-known seven planets, zodiac signs and Makkabel the fertility god adorn the monolithic ceiling of its northern chamber.

The remains of a basin, altar and even a dining hall can be made out inside the temple. On the north-west corner is a ramp where sacrificial animals were once led into the building.

As well as the Temple of Bel, terrorists used dynamite to blow up funeral towers and a triumphal arch, which had stood for 1,800 years in the oasis city described by the U.N. cultural agency as a crossroads of cultures since the dawn of humanity.

The terror group used Palmyra's ancient theatre as a venue for public executions and also murdered the city's 82-year-old former antiquities chief.

The now obliterated Tetrapylon was once a grand platform with four columns at each corner topped by a massive corinth, built to make the main route through Palmyra appear more harmonious. 

In the same month, ISIS used dynamite to destroy another ancient temple situated in the Syrian archaeological site of Palmyra.

The Baal Shamin temple had stood at the site for nearly 2,000 years and was considered one of the best preserved temple on the site.

The destruction was described as an 'immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity' by the UN's cultural watchdog Unesco. 

Meaning 'Lord of Heaven', the temple was dedicated to the ancient pagan god of Baal.

One witness, who goes by the name Nasser al-Thaer, said ISIS militants had been laying explosives around the temple for more than a month.

Just two months later, it was the iconic Arch of Triumph which was bombed to the ground. 

The arch was one of the most recognisable sites in Palmyra, the central city affectionately known by Syrians as the 'Bride of the Desert,' which ISIS seized in May of 2015.

The monumental arch sat atop the famed colonnaded streets of the ancient city, which linked the Roman Empire to Persia and the East.

However, it was blown up on a Sunday evening by extremists.

It stood yards from the Tetrapylon and the Roman Theater at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra, which were both blown up in January this year. 

Satellite images, taken on January 10, show the monuments of huge cultural importance lying in ruins after the jihadist group recaptured Palmyra on December 11, 2016, when Syrian armed forces pulled out.

The ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiative (ASOR CHI), which documents the cultural heritage of Syria and northern Iraq, said: 'ISIS executed prisoners around the archaeological site, destroyed the Tetrapylon and part of the Roman Theatre.' 

Another fallen piece of architecture is the Lion of al-Lat, which was smashed to pieces outside a museum. 

It stands at 10ft tall and weighs 15 tons, and when ISIS destroyed it in July 2015, the country's antiquities director said it was the most serious crime the terror group had committed against Palmyra's heritage.

The limestone statue had even been covered with a metal plate and sandbags were piled high next to it in an attempt to protect it from fighting, but it didn't stop the terrorists from getting to it. 

Once renowned for its bustling souks, grand citadel and historic gates, Aleppo's Old City has been rendered virtually unrecognisable by some of the worst violence of Syria's war.

For centuries, Aleppo was Syria's economic and cultural powerhouse, attracting tourists from around the world to its celebrated heritage sites.

But now, only gaunt stray cats roam the rubble-strewn alleyways of its Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, after years of savage conflict.

The war also ravaged the touristic area around the citadel, including the Al-Sultaniyah mosque and the imposing white-stoned Grand Serail. 

Before the war, Aleppo's ancient walled Citadel drew in armies of visitors to one of the Middle East's greatest treasures.

But for the past four years the Citadel's high stone ramparts have been on the front line of fighting pitting the Syrian army and its allies against rebels who occupied much of the Old City surrounding the fortress. 

The fate of Aleppo, listed by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, has been the subject of great anxiety for city residents, archaeologists, historians and travellers, even as they despair for the human suffering caused by the fighting.

'We are now exactly in front of the Citadel's entrance. These streets are very familiar. My school was nearby. Now, only part of it is left,' said Abdel Rahman Berry, a lawyer. 'It was ruined. They ravaged our childhood memories,' he added.

Large sections of Aleppo's Islamic-era covered market or souk, one of the most extensive in the world, were destroyed in clashes in 2012 and 2013, and the 11th century minaret of the Umayyad mosque was brought down by shelling.

During a visit to the Old City and inside the Umayyad mosque with the Syrian army in December, reporters were shown rubble-strewn streets and scorched walls that were once part of the souk, pocked with bullet holes and daubed with slogans.

The Umayyad mosque was also scarred by the fighting, and the remains of its ancient stone minaret lay in a heap in one corner where it had collapsed after suffering a direct hit, but despite damage, its elegant floor and arcaded walls remained. 

While the city, one of the oldest continuously habited in the world, was split into warring government and rebel sectors, the army retained control of the citadel even when it was surrounded by insurgents on three sides and could only be accessed by a tunnel.

'There were around 25 of us protecting the citadel. We used to switch with armed men who were stationed in the old market through a tunnel that was dug underneath,' said a Syrian soldier from the Citadel's garrison.

No stranger to war and disaster, the Citadel was damaged by the Mongol invasion of 1260 and again destroyed by invading forces in 1400. 

It was used as a barracks for Ottoman troops and more recently for soldiers during the French mandate. It sustained heavy damage in the earthquake of 1822.

Among important features lost in recent fighting were mediaeval mosques and trading houses. 

Others, including the al-Shibani church school, evidence of Aleppo's history of religious tolerance, and the 13th century Nahasin bathhouse were damaged.

Aleppo's Old City and citadel had been restored in 2004.

One of the tactics used by rebels in the intense street fighting through the Old City's narrow alleyways was the detonation of mines, dug beneath army positions in tunnels. 

The soldier said even on top of the citadel one such blast, under the Carlton Hotel, a landmark, had felt like an earthquake.

'The bodies of our comrades are still under the hotel rubble,' he added. 

Palmyra: Syria's 'Bride of the Desert'

Palmyra, situated about 130 miles northeast of Damascus, is known by Syrians as the 'Bride of the Desert'.

It was an important caravan city of the Roman Empire, linking it to India, China, and Persia.

Before the outbreak of Syria's conflict in March 2011, the UNESCO site was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Middle East drawing 105,000 visitors a year.

The whole of Palmyra, including the four cemeteries outside the walls of the ancient city, has been listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO since 1980.

Global concern for Palmyra's magnificent ancient ruins spiked in September 2015, when satellite images confirmed that ISIS had demolished the famed Temple of Bel as part of its campaign to destroy pre-Islamic monuments it considers idolatrous.

Unesco described the temple as one of the best preserved and most important religious edifices of the first century in the Middle East.

In October last year, the jihadists blew up the Arch of Triumph, dating from between 193 and 211 AD, as they pressed a campaign of destruction that Unesco has said constitutes a war crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.

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