ISIS Just Captured One of Syria’s Most Magnificent Ancient Cities

Experts fear the jihadists could destroy Palmyra, a 2,00o-year-old “iconoclast’s heaven.”

The Decumanus Maximus in Palmyra, Syria<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palmyra_01.jpg#/media/File:Palmyra_01.jpg">Bernard Gagnon</a>/Wikimedia Commons


On Wednesday, militants from the so-called Islamic State captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. After nearly a week of fighting, government forces reportedly fled the city, according to the British monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Palmyra, a desert outpost of 50,000 people, sits on a strategic highway and is close to several gas fields that ISIS has repeatedly attacked. It’s also a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site known for its 2,000-year-old, Roman-era tombs, temple, colonnades, and artifacts, as well as a storied mythology

As ISIS has taken more territory, it has damaged or destroyed many cultural heritage sites and priceless artifacts. Condemning much ancient art as idolatry, its fighters have chiseled the face off of a 3,000-year-old Assyrian winged bull and broken apart statues of the kings of Hatra. And, as I’ve reported, what ISIS doesn’t destroy, it loots and sells on the international black market to fund its activities.

When ISIS reached the gates of Palmyra late last week, fears arose that the World Heritage site would face the same kind of destruction seen elsewhere. Amr Al-Azm, an archeologist who works with a secret network of activists trying to safeguard Syria’s cultural heritage, told me, “If they get their hands on a World Heritage site, the looting itself could be bad, plus they have a ready made site for cultural heritage atrocities that they’re very likely to commit. Palmyra is full of Roman tombs and carvings. They’ll smash up what they want and steal what they want. It’s an iconoclast’s heaven.”

As of this evening, ISIS militants had seized the city, and the ruins were left “unguarded.” Syria’s antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim has claimed that hundreds of statues have been moved to safety. But nothing can be done for the remaining structures at the ancient site. Before ISIS took the town, AbdulKarim told the Guardian, “If ISIS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction. If the ancient city falls, it will be an international catastrophe.”

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate