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Isis kills 'guardian of Palmyra': Defender of ancient city's past Khaled al-Asaad was killed for protecting its future

By Robert Fisk

Published 20/08/2015

The late 82-year old retired chief archaeologist of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Khaled al-Assaad, giving a press conference at an unknown location in Syria. The Islamic State (IS) group beheaded Al-Assaad, who refused to leave the ancient city when the jihadists captured it, on August 19, 2015, Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said. AFP/Getty Images
The late 82-year old retired chief archaeologist of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Khaled al-Assaad, giving a press conference at an unknown location in Syria. The Islamic State (IS) group beheaded Al-Assaad, who refused to leave the ancient city when the jihadists captured it, on August 19, 2015, Syria's antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said. AFP/Getty Images

Isis has killed “the guardian of Palmyra”. Tortured for a month and then beheaded for refusing to betray the secret location of the Roman’s city’s priceless artefacts, Khaled al-Asaad’s gruesome death has appalled his fellow archeologists.

“[He was] a joyful guy. You had to see him if you went to Palmyra. He was a guardian of the past,” a Lebanese archeologist, Joanne Farchakh, recalled. “You felt his passion when he talked.”

A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, shows a tank with Islamic State group fighters clashing with Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
In this picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, Islamic State fighters take cover during a battle against Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 on the website of Islamic State militants, shows black columns of smoke rising through the air during a battle between Islamic State militants and the Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
(FILES) - A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a sculpture depicting a rich family from the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus, displayed at the city's museum. Hundreds of statues and ancient artifacts from Palmyra's museum have been transferred out of the city as Islamic State (IS) group jihadists threaten the historic treasures after they took full control of Palmyra on May 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) - A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a sculpture found in the ancient Syrian oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus, displayed at the city's museum. Hundreds of statues and ancient artifacts from Palmyra's museum have been transferred out of the city as Islamic State (IS) group jihadists threaten the historic treasures after they took full control of Palmyra on May 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) - A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows the citadel (background) of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus, over looking the city. Jihadists from the Islamic State group seized full control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 21, 2015, a monitor said, putting the world heritage site at risk of destruction. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EIDJOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) - A file picture taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Jihadists from the Islamic State group seized full control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 21, 2015, a monitor said, putting the world heritage site at risk of destruction. AFP PHOTO /STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed "the pearl of the desert". AFP PHOTO /STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the castle of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city and killing five people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed "the pearl of the desert". AFP PHOTO /STRSTR/AFP/Getty Images

The 82-year old was long retired, remaining at home when Isis descended on Palmyra three months ago. What would the “Islamic Caliphate” want with an old man steeped in antiquity? Certainly no tour of the Roman forum and amphitheatre, the remains through which he walked with countless foreign archeological teams over half a century, ensuring – as Ms Farchakh said – “that they made no mistakes, didn’t get the facts of history wrong”.

In truth, Mr al-Asaad knew that most of Palmyra’s movable artefacts had long ago been taken to the comparative safety of Damascus (no one could transport the entire Roman city away), but Isis believed he knew where other treasures might have been buried.

After a month, the fighters realised that Mr al-Asaad knew nothing – or would say nothing – and so they decapitated the old man and strung his torso to a Roman pillar in the ancient city.

He had, in his long career as a civil servant, visited overseas archeological conferences, and this alone would have merited a death sentence in the eyes of his puritan torturers. If you work for the Syrian government, in however lowly a role, you are a “regime man”.

For months Isis has operated an antiquities smuggling ring, selling objects from Syria’s Roman past to international dealers, usually through Turkey.

“Khaled al-Asaad was always there, and then he became a hostage,” said Ms Farchakh. “The truth is that Palmyra is a hostage itself – to two wars and to two political systems.”

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