Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year old scholar of antiquities and Aramaic who was one of the pioneering figures in Syrian archeology, was murdered by ISIS on August 18, 2015, after being in their custody for roughly one month.
Professor Asaad had degrees in History and Education from the University of Damascus, and had been directly involved in the excavation of the ancient city of Palmyra – a UNESCO world heritage site northeast of Damascus, consisting of extensive Roman-era ruins from the first and second centuries. He had served as Palmyra’s director of antiquities from 1963 until he retired in 2003.
ISIS seized Palmyra in May 2015. Prior to that time, Syrian officials had reportedly moved numerous artifacts out of Palmyra, for fear that ISIS might destroy or attempt to sell them, as they have done elsewhere. ISIS took Professor Asaad into custody in Palmyra in July, reportedly interrogating him and demanding over the course of a month that he provide them with the location of hidden artifacts – which Professor Asaad refused to do. On Tuesday, August 18, 2015, Professor Asaad was beheaded before a large crowd, and his body was displayed outside the ruins, bearing a sign claiming that he was an apostate, and had supported the government of President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS also reportedly accused Professor Asaad of attending conferences with infidels, and of being the custodian of “idols.”
Scholars at Risk is gravely concerned about the kidnapping, interrogation and killing of a scholar and major innovator in Syrian archeology. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim and the loss suffered by his family, such incidents deprive the scholar’s community, and the world, of an irreplaceable source of knowledge and understanding. State officials have a responsibility to ensure the security of scholars, to protect cultural property, to prevent future attacks, and to hold perpetrators accountable.
On August 23, 2015, ISIS detonated a large number of explosives in the Temple of Baalshamin, a 2000-year-old structure that had been among the most well-preserved ruins in Palmyra. The temple was severely damaged in the blast.