Extent of damage at Palmyra temple unclear

Albert Aji
Associated Press

Damascus, Syria — The extent of damage from a massive explosion near the ancient Temple of Bel in Syria’s Palmyra is unclear, but it appears the structure is still standing despite an attempt by the Islamic State group to blow it up, a Syrian official said Monday.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, said there was conflicting information about the temple, one of the most prominent structures in a sprawling Roman-era complex, because eyewitnesses are unable to approach the site.

He said there was “undoubtedly” a large explosion that took place near the temple, and that it appears that at least part of it still stands. “It is a huge temple built on a large sanctum,” he said.

Activists, including a Palmyra resident, said earlier that an Islamic State bombing extensively damaged the 2,000-year old temple Sunday. The resident described a massive explosion, adding that he saw pictures of the damage but could not get near the site.

An Islamic State operative told The Associated Press over Skype on Monday that militants detonated explosives near the temple, without elaborating on how much of it was damaged. He spoke on condition of anonymity because members of the extremist group are not allowed to speak to journalists.

Residents in Palmyra told the official Syrian state news agency that IS militants destroyed large parts of the temple and booby trapped other parts of it, expressing concern that they plan to destroy the rest soon.

The IS group, which captured Palmyra from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in May, destroyed the smaller Temple of Baalshamin in the complex last week and posted images of the destruction days later.

Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who now is a professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, said he believed a very large amount of explosives was used and the damage to the Temple of Bel was likely extensive. However, he cautioned that information remains scarce.

“This is the most devastating act yet in my opinion. It truly demonstrates ISIS’s ability to act with impunity and the impotence of the international community to stop them,” al-Azm said, using an alternative acronym for the group.

Abdulkarim said he was waiting for pictures to emerge in the coming days to determine the extent of the damage.

The temple, dating back to 32 AD, shows a unique merging of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture. It is dedicated to the Semitic god Bel and is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the first century. The temple consists of a central shrine within a colonnaded courtyard with a large gateway, and lies within a complex that has other ruins, including an amphitheater and some tombs.

Palmyra 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 top tourist attractions in the Middle East.