Palmyrene sarcophagi are some of the most intricately carved examples of funerary objects in the Roman Empire , decorated with delicate busts that are at once Roman in inspiration but also distinctly Syrian in creation. These are just some the pieces of a four-thousand-year history that Dr. Khaled al-Asaad studied, documented, and protected for his entire professional life in Syrian archaeology.
al-Asaad was known as “Mr. Palmyra,” having been the director of antiquities and director of the museum there for 40 years until his retirement in 2003. His research into the long history of the site has been published worldwide in several languages, but his influence on generations of Syrian, classical, and Near Eastern archaeologists is nothing short of legendary. By facilitating research by archaeologists worldwide, al-Asaad opened up Palmyra to be better understood throughout its four millennia-long history.
Dr. al-Asaad is sadly in the news this week not for his groundbreaking research on Palmyra but rather because, after weeks of detention, he was executed by ISIS on August 18 in the center of the ancient city he strove to protect.
Two of the charges supposedly leveled against al-Asaad were, according to the New York Times, “representing Syria at ‘infidel conferences’” and being “‘director of idolatry’ at Palmyra,” the first stemming from his publication and outreach as an archaeologist and the second tied into preventing the terrorist-funded illicit trade in antiquities. Although I did not know Dr. al-Asaad nor ever had the chance to visit Palmyra personally, these two charges, along with a Facebook FB -5.16% feed full of colleagues who were touched by his work and his life, hit close to home.
There are currently few responses by archaeologists to this horrible event, not because of lack of interest but because of uncertainty about what to say or, more to the point, what to do about a broken system of antiquities trade and world governance much larger than those of us with our shovels in the ground.
Archaeologist Howard Williams writes at his blog, ArchaeoDeath, that, “as a fellow archaeologist who works on the late Roman and medieval periods, I am disgusted by this news as with all similar atrocities taking place in the region. ISIS have now killed an archaeologist not incidentally but because he was an archaeologist. I have no answer as to what the international archaeological and heritage community can do or say,” he writes. But it is clear that “his vicious slaying reflects on the brutality and greed of states, and the barbarity and greed when states collapse. It also sheds light on the terrible, destructive power of the illicit trade in antiquities.” Terrorist funding of the antiquities market is a topic I have previously reflected on here, in “Five Reasons You Shouldn’t Buy That Ancient Artifact.”
The History Blog expands on al-Asaad’s role in preserving antiquities: “Asaad was involved in the transfer of the [Palmyra] museum’s portable antiquities — the artifacts IS likes to steal to fund their wars — to comparative safety in Damascus. A man who spends half a century dedicated to the study of his beautiful city’s rich history, excavating its ancient glories and sharing them with the world in museums and books; a man who, when the storm of violence approaches, works assiduously to hide those priceless artifacts from the monsters who would destroy them or disperse them into the hands of greedy, amoral collectors around the world; a man who then refuses to leave the city even though he knows he will almost certainly be a target of said monsters; a man who, at 82 years of age, sustains a month of God knows what kind of interrogation methods without breaking; a man who gives his life for love of history. That man is the hero.”
At The Guardian, archaeologist Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum, has also written about his colleague and friend that al-Asaad was “an outstanding scholar, a world expert on the history and archaeology of Palmyra,” having written the definitive guidebook Palmyra: History, Monuments, and Museum. “He went to great lengths to welcome and assist scholars, students and visitors from around the world, [and] as director of Palmyra, he encouraged and facilitated research, excavation and restoration and, at the same time, made it accessible for tourists as surely one of the most impressive and unforgettable archaeological sites in the world.”
As the fall university semester begins this month across the United States, undoubtedly more archaeologists will reflect — in their courses and in their writing — on Dr. al-Asaad’s senseless death. We have to remember that this was not an isolated event in an isolated time period. The global history of political violence — from Neolithic torture toCicero’s hands and head displayed on the Roman rostra to Precolumbian eye gouging – is at least as old as Palmyra itself. We would do well not only to understand the current international political climate but also to understand the actions and reactions of past peoples across the world to the challenges they have faced.
What can the history of Rome, Palmyra, Teotihuacan, and Cairo tell us about contemporary Europe, the Middle East, Central America, and North Africa? This question gets to the very root of why we are archaeologists. And Dr. al-Asaad’s tragic death gets to the root of why archaeology mat... .