Iconic Temple of Bel Could Be ISIS's Next Target in Palmyra

Syria's director of antiquities tells Newsweek of his fear that the ancient Bel Temple could be destroyed next.

Palmyra ISIS Islamic State Temple of Bel
Camels are seen in front of the Temple of Bel at the historical city of Palmyra October 22, 2010.Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

ISIS's destruction of the ancient temple of Baal Shamin in the Syrian city of Palmyra on Sunday has heightened fears that the nearby Temple of Bel complex, one of the most important structures in the ancient world, will be the terror group's next target.

The temple of Baal Shamin, built in 17AD and expanded under Roman emperor Hadrian in 130AD, was blown up after the terror group ladened it with explosives, activists and officials confirmed on Sunday. It is the first detonation of one of the ancient temples within the city, although in June the terror group destroyed ancient shrines just outside Palmyra. The Temple of Bel, built in 32BC with a mixture of eastern and western inspiration from the ancient Mediterranean and the Orient, is now believed to be under threat from the radical Islamists.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities, who lamented the loss of Baal Shamin as a "catastrophe", is now extremely concerned about the Temple of Bel. "I am afraid for the destiny of the Temple Bel. It is very famous and the destiny of this building is threatened by the terrorist group," he told Newsweek. "I hope they respect this temple in its final state as a mosque and not as a church or shrine. I hope they do not touch this, it will be total destruction for our history in Palmyra."

"Palmyra has become a hostage in the hands of ISIS. If Palmyra continues under the control of this group, I am sure we have lost Palmyra," he added. "I am very weak, I am very pessimistic. We cannot do anything. I do not know how we lost Palmyra or how we can accept the destruction of Palmyra in front of our eyes."

ISIS Palmyra Middle East Temple Bel
A general view of the Temple of Bel in the historical city of Palmyra April 18, 2008.Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

The temple is named after the Babylonian god Bel Marduk, who was worshipped as a God of war and is equated to the Greek God Zeus and Roman God Jupiter. The inhabitants of Palmyra worshipped a trinity of Gods—Bel, Yarhibol (the sun) and Aglibol (the moon)—before the advent of Christianity in the second century. In her writings, archaeologist Dr. Aedeen Cremin has noted that the temple is the "best preserved" in the city.

The group's wanton destruction of statues, artefacts and ancient buildings across Iraq and Syria since its rise last summer has caused dismay within the archaeological community. Dr. Robert Bewley, investigator at Oxford University's Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa project, says that the inaction of the international community in preventing the atrocities in Palmyra is a tragedy.

"If another tragedy happens, destroying a large area in the city, it's just another example of the impossibility of being able to do anything about it," he says. "It's like re-opening a wound every time they do it. The columns [of the Temple of Bel complex] are what gives the place its mystery and mystique." On Friday, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said that ISIS militants in both Iraq and Syria were responsible for "the most brutal, systematic" destruction of ancient heritage since World War II.

The detonation of Baal Shamin came just days after ISIS beheaded the 82-year-old chief archaeologist of Palmyra as the group continues to excommunicate those with links to the city. In June, the radical Islamist group destroyed the tomb of Sheikh Mohammed Ali near Palmyra after announcing it would begin "removing the landmarks of polytheism" in the area.

Before ISIS captured Palmyra on May 21 from forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the ancient city hosted approximately 50,000 residents and had remained under government control since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Over 150,000 tourists had visited Palmyra every year prior to the civil war.

The "Pearl of the Desert", located approximately 130 miles (209km) northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1980 and the UN describes it as a site of "outstanding universal value" due to its first and second century temples.

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