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Hidden camera shows how IS destroyed the Palmyra world heritage

DAMASCUS. Using a hidden camera, Expressen can now show how the terrorist organisation IS has destroyed the Palmyra world heritage site in Syria.

The Temple of Baal Shamin is gone.

The Arch of Triumph – the symbol of the city – is gone.

The 2000-year-old tower tombs have been blown up.

Today only rubble and unfathomable sorrow remain.

“The IS terrorists were looking for two tonnes of buried gold. When they didn’t find it they started executing people and destroying Palmyra,” Director of the Palmyra Museum, Khalil Hariri, tells Expressen.

Expressen’s hidden camera has been placed on a bus on its way into Palmyra.

The winter sun lights up the “Bride of the Desert” – the name given to Palmyra by Syrians.

The bus rolls in along the city’s deserted streets. 70,000 people used to live here. Today it is a ghost town.

The abandoned houses are numbered with paint. IS created its own address system to make it easier to locate people who had not managed to flee the invasion.

The IS terrorists are nowhere to be seen on the city’s streets or squares when the bus carrying Expressen’s hidden camera drives through the town.

But they are out there somewhere.

When the bus drives out to the area with the historic remains our camera documents how irreplaceable treasures belonging to all of humanity have been destroyed.

Since IS captured Palmyra, the outside world has heard about the destruction. But never before have we had such a clear picture.

These are shocking scenes. IS has laid waste to the most important parts of Palmyra – the Temple of Baal Shamin, the Arch of Triumph and the tower tombs, a world heritage site that has stood for over 2000 years.

Now all that remains is rubble.

“It’s tragic. Watching the film is painful for me. I heard about IS’s destruction of Palmyra. It’s the first time I’ve seen my city since it was occupied by IS,” says Khalil Hariri, Director of the Palmyra Museum and expert on Palmyra.

BEFORE: The Arc of Triumph.
AFTER: The Arc of Triumph.

We have met up with him in Damascus. When he watches the film showing the devastation he struggles to hold back his tears.

It was in May 2015 that IS stormed the city from two directions. The residents of Palmyra were unarmed. The troops in charge of protecting the city managed to defend parts of it for a couple of weeks before they fled to Homs after suffering heavy losses.

Expressen has spoken to witnesses who say that many of the IS terrorists were foreign fighters who were helped by Syrians from Palmyra to identify people and find their way around the city.

Locals were surprised by the rapid invasion. Many people managed to escape but more than 500 people were executed. The destruction of irreplaceable cultural treasures commenced immediately.

The IS terrorist group has published propaganda photos of men smashing statues and stone tablets with sledgehammers, but now Expressen’s hidden camera is able to document the true extent of the destruction of this historic city.

The site where the Temple of Baal Shamin previously stood has been reduced to piles of rubble.

If you watch the film very closely, you can see a couple of columns immediately after Expressen’s camera passes Hotel Zenobia.

“That was where the temple stood. Close to the wall. I took care of the temple and the rest of Palmyra together with Palmyra expert Khaled al-Asaad. It’s tragic. Everything’s been destroyed,” states Khalil Hariri, who escaped from Palmyra to Damascus in connection with the IS offensive.

The Temple of Baal Shamin was built approx. 2000 years ago. The temple, which was converted into a church 1500 years ago, was one of the best preserved buildings in Palmyra until the IS invasion.

“Such acts are war crimes and their perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions. Unesco stands by all Syrian people in their efforts to safeguard their heritage, a heritage for all humanity,” said Director-General of Unesco, Irina Bokova, when approached by the media about the destruction of the temple.

“It’s a great tragedy for us and for the whole world. Inside the temple there were irreplaceable and valuable statues and stone tablets. We know that Daesh (IS) has smuggled out large numbers of Palmyra’s antiquities. These are treasures that belong to the whole world. But we don’t know how much has been destroyed,” says Khalil Hariri.

BEFORE: The Temple of Baal Shamin.
AFTER: The Temple of Baal Shamin.

The film from Expressen’s hidden camera shows that the destruction of Palmyra is extensive.

The famous Arch of Triumph with its three arches stood not far from the Temple of Baal Shamin.

The Arch of Triumph was the gate to the ancient city, which led to several temples, the theatre, burial sites and up to Fakhr al-Din al-Ma’ani Castle.

Kings and caravans have passed beneath its three arches for millennia.

The film, which was shot in secret, shows in detail how the arches have now been destroyed. The Arch of Triumph has been blown to pieces. There are piles of rubble lying on the ground.

“When you hear about Palmyra, the first thing you picture is the Arch of Triumph. It was the symbol of Palmyra, the city’s face to the outside world,” says Khalil Harir.

“It’s tragic that the Arch of Triumph is gone. It will be possible to rebuild it if you can find its stones but the link between past and present has been broken,” says Khalil Hariri.

Right next to it is the other world famous monument, the Temple of Bel. For safety reasons we cannot move the camera to the other side of the bus when we pass by, but IS has already published pictures of the temple being blown up.

On the other side of Palmyra, several hundred metres from the Arch of Triumph, is the Valley of the Tombs with its world famous tower tombs.

The Greek philosopher Iamblichos was buried in one of the tombs.  The best preserved tower tomb was Elabel, which contained 260 sarcophagi and was 25 metres high. The tower tombs were unique in the world. They had been preserved in their present form for 2000 years.

“When you passed the city you could see the tower tombs from a long way away. Now I can see everything’s been destroyed,” says Khalil Hariri with sadness in his voice as he watches the film from Expressen’s hidden camera.

BEFORE: The 2 000-year-old tower tombs.
BEFORE: The 2 000-year-old tower tombs have been blown up.

Khalil Hariri’s conclusion is confirmed by two other international Palmyra experts who examined the film on behalf of Expressen. After having seen the material, they verified that the tower tombs have been destroyed. However, none of them want to appear in public for fear of IS.

“There’s the Valley of the Tombs, you can see clearly that the small buildings are gone and the two high tower tombs have been razed to the ground,” one of them says.

It was not only the towers themselves that were of great value. Their contents have been described as irreplaceable. The high buildings contained figurines, statues and inscriptions about life and about life after death. The towers were decorated with symbols, inscriptions, paintings and statues.

“It’s unclear whether they stole the statues and inscriptions before blowing up the tombs. But we know that Daesh (IS) smuggled large numbers of Syria’s cultural treasures for example to Turkey,” says Khalil Hariri.

The Valley of the Tombs is of particular importance to Palmyra residents. They called it the valley of castles.

“Before the war, culture-minded people from all over the world made a pilgrimage to Palmyra. The tower tombs were part of the world’s heritage. They belong to the whole of humanity and not just to Syria. It’s so tragic that the world has lost one of its most important cultural treasures,” says Khalil Hariri.

“The most beautiful thing the people of Palmyra gave the world was the city’s architecture – especially the tower tombs, which are 2000 years old,” says Khalil Hariri.

“It’s a great loss of both culture and knowledge – it’s a great loss for the whole world and not just for Syria and the residents of Palmyra,” he declares.

New evidence now partially explains IS’s senseless destruction of Palmyra: they were looking for a gold cache.

When they stormed Palmyra, IS forced the staff of Palmyra museum into a large hall in the museum.

82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad and his son Walid al-Asaad were among those arrested.

Khaled was known as one of the world’s foremost experts on Palmyra.

Kassem Hamadé, Expressen, with Khaled al-Asaads son Tarek.
Khaled al-Asaad (right) with his son Walid al-Asaad.

Expressen met Khaled’s other son Tarek al-Asaad in Damascus at the National Museum.

He tells us that IS pressed his father Khaled and his brother Walid al-Asaad to tell them where the city’s gold was hidden.

“IS was looking for two tonnes of gold that they claimed was hidden in Palmyra. They pressed all the staff at the museum to tell them,” says Tarek al-Asaad.

Neither Khaled nor his son Walid were able to help IS. They tried in vain to explain that there was no gold in the city, that it was the city itself that was the valuable treasure.

Walid al-Asaad was taken to the museum in Palmyra and placed in front of the famous statue of the goddess Al-lat. There they continued interrogating him about the alleged hidden gold cache.

The body of the murdered Khaled al-Asaad.

“He insisted that there was no gold in Palmyra. Then they started smashing the statue with hammers in front of him. They didn’t stop until the whole statue had been destroyed,” says Tarek al-Asaad.

“Walid, who was ill, collapsed. They thought he was going to die and let him go under the condition that he didn’t leave the city,” he says.

His father, Khaled al-Asaad, was also released after being held for a week, but he was placed under house arrest. He refused to flee the city. He said “I’m not leaving Palmyra alive”.

“28 days later my father was executed,” says Tarek al-Asaad.

IS published gruesome images of the body of the murdered Khaled al-Asaad. They had cut off his head and hoisted his body up onto a pillar.

“They executed him when he couldn’t help them find the alleged gold treasure. They thought he was refusing to cooperate. That was the beginning of the destruction of Palmyra’s cultural treasures,” says Tarek al-Asaad.

A week later IS blew up the Temple of Baal Shamin, the Arch of Triumph and the tower tombs.

After seeing Expressen’s film, the former director of the Palmyra museum, Khalil Hariri, says:

“I appeal to everyone – this civilisation not only belongs to the residents of Palmyra or Syria. It belongs to the whole world. Let us, hand in hand, try to rebuild the Arch of Triumph as it was before and the rest of what’s been destroyed.”

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