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Prominent Syrian Archaeologist Killed By ISIS In Palmyra

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

He wanted to preserve an ancient Syrian city from the hands of the Islamic State, and yesterday, ISIS killed him for it. We begin this hour with the story of the archaeologist who devoted his life to the historic city of Palmyra. NPR's Alice Fordham reports he'd refused to leave the area when it was taken over by the militants.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: When the 19th century traveler Gertrude Bell saw the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, she wrote it looked like a beautiful ghost. For Khaled Asaad, born there 80 years ago, the vast graceful ruins cast a lifelong spell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KHALED ASAAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Here, he's talking about the Roman amphitheater built almost two millennia ago. It's proof that the people of Palmyra reached a high level of civilization, Asaad says in this 2001 documentary "Palmyra Story" by Ghatfan Ghanoom. Asaad studied archaeology and then became the head of the museum in Palmyra for 40 years. He wrote books about it and took heads of state and local children round the ancient tombs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: When ISIS came blazing into Palmyra in May, uploading footage like this of battles, Asaad's friend, the antiquities minister Mamoun Abdel Karim, says he begged him to leave.

MAMOUN ABDEL KARIM: I told him, please, you should leave Palmyra because you are very important.

FORDHAM: Asaad was 81 years old and refused to go. He said he wouldn't leave Palmyra in its time of trouble. His friend Abdel Karim says ISIS demanded to know where valuable antiquities were.

KARIM: Where you hide the treasure?

FORDHAM: But there was no treasure. Most artifacts had been moved out of Palmyra as ISIS approached. The group stands accused of rampant looting and smuggling, and Abdel Karim thinks they were angry Asaad didn't answer their questions. They beheaded him in front of dozens of people, then displayed his corpse with a sign accusing him of being a supporter of the Syrian regime.

The group has also destroyed part of the site and some statues there, saying they are heretical. Syria had hundreds of ancient sites and museums before the civil war began, but much heritage has been damaged by various parties. History professor Amr Al-Azm says a regime airstrike hit a Museum and historic site close to Aleppo and a mortar hit the citadel of Damascus last week, killing an archaeologist named Qassem Al-Abdullah. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.