Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al Asaad who devoted his life to the excavation and restoration of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was beheaded by ISIS after refusing to disclose the location of ancient artifacts, despite a month of torture. He died a hero of heritage protection.
Khaled al-Assad met his death for the same cause that he lived his life – to maintain and protect one of the most important historical, and culturally significant landmarks of his country, the ancient city of Palmyra.
In the spring of 2015, ISIL militants began marching for Palmyra to loot the city of its treasures, which they then hoped to sell in order to support their military endeavors.
In response, Syrian officials hastened to move the inventory of the museum in Palmyra to a safer location in Damascus. As a former director of the museum, and still being an active member and contributor towards the maintenance of the museum and site, al-Assad was vital in aiding with this process.
For months, officials, workers, and volunteers toiled to remove the city’s treasures from danger. Despite helping secure the survival of numerous statues and artifacts, many items were unable to be moved before the arrival of ISIL.
Yet, against the caution of numerous experts, al-Assad remained in Palmyra to protect as much of his life’s legacy as he could in continuing to relocate and hide the items of Palmyra museum.
Ultimately, this led to al-Assad’s capture, and for a month, ISIL militants tortured the man in an attempt to uncover the hiding locations of artifacts.
Unable to gain any information from al-Assad, ISIL murdered him in August of 2015. In the end, al-Assad died for the protection of his city.
Sadly, before being pushed back out of Palmyra by resistance forces, ISIL went on to destroy many monuments, including the Temple of Baal, one of the oldest sites of the area, and razed the museum.
To help put into perspective what the loss of al-Assad meant to the world, Amr al-Azm remarked, “Because he’d spent so many years working on this site, he was so familiar with the archaeology of the area and the city, he was a huge repository of knowledge, all acquired first hand just by being there, and working it.
And really this vast repository of information has now been lost to us. And it’s not the kind of information you can acquire by reading a book or attending a lecture, it’s all very practical knowledge and information. And it’s all gone now."
Many other archeologists, scientists, and admirers expressed similar sentiments at the loss of a man so knowledgeable, humble, and devoted as al-Assad.
His wisdom invaluable, experience unmatched, and passion unopposed, al-Assad has left a gaping hole in the world of archaeology that will never truly be filled.
It is now up to his successors to continue the legacy of al-Assad. Despite having reclaimed Palmyra, there is a long road to recovery in restoring the damage done by ISIL.
Worse still, much of the destruction is irreparable. However, the actions of al-Assad in sacrificing his life for the safety of his country’s heritage will surely guide the restoration process as a constant reminder of the importance and significance of the artifacts and structures still standing in Palmyra.
For his dedication and lifetime of hard work, al-Assad was awarded the national Order of Merit award posthumously.
In a time rampant with violence and senseless killing, many continue to look at the legacy of al-Assad, best personified by his resolution to stand by his life’s work in the darkest of times, as a lone beacon of light in a country ravaged by war.
A true martyr, the death of Khaled al-Assad is a low point in history, and yet, he is a source of inspiration for future generations to look at, and hopefully learn from.