Syria's Palmyra Temple of Bel 'severely damaged' by IS

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image captionThe Temple of Bel was one of the best preserved set of ruins in the complex

The Islamic State (IS) militant group has destroyed part of what's considered the most important temple at the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra, activists and witnesses say.

The extent of the damage to the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel is not clear but local residents have described being shaken by a large explosion.

The reports come a week after IS blew up another temple at the ancient city.

The militants seized control of Palmyra in May, sparking fears for the site.

The world-famous Greco-Roman ruins are in the desert north-east of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

"It is total destruction,'' one Palmyra resident told the Associated Press news agency. "The bricks and columns are on the ground."

"It was an explosion the deaf would hear," he went on, adding that only the wall of the temple remains.

The temple was dedicated to the Palmyrene gods and was one of the best preserved parts of the site.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe Temple of Bel, or Baal, is of unique design, according to Unesco
image copyrightAFP
image captionInside the temple were ornate wall carvings
image copyrightAFP

It was several days after the initial reports of the destruction of another part of the site, the Temple of Baalshamin, that IS itself put out pictures showing its militants blowing up the temple.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, says that for the extremists, any representation implying the existence of a god other than theirs is sacrilege and idolatry.

image copyrightMilitant social media account
image captionThis photo, apparently showing explosives at the Temple of Baalshamin, was released on a social media site used by the militants
image copyrightAP
image captionIS also released this photo last week showing rubble at the site of the Temple of Baalshamin

The family of 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad told Syria's director of antiquities that he had been beheaded.

Unesco Director General Irina Bokova praised the archaeologist, saying IS "murdered a great man, but they will never silence history".

image copyrightAFP
image captionKhaled al-Asaad's sons attended a ceremony to honour the murdered archaeologist in Damascus on 23 August

The ancient city of Palmyra is a Unesco World Heritage site and was a major tourist attraction before Syria descended into civil war.

Unesco has condemned the deliberate destruction of Syria's cultural heritage as a war crime.

image copyrightSmithsonian/Getty Images
image captionThe ruins at Palmyra influenced the architects of the US Capitol building

Diane Darke, a writer on Syria and author of the Bradt guide to the country, told the BBC that the Temple of Bel was a massive structure which had been used as a fortress, a church and a mosque.

Syrians themselves despair that it takes the destruction of a temple to make everybody focus on their country, she said, but they do also feel the loss of their cultural heritage.

"There will be Syrians weeping all over the country at the loss of Palmyra, of the main jewel of the site," she added.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPalmyra was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world

The modern city of Palmyra - known locally as Tadmur - is situated in a strategically important area on the road between the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the eastern city of Deir al-Zour.

IS has used Palmyra's theatre to stage the public execution by children of more than 20 captured Syrian army soldiers.

The group has ransacked and demolished several similar sites in the parts of neighbouring Iraq which they overran last year, destroying priceless ancient artefacts.

The United Nations estimates that over 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the war began there four years ago.

Over four million people have fled the country and 7.6 million are displaced inside Syria.

Ancient city of Palmyra

media captionHistorian Dan Cruickshank explains the significance of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra
  • Unesco World Heritage site
  • Site contains monumental ruins of great city, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world
  • Art and architecture, from the 1st and 2nd Centuries, combine Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences
  • Site boasts a number of monumental projects, more than 1,000 columns, and a formidable necropolis of more than 500 tombs
  • More than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year before the Syrian conflict

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