SYRIA — With hundreds of people dying in Syria every week, why should the world care that ISIS strapped barrels of explosives to the Temple of Bel?
Because the terror group did much more than just blow up a 2,000-year-old temple. It annihilated a significant piece of religious and cultural history, not just for Syria but for the entire world.
And ISIS’ destruction affects not just the past; it also has big ramifications for the present and future. Here’s how:
It helps ISIS’ mission
ISIS is on a murderous campaign to wipe out the histories of Iraq and Syria and replace them with an Islamist state and its brand of Sharia law.
Blasting away the temple in Palmyra, Syria, helps ISIS do just that. It’s part of the terror group’s “staged cultural desecration,” wrote Sturt W. Manning, chairman of the Department of Classics at Cornell University.
“The West’s response should be to remember — and to provide educational resources to keep the rich and plural histories of Syria and Iraq alive and available, especially to those presently trapped under ISIS’ enforced umbrella of ignorance.”
One elderly man who tried to protect Syria’s ancient artifacts from ISIS paid for his bravery with his life.
Khaled al-As’ad, the 82-year-old Palmyra antiquities chief who spent his life painstakingly preserving relics there, was beheaded because he refused to reveal where various irreplaceable relics were hidden.
Al-As’ad’s body was later hung out in public for everyone to see.
It destroyed a symbol of religious tolerance
“We’ve lost a great amount. This was one of the best-preserved temples of the ancient world,” said Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College.
She said the temple was dedicated in A.D. 32, “when Jesus may have still been walking the earth.”
“It was used as a Christian church … and then as a mosque until the 1920s,” Thompson said. “So it’s really an example of the type of synchronism of religion that ISIS is seeking to destroy.”
Manning said the temple was “a tolerant home to different faiths and ethnic groups where Greco-Roman and local cultures merged.”
“Usually ISIS justifies destruction by claiming representative art to be idolatrous and pre-Islamic religious objects or structures sacrilegious,” he wrote.
“It seeks to destroy diversity and enforce narrow uniformity. Evidence of a tolerant, diverse past is anathema.”
It can be used to recruit more ISIS members
In true ISIS form, the terrorists released a slickly produced video showing off how it has dismembered sacred sites.
“This sends a very important propaganda message for ISIS,” Thompson said. “They are using, essentially, the media to convey to potential recruits this idea that the West is powerless to defend against ISIS’ destruction of things that are so important to us.”
It threatens the future of Syrians’ livelihoods
Syrians are suffering not just from the murderous rampage of ISIS, but from a 4-year-old civil war that has left 300,000 people dead.
For those near Palmyra, the temple has been a vital source of tourism income for the community, “which is now going to be deprived,” Thompson aid.
“It is going to find it is so much harder to recover from the conflict without this source of income.”
It could portend more destruction
If the world has learned one thing about ISIS, it’s that the terrorists tend to trump their acts of horror and destruction with even more brutal acts of violence.
The gruesome beheading of a foreigner was followed by the ghastly beheadings of others. The destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra a week ago was followed by the annihilation of the Temple of Bel.
“They said they would destroy the statues, but not the structures themselves inside Palmyra,” Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said. “They lied.”
“We need (the) international community to help us, because this battle is not just for the Syrian people,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “It is also (an) international battle. It is a cultural battle.”
And now, ISIS has another source of income to fuel its terrorism: valuable antiquities.
Such relics are “soon to be on sale on the black market,” Manning wrote. “Looted antiquities provide key funds to ISIS.”
CNN’s John Vause, Nick Paton Walsh and Lonzo Cook contributed to this report.