This Bible History Daily article was originally published on September 1, 2015. It has been updated.—Ed.
New satellite images published by UNOSAT, a program of the United Nations, confirm that ISIS has almost completely destroyed the Temple of Bel in the Syrian city of Palmyra. A powerful explosion had been reported over the weekend near the Roman-era monument, but the extent of the damage was not clear, since no one could approach the site.
“Unfortunately, the images we acquired do show that the main building of the temple has been destroyed,” UNOSAT manager Einar Bjorgo told the BBC.
It appears, according to the satellite image taken on August 31, 2015, that a pair of columns are still standing.
The Temple of Bel was dedicated in 32 C.E. to the Mesopotamian god Bel, supreme god of the Palmyrene pantheon. Bel seems to have been adopted from the Babylonian god Böl, who may be related to the Canaanite god Baal.
The destruction of the Temple of Bel is the latest in a string of heinous acts committed at the Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site. Earlier, it had been reported that ISIS had murdered antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, who would not reveal the location of valuable artifacts, and had blown up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baal Shamin and two nearby Muslim shrines.
According to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim, ISIS has blown up three funerary towers that sat in the Valley of the Tombs, an ancient cemetery located outside of the city walls of Palmyra. Among the monuments destroyed, Abdulkarim said, was the Tower of Elahbel, built in 103 C.E. and considered one of the best-preserved towers.
The Archaeology Odyssey article “The Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, Syria” describes the types of tombs found in the Valley of the Tombs, where wealthy Palmyrene families were buried:
There are several kinds of tombs here: First-century C.E. tomb-towers, shaped like tiny citadels, dot the skyline west of Palmyra; house tombs, resembling stone dwellings, are visible from the city’s main street; and hypogeum-towers, combining underground burial chambers with vaulting ramparts and stairways, are scattered about the surrounding hills. By far the most impressive tombs are the so-called underground house tombs. These many-chambered subterranean mausoleums—most of them dating to the reign of Hadrian (117–138 C.E.)—were built to shelter the remains of some of Palmyra’s wealthiest families. Their numerous rooms are decorated with elaborate archways, ornate frescoes and commemorative statues. Members of a wealthy family were often buried together in these underground tombs. The walls are lined with stone shelves, bearing the remains of many generations of men, women and children.
Antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told the AFP news agency that the destruction of the funerary towers in the Valley of the Tombs was confirmed by satellite imagery obtained by the Syrian Heritage Initiative, a cooperative project between the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the U.S. Department of State. The ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative aims to preserve the cultural heritage of war-torn Syria.
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