He looked after the ancient ruins of Palmyra for 40 years. Now ISIS has killed him.

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and it’s The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH here in Boston. The so-called Islamic State movement has perpetrated so many horrific crimes that it’s hard to be shocked anymore. But this one really got to me. It’s the story of one man, an archeologist, Khaled al-Assad. He was 81-years-old, and for four decades he was the head of antiquities at the ancient site of Palmyra, in Syria. Yesterday, he was publicly beheaded and his body put on display. There are reports that it was hung from one of the ancient Greco Roman columns he loved and devoted his life to protecting. Amr al-Azm is Syrian and a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. This is such a tragic story even among the million tragedies that have emerged from Syria in the last five years. Amr, this one really stings. Maybe you can explain why. Just tell us who Khaled al-Assad was.


Amr al-Azm: Khaled al-Assad was a local archeologist from Palmyra, he dedicated his life to working at the site. He was involved in its earliest excavations and restoration. He was the head of the department there for many, many years, and in fact if you needed to do anything in Palmyra, you had to go to him. He was essentially Mr. Palmyra. But more importantly, he was someone, because he spent so many years working in the site and he was so familiar with the archeology of the area and the city, he was a huge repository of knowledge all acquired through firsthand--just by being there, by 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 by attending a lecture, it’s all very practical knowledge and information, and it’s gone now.


Werman: How did you know him?


Azm: I was the director of science and conservation laboratories in Syria from 1999 to 2004, I believe. And so whenever we had to go out to Palmyra to the museum to do any work, or they have a couple of mummies that we occasionally had to come and check up on or do any restoration work for their labs, or just at a conference perhaps or when he came down for meetings down in Damascus. So, that’s how we met. But that’s the physical aspect. Everybody knew Khaled. If you knew anything about the history of Syria, you would’ve known something about Palmyra. If you would’ve known something about Palmyra, you’d have heard of Khaled al-Assad. It was ubiquitous; it was all part of the same thing.


Werman: What was he like as a person?


Azm: On a very personal level, I didn’t know him that well. But certainly whenever we visited, he was always very generous, he would insist on inviting us to have lunch with him. He was a very friendly, open person. I don’t think that’s unique to him, I think that’s very much the characteristic of the people of Palmyra. There’s that kind of welcoming desert folk characteristic, that whenever you visited Palmyra you felt yourself welcomed there.


Werman: I gather he loved Palmyra so much that he named one of his daughters after the city’s ancient queen.


Azm: He did, indeed. To him, Palmyra was his life, and even after he retired in 2003, he was still very prominent and still very much a part of Palmyra. He was always going to be there right until the very in, and in fact that’s what he did. Even as they were evacuating the museum contents when ISIS was breaking in--the trucks were literally rolling out of the city from one end as ISIS were breaking into the city from the other. He could’ve jumped on those trucks and left with the artifacts, but he chose to stay instead. You know, they clearly saw him as someone who is an enemy. Right from the very beginning when they entered Palmyra, they rounded up several hundred people who they considered to be enemies of ISIS, and someone like Khaled al-Assad would’ve been a threat to ISIS no matter what. Now, one of the crimes they accused him of was being pro-regime, but the very fact that Khaled al-Assad believed in protecting the archeological ruins in Palmyra would’ve made him a target anyway, no matter what his position towards the regime would’ve been.


Werman: What do you think his death means for the city of Palmyra?


Azm: I mean, for the city itself, not much. I mean, he was another citizen or son of Palmyra, and Palmyra has offered so many of its sons thus far. For Palmyra as, you know, its cultural heritage, certainly a great source of knowledge and information on the site has been lost and I don’t think there was anyone else like him there.


Werman: Amr al-Azm, professor of history at Shawnee State University telling me about his colleague, 81-year-old archeologist, Khaled al-Assad, beheaded yesterday by ISIS. Thanks very much for speaking with us, and condolences for your loss.


Azm: Thank you very much.