On Sunday the self-proclaimed Islamic State reportedly detonated a huge explosive at the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, though the extent of the damage has yet to be confirmed. The partial destruction of the massive, Roman-era complex, which UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has called one of the most important religious buildings of the first century A.D., follows a series of dark weeks for a historical site known affectionately to Syrians as the Bride of the Desert.
Just last week, Islamic State militants blew up the smaller Temple of Baalshamin, releasing propaganda images of the temple’s orange stone interior lined with dynamite and then, from a distance, of a grey cloud of dust after the explosion. UNESCO’s director-general called it a war crime. A local café owner told The New York Times’ Anne Barnard that Syrians used to hold weddings in that temple.
A week earlier, the Islamic State publicized its beheading of the retired Syrian archaeologist, Khalid al-Asaad, who had overseen the ruins of Palmyra for decades. The group had not yet turned its destructive impulses to Palmyra’s ruins—and had even declared that it would protect the sprawling site, minus the idols and shrines. But it would use Palmyra’s well-preserved amphitheater as a staging ground for mass executions.