1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How the IS is waging war on Syrian culture

Kersten Knipp / kbm
August 20, 2015

The IS brutally murdered Syria's top archeologist. DW's Kersten Knipp explains why the beheading is a declaration of war on Syrian culture and intellectuals.

Palmyra in Syria, Copyright: picture alliance/AP Photo
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

When the terrorist organization "Islamic State" (IS) took over Syria's ancient desert city of Palmyra in May, they were hoping to open a lucrative business. Many of the valuable artifacts in the city, they reckoned, would make their way into the international art market and become a sizeable source of income.

But their plan didn't quite work - perhaps in part because Khaled al-Asaad, the now retired chief archeologist in Palmyra, managed to rescue many of the cultural treasures from the jihadists.

Al-Assad has insisted on staying in his home city. "I was born in Palmyra and I've lived here and I refuse to leave this place," he said. He stayed firm, and fell into the hands of the IS.

For more than a month, the IS heckled him to try to find out whether the archeologist had hidden valuable artifacts - and, most importantly, where.

It's not known whether the terrorists got Al-Asaad, one of Syria's most renowned experts, to talk. But it's clear that they let him suffer. On Tuesday (18.08.2015), they beheaded the 82-year-old in the presence of a large crowd. According to reports, his head was attached to a post and put on show in the center of town.

Khaled al-Asaad, Copyright: picture alliance/AP Photo
Khaled al-AsaadImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Beheading sends mixed messages

The Arab television broadcaster Al Jazeera pointed out that it was unusual for the IS not to post an online video of the beheading, as they've frequently done.

The crime, according to Al Jazeera commentator James Denselow, is aimed at the local population rather than the international community.

At the same time, Denselow added, the IS are continuing their path of cultural destruction and billing their action as a "war on history." They've taken a similar course in Iraq, where they've destroyed antique sites like Nineveh and Khorsabad.

"Relics, ruins and history are components of IS's strategy of imposing a 'Year Zero' on the territory they have defined as a 'caliphate,'" wrote Denselow.

Nevertheless, the jihadists aren't only aiming their attacks at cultural sites, but also at those who keep them alive: historians, archeologist, restaurateurs. Their work is not only crucial to preserving antique cultural heritage, but also to making it more accessible to a broader audience.

It is the antiquity researchers who can be credited with raising awareness for the region's multicultural past. And, according to Al Jazeera, the reason why Al-Assad had to die.

War declared on intellectuals

But there's yet another reason why the archeologist was murdered. For more than 40 years, he researched the antique sites in his home, published numerous books about them and contributed to Palmyra being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Amphitheater in Palmyra, Copyright: picture-alliance/CPA Media/Pictures From History/D. Henley
The ancient amphitheater in Palmyra was the site of a mass executionImage: picture-alliance/CPA Media/Pictures From History/D. Henley

At the same time, he was well connected internationally and belonged to the global scientific community, which knows no political boundaries. With his whole being, Al-Assad embodied the academic intellectual - and the exact opposite of the bearded zealots who join the IS.

By beheading him, the jihadists are declaring war on secular intellectuals.

The IS's unviable strategy

It's also possible that the jihadists are increasingly losing control over themselves. That was indicated in a video that the IS published in early July. In an amphitheater in Palmyra, where classical operas had been performed until not long ago, they publically executed 20 Syrian soldiers.

The spectators sat in the stands and watched as the 20 young men were marched in and shot in from behind. The execution scene was performed as a kind of perverted first communion. The IS militants showed what they think it means to come of age: be capable of murder.

The brutality with which the IS attack anyone who thinks differently and destroy whatever does not suit their interpretation of Islam is a risky strategy to follow. They may win many followers. But the huge influx of refugees that are coming to Europe shows that they deter many more people than they attack.

In the end, the IS could rule over ruins and corpses.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Two women speak to a crowd holding EU and Moldovan flags
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage