Historical Heroes: Khaled al–Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad might not be the most famous of heroes we’ve featured in the magazine, but he deserves to be.
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Khaled al–Asaad

“In spite of my advanced age,” wrote the French historian Paul Veyne in 2015, “it is my duty as a former professor and as a human being to voice my stupefaction before this incomprehensible destruction, and to sketch a portrait of the past splendour of Palmyra, which can now only be experienced through books.”

The splendour Veyne describes is of a city at the height of its power in 200 CE when Palmyra formed part of the Roman Empire. Veyne writes that “Palmyra resembled no other city in the empire.” A long colonnade ran through the city and “represented avant-garde urbanism and everyday life in Palmyra”, while the magnificent Temple of Bel “was the San Marco of this desert port.” There were “statues everywhere…of emperors, of benefactors of the city.” At that time, an average city had one official statue for every thousand inhabitants. In Palmyra it was one per hundred. Yet, in the history of iconoclasm, few statues have suffered the fate of the statue of the goddess Athena, desecrated twice by black-robed zealots who emerged out of the desert sands surrounding the ancient city.

The first attack came from Christians in the fourth century. According to the classicist Catherine Nixey, “Palmyra must have been expecting them…bands of bearded, black-robed zealots [whose] attacks were primitive, thuggish and very effective. These men moved in packs – later in swarms of as many as five hundred – and when they descended, utter destruction followed…Great stone columns that had stood for centuries collapsed in an afternoon; statues that had stood for half a millennium had their faces mutilated in a moment.”

Based on an original statue by the Greek sculptor Phidias, the statue of Athena, 2.5 meters tall and carved out of Pentelic marble, stood in the Temple of Al-Lat. When the Christians burst into the temple, they hacked at her robe, gouged out her right eye, sliced off her nose and hurled her into the ground where they hacked at her body, cutting off her left arm. She lay, face down, on the ground until she was discovered by a team of Polish archaeologists in 1975. Body parts were scattered throughout the ruined temple. They salvaged what they could and placed the resurrected goddess on a plinth in the Palmyra Museum and that is where she stood until she was attacked for a second time in 2015 by ISIS. These black-robed zealots shared the same terrifying certainty of the Christians that came before them. As they advanced on the city, an ISIS commander boasted that the statue of Athena would be “pulverised.” He was a good as his word. They pulled the goddess off her plinth, mutilated her only surviving arm and cut off her head, leaving behind a headless, limbless torso.

Khaled al-Asaad, an octogenarian archaeologist and a native of Palmyra who had devoted his life to the preservation of her antiquities, was unable to prevent the assault on Athena. As ISIS approached the city, al-Asaad and those who shared his love of Palmyrene history, frantically loaded as many ancient artefacts onto trucks as they could and hid what they couldn’t take with them. When the last truck was about to leave, his colleagues begged al-Asaad to flee to safety along with them. He refused. His heart belonged to the city. He had even named his daughter Zenobia, after the city’s third century queen. He believed ISIS would leave an old man alone. Within weeks he was dead.

His ordeal began when he refused to tell ISIS where the antiquities were hidden. ISIS commanders knew that any artefacts they didn’t destroy could be sold and the money raised used to fund their fantasy of an Islamic State stretching from Syria to Iraq. Khaled al-Asaad refused to tell them what he knew. They tortured him. Still, he refused to speak. Eventually, they let him go. A few weeks later, they rearrested him. Again, they tortured him. Again, he refused to betray the antiquities he’d spent his life preserving. Realising he would never reveal the secrets of Palmyra, they dragged Khaled Al-Asaad into a square where a large crowd witnessed his beheading. They hanged his body from a Roman pillar before taking it into the city centre where they tied him to a traffic light, his head on the ground between his legs, his spectacles still in place. A plaque hung from his neck, on which was written, “Director of Idolatry.”

The Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud described the nihilism of ISIS as a wish “to extend the desert’s domain: to replace walls with sand, to flatten out the landscape, to return to a vacuum so as to start history all over again.” Khaled al-Asaad stood in defiance of this nihilistic assault on what remained of Palmyrene civilisation. Born near the Temple of Bel, he’d served as the custodian of Palmyra for more than forty years. The head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus described him as “one of the most important pioneers of Syrian archaeology in the twentieth century.” Even after his retirement in 2003, al-Asaad continued to serve the city and received global recognition for his work. Professor Andreas Schmidt-Colinet of the University of Vienna first met Khaled al-Asaad in the 1970s and returned to work in Palmyra every year for thirty years. Acknowledging his debt to al-Asaad, the professor said that “all our research and all our life in Palmyra would have been impossible without him. With him everything was possible, without him nothing was possible.” Another professor, Kiyohide Saito from the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Japan, called al-Asaad “the eternal director of the Palmyra museum.”

In defying ISIS, Khaled al-Asaad shared with Athena the will to see the forces of order and reason, triumph over chaos and tyranny and the goddess plays a major part in the concluding play of The Oresteia by Sophocles. When Agamemnon, commander of the Greek armies in the Trojan War, returns home he is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, her lover. Their son Orestes, appalled at the brutal killing of his father, murders his mother in revenge.

However, in the act of killing his mother, Orestes rouses the wrath of the Furies, chthonic deities born from blood of the castrated sky god Ouranos. They are the “sad daughters of the night” who vow to “let loose indiscriminate death” as punishment for the crime of matricide. When they finally corner Orestes, he calls for Athena to save him from certain death. She persuades the Furies to give Orestes a fair trial but when the jury cannot reach a verdict, she pardons him. However, for the verdict to pass, the Furies must accept it and in order to get their agreement Athena offers them a new role as protectors of justice and the city of Athens. “Do good,” she tells them, “receive good, and be honoured as the good are honoured.” Swayed by her reasoning and compassion, the Furies accept their new role and call an end to “passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed.” From that point on the Furies were known as the Eumenides, or the Kindly Ones.

Athena bridged the chasm between Orestes and the Furies by appealing to law and justice as opposed to lawlessness and vengeance. Khaled al-Asaad stood for the same values. He died because he considered the collective good of humanity, embodied in the antiquities he’d spent his life preserving, more important than his own life. His favourite quote was from the philosopher Cicero:

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Khaled al–Asaad

Peter Hughes is a philosopher, psychologist and historian and author of A History of Love and Hate in 21 Statues.