Each year, since 1959 till the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a Polish archaeological team was working in Palmyra. The research was instigated by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, the founder of the Polish school of Mediterranean archaeology, and since 1973 for almost 40 years the expedition was headed by Professor Michał Gawlikowski from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw.
In the course of half a century’s work, Polish archeologists unearthed a Roman military camp, a temple of the Arabic goddess Allat from the 1st to 4th century AD and four churches from later times. Until recently, statues and other artefacts from these excavations filled one Palmyra Museum’s halls. Today, the ruins of ancient Palmyra are facing the threat of destruction by fanatics from the so-called ‘Islamic State’. On the 23rd of August they blew up the temple of Baalshamin – its small building erected in AD 131, and discovered by a Swiss expedition in the 1950s, had been almost completely preserved.
A few days earlier, the longtime director of Palmyra’s antiquities, Khaled el-Assad was bestially murdered. According to some reports he had been tortured to reveal the whereabouts of hidden gold and other treasures. Of course, no such hiding places exist – the most valuable artifacts were removed by museum staff to Damascus at the last moment. Khaled el-Assad refused to leave the city, although he must have known what awaited him. Archaeology has gained its first martyr.
“I met Khaled in 1965 when he was a newly-instated museum director having just graduated from the University of Damascus” says Prof. Gawlikowski. “Since then, he has not only became a leading specialist in the history of his native Palmyra, but he has also gained the warm friendship and gratitude of numerous archeologists of various nationalities who worked in Palmyra or just visited the site. Open to everybody, he shared with enthusiasm his unrivalled knowledge of the place and was helpful to all archaeologists. Now the 81-year old scholar has been accused of ‘safeguarding idols’ and participating in archaeological conferences with ‘infidels’”.
We already know that the three-meter-high lion statue from the Allat temple, found by Polish scholars in 1977 and subsequently restored in front of the Palmyra Museum, has been smashed to pieces. It is unclear what objects have been saved from the collection of the museum, supposedly turned into a prison. What else will fall victim to this madness?