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Islamic State destroys priceless statues in ancient city of Palmyra

The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 18, a day after Islamic State group jihadists fired rockets into the city. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Separate reports this week indicated that Islamic State fighters were smashing cultural relics in the ancient city of Palmyra, once one of Syria's most crowded tourist destinations, but now in the grips of the extremist organization.

The jihadists consider representations of divinity, especially those from pre-Islamic times, to be heretical and worthy of destruction. According to Syria's director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdelkarim, the militants this week hacked apart the famous Lion of al-Lat, a limestone statue dating back to the first century B.C. that had been placed outside Palmyra museum.

"It’s the most serious crime they have committed against Palmyra’s heritage," said Abdelkarim in an interview with Agence France-Presse. In May, as an Islamic State offensive neared the historic ruins, he had warned that Palmyra's capture would be "an international catastrophe."

As WorldViews discussed around the time of its fall, Palmyra was once one of the ancient world's great crossroads — a desert oasis under Rome's sphere of influence connected via trade to the great empires and civilizations further east. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra boasts some of the most stunning, intact Roman-era structures still in existence.

The Islamic State's control over the ruins is seen as a tragedy for global patrimony, given the group's track record in nearby Iraq, where it has razed and pillaged a whole series of ancient Mesopotamian sites.

Reports this week suggested that the Sunni extremists had also smashed six busts seized from a smuggler attempting to bring them out of Palmyra. Photos of the pieces were uploaded onto a Web site affiliated with the Islamic State but could not be independently verified. The militants also released images of black-scarved fighters pounding the busts with sledgehammers.

Speaking at an event in London, Irina Bokova, the head of the United Nations' cultural agency, decried what the Islamic State was doing to the region's rich archaeological and architectural heritage.

"This deliberate destruction is not only continuing, it is happening on a systematic basis," said Bokova. "The looting of archaeological sites and museums, in Iraq particularly, has reached an industrial scale of destruction."

Bokova said the Islamic State's barbaric obliteration and theft of Mesopotamian antiquities was part of a larger "tactic of war, to terrify populations, to finance criminal activities."

She deemed the Islamic State's activities as a form of "cultural cleansing" that has "reached unprecedented levels in contemporary history."

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The many splendors of Palmyra, now under threat of destruction