Palmyra’s Temple of Bel destroyed, says UN

Temple of Bel, the most important site in Palmyra, reduced to rubble as jihadis continue to wreck Syria’s cultural heritage

Satellite images have confirmed that Islamic State (Isis) has largely destroyed another ancient temple in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the United Nations said on Monday.

A powerful blast in the ruins of the ancient city on Sunday was believed to have been the result of Isis targeting the Temple of Bel, although the extent of the damage at the Roman-era structure was not immediately clear.

However, the UN training and research agency (Unitar) says that its satellite programme put to rest any doubts that the structure had been destroyed in the blast.

“We can confirm destruction of the main building of the Temple of Bel as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity,” the agency said, providing satellite images from before and after a powerful blast.

A picture taken on 27 August clearly shows an erect, rectangular structure surrounded by columns, while a shot taken on Monday showed there was little left besides a few columns in the very outer edges of the site.

It is the second temple that Isis has attacked in Palmyra this month. Last week, the group detonated explosives in the ancient Baal Shamin temple, an act that the cultural agency Unesco called a war crime aimed at wiping out a symbol of Syria’s diverse cultural heritage.

On Friday, Unitar presented satellite images confirming the destruction of the Baal Shamin temple.

The jihadis have carried out a sustained campaign of destruction against heritage sites in areas under their control in Syria and Iraq

Earlier this month, the group beheaded the 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist who had looked after Palmyra’s ruins for four decades and hung his body in public, according to Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief.

Abdulkarim described the Temple of Bel as Palmyra’s most important site and the most important temple in the Middle East alongside Baalbek in Lebanon.

Before the arrival of Christianity in the second century, Palmyra worshipped the Semitic god Bel, along with the sun god Yarhibol and lunar god Aglibol.

Known as the Pearl of the Desert, Palmyra – which means City of Palms – lies 210 km (130 miles) north-east of Damascus. Before the Syrian conflict erupted 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited Palmyra every year.

Construction on the temple began in 32BC and ended in the second century. It later served as both a church and a mosque.