Known as one of the most important pioneers in 20th Century Syrian archaeology, Khaled al-Asaad has reportedly been executed by ISIS militants near the ancient city of Palmyra.

According to the Syrian state news agency Sana and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Asaad was beheaded on Tuesday August 18 at a square outside the museum in Tadmur, a modern town next to the ruins of Palmyra. The execution was performed in front of dozens of onlookers, according to reports.

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As the BBC reports, the 81-year-old archaeologist was captured by ISIS militants last month; Islamic State forces captured Palmyra back in May, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Syria’s director of antiquities Maamoun Abdul Karim says Asaad, who worked at the site for the past 50 years, was held by the so-called Islamic State in a failed effort to glean information about the location of hidden treasures, including troves of gold. More from the BBC:

Photos apparently showing Mr Asaad’s body tied to what appears to be a lamp-post adjoining a main road have been circulated online by IS supporters. His severed head was placed underneath it.

A sign attached to the body accused him of being an apostate who was in regular communication with and supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He was also accused of representing Syria at overseas conferences with “infidels”, in addition to being director of Palmyra’s “idols”.

Since taking the site, Islamic State has destroyed several ancient artifacts, which it describes as “manifestations of polytheism.” The execution is one of several that have been carried out since ISIS took control of the city.

(Credit: Aotearoa/CC)

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova condemned the act in an official statement:

I am both saddened and outraged to learn of the brutal murder of Khaled Asaad, who oversaw antiquities at the UNESCO World Heritage site at Palmyra. In no uncertain terms I condemn this horrific act.

They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra. Here is where he dedicated his life, revealing Palmyra’s precious history and interpreting it so that we could learn from this great city that was a crossroads of the ancient world. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.

Asaad was in charge of the site for four decades before retiring in 2003, after which time he worked as an expert with the antiquities and museums department. In addition to writing more than 20 books on Palmyra and the Silk road, Asaad was fluent in Aramaic and translated ancient texts, and discovered a number of tombs around the ruins.

Read more at the BBC.


Email the author at george@io9.com and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image of Khaled al-Assad by SANA via AP