The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has blown up several of the Syrian city of Palmyra’s famous tower tombs as it continues its destruction of the UNESCO-listed world heritage site, Syria’s antiquities chief has confirmed.
Syrian antiquities director Maamoun Abdulkarim told news agencies on Friday that among at least seven tombs destroyed were the three best preserved and most treasured funerary towers, including the famed Tower of Elahbel built in 103 AD.
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“We received reports 10 days ago but we’ve just confirmed the news,” he told AFP.
“We obtained satellite images from the US-based Syrian Heritage Initiative, taken on September 2.”
News of the latest destruction comes days after the UN confirmed that Palmyra’s masterpiece, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, had been destroyed on Sunday last week.
The UN training and research agency UNITAR provided satellite images to confirm the famous structure’s destruction, contradicting earlier reports that the ruins had been damaged but remained largely intact.
A week earlier, ISIL destroyed Palmyra’s smaller Baal Shamin temple, confirming the worst fears about their intentions for Palmyra, which they seized from Syrian government forces in May.
The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO has described ISIL’s campaign of destruction as a “war crime”.
In mid-August the group also beheaded Khaled Asaad, a respected 82-year-old archaeologist who worked for 50 years as head of antiquities in the ancient city.
In its listing, the UN agency singles out the tower tombs as the “oldest and most distinctive” of Palmyra’s funerary monuments; “tall multi-storey sandstone buildings belonging to the richest families”.
“On the fronts of those that survive, foremost among them the Tower of Elahbel, there is an arch with sarcophagus halfway up, which in ancient times supported a reclining statue,” it says.
“Corridors and rooms were subdivided by vertical bays of loculi (niches for the dead) closed by slabs of stone carved with the image of the deceased and painted in lively colours.”
Abdulkarim said the Tower of Jambalik, built in 83 AD, was also destroyed, along with the Tower of Ketout built in 44 AD and famed for vivid scenes etched into its walls.
He said the tower tombs were symbols of the economic boom of Palmyra around the first century AD, when it dominated the caravan trade between east and west from its oasis in the desert.
Known as the “Pearl of the Desert”, Palmyra, which means City of Palms, lies 210km northeast of Damascus.
Before the Syrian conflict started in 2011, more than 150,000 tourists visited the city every year.