When people talk about heroes, they often mention self-less soldiers and police officers, civil rights leaders, and of course, the front line workers who are leading the charge against the pandemic.
The truth is that there are many who are worthy of being hailed a hero. But rarely do people place archaeologists in the same light. However, there was certainly one who deserves our admiration: Khaled al-Asaad.
From 1963 to 2003, Khaled al-Asaad was director of antiquities and museums at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, which was a bustling ancient city in today’s Syria and once fell under the Roman Empire’s control. Al-Asaad conducted numerous excavations and strove to restore the once resplendent Palmyra to its earlier glory. Despite retiring from his role in the early 2000s, al-Asaad remained close to the work at Palmyra and served as a resident expert. His archaeological endeavors at Palmyra alone should earn al-Asaad plaudits, but what happened after his retirement—while heart-wrenching and infuriating—transformed him into a hero.
In 2014-2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was taking the Middle East by storm and would eventually seize control of the territory where Palmyra is located. As a result, the region’s inhabitants and possessions weren’t safe. After all, ISIS tragically killed untold numbers and served as a wrecking ball to history—often destroying the remnants of the Middle East’s distant past. They toppled ancient structures, ransacked museums and obliterated art.
“Experts say the wave of wreckage amounts to cultural cleansing – a deliberate bid to erase the traces of centuries of sectarian coexistence, a notion that is anathema to Islamic State,” according to The Los Angeles Times. ISIS themselves claimed that they were removing spectacles of idolatry even though the ancient temples were dedicated to long-defunct religions and now exist as secular points of interest. Whatever their actual reasoning, ISIS destroyed irreplaceable relics with zeal and left rubble in their wake. What they didn’t ruin, they sold on the black market to help fund their activities.
In advance of ISIS’s invasion of Palmyra, al-Asaad and his allies were able to smuggle many—but not all—of Palmyra’s treasures to safety, and myriad Syrians likewise deserted the region. Al-Asaad’s friends and family urged him to flee the doomed territory too. “I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me,” he responded. He was true to his word, and he remained behind to hopefully watch over Palmyra and protect his life’s work.
After ISIS took control of Palmyra, it didn’t take long for them to seek plunder for their operations, but much of it was missing—thanks to al-Asaad. Consequently, sometime around June of 2015, ISIS leaders summoned the elderly curator to disclose the location of Palmyra’s treasures. What happened next is really anyone’s guess, but it seems as though they interrogated him and may have even employed tortuous techniques—although this is conjecture.
Whatever the case, the 82-year-old al-Asaad defiantly stood alone against the oppressive Islamic State. He refused to reveal the location of Palmyra’s valuables—ostensibly to protect his confidantes who concealed the relics and preserve the artifacts for posterity—under penalty of death. Unfortunately, ISIS wasn’t known for mercy or taking no for an answer.
Sometime later, al-Asaad was thrown into a black van and driven to the city’s square, and then loud speakers called the city’s remaining residents to view the coming spectacle. With around 150 people in attendance, an ISIS member beheaded al-Asaad with a sword, and his remains were abused. His tormenters placed a card near his body that read, “the apostate Khalid Muhammad al-Asaad,” and it listed his alleged crimes, including him being director of “idolatry.” It was an appalling end to his life.
While this happened in 2015, much of the news surrounding his demise was muted by other current affairs. Regrettably, far too few know the name Khaled al-Asaad, but there’s time to fix that. Just days ago, what is believed to be his remains were discovered. DNA tests are pending, but if these prove to be al-Asaad’s remains, he deserves a hero’s funeral and his story must be shared.
Khaled al-Asaad is many things. He’s a martyr, an indefatigable guardian of what remains from the ancient past, and an exemplar of principled defiance. While he sadly and very tragically died, he did so—in part—striving to protect antiquities for years to come, and even though much of Palmyra was demolished, al-Asaad saved many of its treasures.
In the end, his life demonstrates that a single person—no matter their circumstances—can stand up to a murderous, oppressive regime. I hope that when Khaled al-Asaad was made, they didn’t break the mold. We could certainly use more people like him.
Marc Hyden is the director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.