Khaled Mohammed al-Assad (also spelled Asaad) was a Syrian archaeologist who spent most of his life studying ancient civilizations, namely that of Ancient Palmyra in Syria. During World War I, France had taken control of Palmyra. The leader of the French army for this region at the time became very interested in the ruins of Palmyra and began the first excavation projects at the site. Living in the same region, al-Assad became interested early on in the field of archaeology. As a youth, he was able to assist in some of these sites, though more so as an aid to other professionals, not an excavator. However, at the end of World War II, the French withdrew from the region, including all archaeologists, soldiers, and scientists. Excavations in the area slowed heavily for the next twenty years. During this time, al-Assad completed his studies in the city of Homs in western Syria, and later went to Damascus for his professional training.1
In 1960, al-Assad further pursued his interests in history and attended the University in Damascus. By 1963, al-Assad had been named chief curator of the newly built museum in Palmyra, and director of the site for further excavation. Here, al-Assad worked for nearly half a century, before retiring in 2003.2 However, al-Assad remained a major consultant and continued to be a staple of the site until his death in August of 2015 at the hands of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.3
Khaled al-Assad was born in Tadmur, Syria in 1934, a modern city located adjacent to the ancient city of Palmyra. Over the next thirty years, al-Assad pursued his interests in history and pedagogy (the theory and practice of education) as a scholar at the University of Damascus.4 After graduating in 1962, al-Assad worked at the Department of Museums and Antiquities in Damascus where he led the coordination of various research programs. A year later in 1963, al-Assad was named director of the site and newly founded museum in Palmyra. This remained al-Assad’s home for the rest of his life, as he devoted all his energy towards learning about Palmyra - the city, the culture, and the people who used to inhabit the area. In addition to being the first director of the Palmyra excavation site, al-Assad was one of the first Syrian archaeologists in general, as the field was still young in the country with not many trained professionals.5
Al-Assad had 11 children, six boys and five girls. Stemming from his love of Palmyra and ancient Palmyrian culture, al-Assad named one of his daughters Zenobia in honor of a well-known Palmyrene queen. In addition, one of his sons began working with him in Palmyra after completing his schooling.6 After al-Assad officially retired in 2003, he continued working with his son and other members of the Palmyrian excavation site and museum. In this way, al-Assad continued to be an integral part of the unraveling behind the secrets lying in Palmyra, translating ancient texts as recently as 2009.
In 2011, political turmoil in Syria erupted, leading to violent protests and police crackdowns. By 2013 a full fledged civil war had erupted. A staunch nationalist, al-Assad had always been in support of the Syrian government. In response, al-Assad did what he felt was his civic duty – continuing to volunteer his time and efforts towards further excavations at the Palmyra site, as well as expending energy to protect the valuables uncovered from the atrocities and destruction of war. Around this time the terrorist organization ISIL, also known as ISIS, invaded the country and began taking control of provincial towns in western Syria. By 2015, ISIL worked its way through western Syria into the central portion of the country, towards Palmyra. Despite repeated warnings to evacuate the city, Khaled al-Assad remained and worked to hide and help move ancient artifacts to Damascus, a relatively safer region of the country. In the summer of 2015, ISIL militants marched into Palmyra and began razing the city. They captured al-Assad and his son, and for a month, questioned and tortured them. After realizing al-Assad’s son had little knowledge of the location of artifact, the militants quickly released him and focused their efforts on al-Assad. ISIL hoped to ascertain the location of hidden artifacts they could obtain and then sell in the black market for funds. After enduring a month of torture, al-Assad remained mum on the location of the items sought by ISIL. In response, ISIL beheaded al-Assad and tied his body to a post in Palmyra. Their official reasons for killing al-Assad included working with foreign countries during excavation projects, and preserving pagan artifacts (such as statues of Roman and Greek gods found over the years at the site). After a lifetime of service to Palmyra, al-Assad died on August 18, 2015 in the city of his home and workplace. Officials from Syria, colleagues, and admirers of his work and moral strength around the world condemned ISIL for their actions and mourned his loss.7
After a short stint working at the Museum of Damascus following graduation, the entirety of al-Assad’s career was spent working in the ancient city of Palmyra, of which he was the world’s foremost authority on prior to his death. A nationalist at heart, al-Assad became devoted to his country early on. He believed that it was his civic duty to help safely excavate and preserve the ancient city of Palmyra, as well as ascertain whatever knowledge possible from the site. As a result of this constant pursuit of knowledge, the archaeological world deemed al-Assad “Mr. Palmyra” and he became widely considered as a sort of guardian to the ancient city as well.8
However, al-Assad was not selfish as he delved into the ruins of the city. Rather than close the site to outsiders and keep all excavation work exclusive to Syrians, al-Assad helped facilitate many excavations funded and led by foreigners, primarily Europeans and Americans, and even partnered with them to co-lead numerous projects. Working alongside others, for nearly 50 years, al-Assad worked to systematically excavate, decipher, and explain the secrets and mysteries of the region. In his quest to understand the culture of Palmyrians, al-Assad was more than just thorough. Uncovering enormous temples, roads, and dwellings, al-Assad was acutely aware that it was the subtleties and minute details that would best depict the culture he studied, and allow him to learn about the former inhabitants of the city. This understanding manifests itself in many of his papers and books, of which there are thought to be over 20, though the exact number is not quite known as certain publications are believed to not have been translated to English and are unavailable to the public. An example of this thoroughness can be seen in a book written by al-Assad that deals only with the textiles and fragments found in Palmyra. Publications like this are a true testament to just how well an authority al-Assad was on Palmyra and the Palmyrene culture.9
Al-Assad was one of the few people on Earth who was fluent in the language of ancient Palmyrian. By the end of his career, he had translated over 3000 lines of text. In addition, he taught himself English to be able to communicate with visitors and scholars interested in the area. This allowed him to not only be able to better learn about and connect with his environment, but also share his learnings with a wider audience and share with the world what had captivated him as a youth to become devoted to Palmyra (here is showcased the educational capabilities of al-Assad, something he studied along with archaeology in college). After his death, many of Assad’s friends, family, and coworkers recalled how he was able to communicate with the Bedouin tribes of the area (who spoke a dialect of Ancient Palmyrian) one minute, and just as easily with foreign visitors, archaeologists and other foreign notables the next.6 For al-Assad, learning did not stop when he was able to understand the functionality of an artifact, or when he was able to deduce something previously unknown about ancient Palmyrians, it went on to sharing with the world the things he had discovered.
Throughout his career, al-Assad aimed to separate fact from folklore. One such example is the story of Queen Zenobia. Many historians claimed Queen Zenobia to be of Egyptian origin. Meanwhile, al-Assad contended that she was in fact a Palmyrian queen. Through his work, al-Assad was able to conclude that Zenobia was of arab blood and hailed from the Syrian region, not Egypt as many proposed. He was also able to deduce that the name of Zenobia was a Greek translation of the Queen's original Arab name, Zaynab.9
One of the last major excavations al-Assad took part in was with Dr. Schmidt-Colinet in the early 1990s. During this project, the pair and their team were able to uncover a 4th century church as well as a house thought to have been occupied for about 700 continuous years.10 Before his retirement, al-Assad also issued and order to restore over 2 kilometers of the walls of Ancient Palmyra. After the completion, al-Assad also had the walls raised to their original heights.9 Visitors to the site since have been able to marvel at remains of a once great city, but for al-Assad, it was always about learning, excavating, and restoring the ancient city of Palmyra so it may come one step closer to being reanimated and as historically accurate as possible. It is a lifetime of work such as this that has distinguished al-Assad as one of the prominent archaeologists of the past few decades, and the greatest Syrian archaeologist to have ever lived.
Khaled al-Assad met his death for the same cause that he lived his life – to maintain and protect one of the most important historical, and culturally significant landmarks of his country, the ancient city of Palmyra. In the spring of 2015, ISIL militants began marching for Palmyra to loot the city of its treasures, which they then hoped to sell in order to support their military endeavors. In response, Syrian officials hastened to move the inventory of the museum in Palmyra to a safer location in Damascus. As a former director of the museum, and still being an active member and contributor towards the maintenance of the museum and site, al-Assad was vital in aiding with this process. For months, officials, workers, and volunteers toiled to remove the city’s treasures from danger. Despite helping secure the survival of numerous statues and artifacts, many items were unable to be moved before the arrival of ISIL. Yet, against the caution of numerous experts, al-Assad remained in Palmyra to protect as much of his life’s legacy as he could in continuing to relocate and hide the items of Palmyra museum. Ultimately, this led to al-Assad’s capture, and for a month, ISIL militants tortured the man in an attempt to uncover the hiding locations of artifacts. Unable to gain any information from al-Assad, ISIL murdered him in August of 2015. In the end, al-Assad died for the protection of his city. Sadly, before being pushed back out of Palmyra by resistance forces, ISIL went on to destroy many monuments, including the Temple of Baal, one of the oldest sites of the area, and razed the museum.11
To help put into perspective what the loss of al-Assad meant to the world, Amr al-Azm remarked, “Because he’d spent so many years working on this site, he was so familiar with the archaeology of the area and the city, he was a huge repository of knowledge, all acquired first hand just by being there, and working it. And really this vast repository of information has now been lost to us. And it’s not the kind of information you can acquire by reading a book or attending a lecture, it’s all very practical knowledge and information. And it’s all gone now.”12 Many other archeologists, scientists, and admirers expressed similar sentiments at the loss of a man so knowledgeable, humble, and devoted as al-Assad. His wisdom invaluable, experience unmatched, and passion unopposed, al-Assad has left a gaping hole in the world of archaeology that will never truly be filled. It is now up to his successors to continue the legacy of al-Assad. Despite having reclaimed Palmyra, there is a long road to recovery in restoring the damage done by ISIL. Worse still, much of the destruction is irreparable. However, the actions of al-Assad in sacrificing his life for the safety of his country’s heritage will surely guide the restoration process as a constant reminder of the importance and significance of the artifacts and structures still standing in Palmyra.
For his dedication and lifetime of hard work, al-Assad was awarded the national Order of Merit award posthumously.6 In a time rampant with violence and senseless killing, many continue to look at the legacy of al-Assad, best personified by his resolution to stand by his life’s work in the darkest of times, as a lone beacon of light in a country ravaged by war. A true martyr, the death of Khaled al-Assad is a low point in history, and yet, he is a source of inspiration for future generations to look at, and hopefully learn from.
1. Belton, Padraig. "Remembering Khaled Al-Asaad, the Syrian Archaeologist Who Dared to Stand up to Isis." The Spectator. The Spectator, 20 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/08/remembering-khaled-al-asaad-the-syrian-archaeologist-who-dared-to-stand-up-to-isis/.
2. LeRiche, Pierre. "Isis in Syria: Khaled Al-Asaad – the Martyr of Palmyra." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isisin-syria-khaled-al-asaad-the-martyr-of-palmyra-10481630.html.
3. "Syrian Archaeologist 'killed in Palmyra' by IS Militants." BBC News. BBC, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33984006.
4. "Khaled Al-Asaad." Gariwo: The Gardens of the Righteous. Gariwo. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://en.gariwo.net/righteous/the-righteousbiographies/exemplary-figures/examples-of-civilcourage/khaled-alasaad-13897.html.
5. LeRiche, Pierre. "Martyr to Science in Palmyra: Archeologist Khaled Al-Asaad." Informed Comment. Informed Comment, 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.juancole.com/2015/09/science-palmyra-archeologist.html.
6. Arbuthnot, Felicity. "The War on Syria and “The Death of Civilization”: The Assassination of Dr Khaled Al-Assad, Guardian of Palmyra." Global Research. Global Research, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-war-on-syria-and-the-death-of-civilization-the-assassination-of-dr-khaled-al-assad-guardian-of-palmyra/5474828.
7. Shaheen, Kareem, and Ian Black. "Beheaded Syrian Scholar Refused to Lead Isis to Hidden Palmyra Antiquities." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 19 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/18/isis-beheads-archaeologist-syria.
8. Killgrove, Kristina. "Archaeologists Respond To The Murder of Khaled Al-Asaad At Ancient Palmyra." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/08/20/archaeologists-respond-to-the-murder-of-khaled-al-asaad-at-ancient-palmyra/#5951320171fb.
9. Salloum, Muna, and Habeeb Slalom. "Khaled Al-Asaad (1932-2015): Palmyra's Steadfast Custodian." Proquest. Proquest, Oct. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/docview/1729354007?accountid=12598.
10. MacDonald, James. "Archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, Enemy of Isis." JSTOR. JSTOR, 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://daily.jstor.org/murdered-archaelogist-khaled-al-asaad/.
11. Paraszczuk, Joanna. "To Love Palmyra’s ‘Every Artifact and Every Stone’." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 24 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/palmyra-isis-khalid-al-asaad-beheading-isis/402148/.
12. Davy, Stephen, and Christopher Woolf. "He Looked after the Ancient Ruins of Palmyra for 40 Years. Now ISIS Has Killed Him." Public Radio International. Public Radio International, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-08-19/he-looked-after-ancient-ruins-palmyra-syria-40-years-now-isis-has-killed-him.
13. Mosbergen, Dominique. "Beheaded Scholar Refused To Tell ISIS The Location Of Hidden Antiquities." Huffington Post. HPMG News, 20 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/khaled-asaad-palmyra-isis_us_55d54ecbe4b07addcb458baa.
Deville, Mark. Khaled Al-Asaad, the Director of Antiquities and Museum in Palmyra, in 2002. N.d. Getty. The Spectator. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.