Archaeologist, author, and fearless protector of cultural heritage, Khaled al-Asaad was born in Palmyra, Syria in 1934. He studied to be an archaeologist, and by 1963, at the age of 29 he had become the principle custodian of the ancient site of Palmyra. He was heavily involved in the excavations and restorations of the city, often working with foreign archaeologists. Fluent in Aramaic, he regularly translated ancient texts and published many books and material for his colleagues and the general public. In 1980 he succeeded in having Palmyra listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Palmyra was at the height of its influence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and occupied an important position on the Silk Road, from east to west. With wealth grown from trade, the inhabitants built monumental buildings for worship and leisure, combining the region’s Semitic, Greco-Roman, and Arabic history. The Temple of Bel, linked to the West Gate by the Great Colonnade, was one of the best-preserved ruins in Palmyra, and the site once welcoming close to 150,000 tourists a year. Al-Asaad retired in 2003, and although succeeded by his son Walid, he continued to work in Palmyra every day. He was passionate about the site’s archaeological heritage, and never stopped working to preserve it.
In April 2013 a former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq formed what would become the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. By May 2015, ISIS had captured the modern and ancient cities of Palmyra, but Asaad had already evacuated the Palmyra museum’s most precious items. Taken out of the city by three of his sons and his son-in-law, all archaeologists, the objects were hidden from the incoming Islamic State army. Asaad refused to leave the site with his family, stating, "I am from Palmyra, and I will stay here even if they kill me." He and his son were captured by ISIS, and they were tortured for a month to reveal the location of the hidden artefacts, but they never broke their silence. On 18th August 2015, ISIS soldiers publicly beheaded Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra and hung his body from one of the ancient columns. Next to his body was a sign that called him a “director of idolatry”.
Asaad’s murder shocked the world. The Director-General of UNESCO at the time, Irina Bokova, said that he had been killed “because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra". In the last weeks of August 2015, ISIS destroyed large sections of ancient Palmyra, including The Temple of Baalshamin, parts of the Temple of Bel, the triumphal arch, and seven funerary towers at its necropolis. Asaad’s murder also highlighted ISIS’s dual-natured attitudes to ancient heritage sites; on the one hand they were idolatrous and must be destroyed; on the other, they were ideal places to collect antiquities for selling on the black market.
Palmyra was recaptured by Syrian Government troops in March 2016, but was lost again in December of the same year. The Syrian army finally retook the city in March 2017, but by then the city had almost been levelled. Khaled al-Asaad’s body was not found until 2021, when it was reported by Syrian state media that three bodies had been discovered. DNA tests were being waited on to confirm their identities.
Khaled al-Asaad’s dedication and passion for Palmyra ultimately helped save it from destruction. He was honored by UNESCO and The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), who wrote,
“He devoted his life and passion for the protection of heritage, which we should not forget. Even in the worst disasters, we see people, committed to defending their heritage at the risk of their own lives. We pay tribute to their lives and the values that they have upheld, through this symbolic recognition for Khaled Al Asaad.”