Palmyra Falls: Why A 2,000-Year-Old City Matters To ISIS

ISIS now controls the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, leaving its priceless ruins exposed to destruction and its civilians at ISIS' mercy

May 20, 2015 at 6:53 PM ET

To ISIS, the Syrian towns of Palmyra and Tadmur are a strategic gain, offering access to an important road and to gas fields that can provide a new source of income. To the rest of the world, Palmyra is a UNESCO world heritage site, built between the first and second centuries, that was at one time one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. And now it’s under ISIS’ control, and likely to be destroyed.

Among the ruins of an ancient city with column-lined promenades and amphiteaters lives a population of around 50,000 residents, many of whom relied on tourism to the 2,000-year-old site for their local economy. They are now at the mercy of ISIS fighters—Syrian government forces and police have reportedly fled.

ISIS has previously shown little regard for the historical and cultural significance of many of the ruins in the territory it has seized, having for example destroyed priceless artifacts in Mosul, Iraq. It considers the ruins to be a form of idolatry, something to be banned in its Islamic state.

Another potentially important prize for ISIS in the area is the military prison in Tadmur, one of the most notorious detention centers in the world.

The prison was closed in 2001 but was reopened after the Syrian conflict began, and human rights activists and government dissidents are believed to have been held and tortured there. ISIS is likely to set many of those inside free, and not for entirely selfless reasons. Almost two years ago hundreds of al-Qaeda militants held in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were freed after an operation featuring explosions and assault rifles killed over a dozen prison guards. Many of those freed in the prison break flocked to ISIS’ ranks.

Translation: Burning of a picture of the criminal Bashar al-Assad inside Tadmur Prison.

Read More:

ISIS Fighters Seize Control Of Syrian City Of Palmyra (New York Times)
ISIS Controls Most Of Syrian City Near Palmyra (CNN)