“You cannot write anything about Palmyra without making any reference to Khaled al-Asaad”. These words by Amr al-Azm, university professor in the USA and former manager of the Department of Syrian Museums and Antiquities, help us explain the importance of Khaled al-Asaad’s contribution to XX century archaeology.
A world-known scholar, Asaad was beheaded on 18 August by the Isis militias at age 82, after dedicating all his life to the archeological site of Palmyra, recognised as World Heritage by the Unesco in 1980.
Born in Tadmur - the Arab name of Palmyra stemming from the Aramaic toponym Tadmor, meaning “palmtree” - in 1932, he graduated in History and Pedagogy from the university of Damascus in 1962, where he started working at the Department of Museums and Antiquities as person in charge of the study and research plans, until he was appointed director of the archeological site and museum of Palmira in 1963. He did not spare any effort to develop the archaeological institution of Palmyra scientifically, administratively and also financially, with the support of the government and the foreign and joint missions. He was influenced by Cicero's quote: "Ignoring the past means remaining kids". Little by little his interest in protecting and preserving the archaeological heritage as inestimable treasures for the future generations. As a consequence, Asaad worked hard to promote the history of Palmyra, besides accomplishing important discoveries and participating in international fairs and archaeological forums. This got Palmyra to be the epitome of Syrian cultural heritage, and the destination of many "pilgrimage" of the most revered international personalities, including monarchs, presidents, leaders, ministers and scholars, for whom visiting Palmyra was a long riveted dream finally come true. Palmyra, with its statues and inscriptions and its drawings, became a "must-see" for cultural tourism in the Middle East.
Khaled al-Asaad had eleven children, six boys and five girls. His relationship with them was based on friendship and respect, in a family nurtured with love, understanding, harmony and self-confidence.
He remained in charge until 2003, but he went on caring about his city in his capacity as consultant of the Department until the end of his life.
In the course of his long career dedicated to the study of the millenary civilisations of Palmyra, he took part in the first archeological excavations, the restorations of parts of the ancient city and the most important archeological missions, cooperating with scholars from all over the world. His numerous publications include Nouvelles découvertes archéologiques en Syrie [New archaeological discoveries in Syria] (in French), The sculptures of Palmyra and Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra and the East, dedicated to the queen who in the third century after Christ defied the Roman empire before being defeated. After Zenobia he called also one of his five children.
Before IS militants took over Palmyra, Asaad took to the front line to take the most precious relics into safety. Despite the advice of friends and colleagues who tried to convince him to leave, he chose to remain in the city to protect it in full awareness of the serious risks that he ran for doing so.
According to what Maamoun Abdulkarim, the current Department’s director, Asaad would have been murdered for refusing telling the militiamen where Palmyra’s treasures had been hidden.
Not by chance his corpse was obscenely exhibited in the city’s central square with a plasterboard hinting at him as a blasphemous apostate.
Despite always belonging to the Syrian leading class for his role and position, in the wake of his family tradition, his brutal assassination sparked the sadness and condemnation of every member of society, both the regime loyalists and the opponents.