‘If you ask the stars to choose a place instead of the sky
They will say Palmyra.’
– Yaseen al-Farjani
The young man betrayed no emotion as he told the story: ‘They asked him to kneel. He refused. He said, “If you are going to kill me, it will be while I am standing. I will die like the date palms, upright.” Because he refused to kneel, they hit him behind the knees.’ The man’s legs collapsed, and he fell. A sword swept through his neck, severing his head.
The young man, Tarek Assa’ad, hesitated. This was not a distant memory, and the murdered man was no stranger. It was his father, Khaled Assa’ad. The 81-year-old archaeologist died on 18 August 2015 within sight of the house where he was born on 1 January 1934. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then at the summit of its conquests, decapitated him with the same destructive fury that characterised its demolition of the Hellenic and Roman treasures that Khaled Assa’ad had dedicated his life to protecting. In the burning summer of 2015, the guardian and his city, called Palmyra for its stately palm trees, were dying together.
Tarek resumed his account, going back in time to his father’s childhood playing amid Palmyra’s classical temples, marketplace and sunlit theatre in the waning days of French rule over Syria. ‘He was so much in love with these artefacts,’ Tarek said. ‘When you wake up every day and see the Temple of Bel, you have to fall in love, don’t you?’ The temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, or Baal, was Palmyra’s most distinctive structure. Its sacred enclosure, surrounded by porticos and columns, has fascinated scholars and travellers since its completion in ad 32. It intrigued no one more than the elder Assa’ad. He taught himself the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic, the region’s lingua franca during the Roman era, in order to understand Palmyra’s elaborate inscriptions and the people who etched them in stone. After taking a degree in history from the University of Damascus, he stayed in the Syrian capital during its turbulent years of multiple military coups d’état to work for the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). In 1963, DGAM sent him back to Palmyra to oversee excavations and curate the new museum that had opened beside the ruins.
The energetic director uncovered hidden tombs, located the marble fort of the Emperor Diocletian’s garrison, dug up hundreds of coins that had lain undiscovered for nearly two thousand years and found memorials to ancient Palmyra’s notable citizens. His discoveries and publications filled gaps in the elusive history of Palmyra’s rise from desert oasis a thousand years before Christ to thriving centre of world trade between Rome and India in the early Christian era. Thanks in part to his efforts, UNESCO declared Palmyra a World Heritage Site in 1980. It was no coincidence that Khaled Assa’ad named his first daughter for Palmyra’s fabled queen, Zenobia, who is forever associated with the city that she led to its greatest triumphs in the third century after Christ. He retired in 2003, when his oldest son among eleven children, Walid, succeeded him as antiquities director. Retirement did not prevent him from persevering with his digging, researching, writing and educating visitors about his beloved ruins.