A glimpse into the life of Asaad
Born in 1932, Asaad was not an archaeologist by degree, but one by love for the vocation. He held a degree in history from the University of Damascus. Asaad cherished every little bit of the rich history and heritage of his motherland, so much so that he had named one of his daughters Zenobia, after the historically famous Palmyrene queen. The citizens of Palmyra had christened their beloved keeper of history as “Mr Palmyra”, reported The New York Times.
Since 1963, Asaad had remained the head of antiquities at Palmyra, the 2000-year-old city. He spearheaded countless expeditions, excavations and exhibitions, highlighting the Palmyrian heritage, the seat of one of the oldest civilisations of history. In fact, it was due to Asaad’s efforts that Palmyra was uplifted to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stated The Guardian.
He officially retired in 2003, but his love for archaeology remained unfazed, as he continued to take care of hundreds of relics and artefacts that defined Palmyra in all her former glory. He resided with his family in the neighbouring town of Tadmur but used to walk regularly to visit the ruins of ancient Palmyra. His son Walid followed his father’s footsteps and supervised the work.
ISIS invasion of Palmyra
Then came the fateful 2015. Since May, murmurs had been making rounds about the possible advent of Islamic State terrorists on Asaad’s beloved city. Apart from their notoriety for inhuman torture and cruelty on innocents, ISIS was already infamous for reducing historical cities and towns to rubbles. They plundered these heritage sites and raised money by smuggling the antiquities into the European market, referred to by historical experts as ‘blood antiquities’.
Asaad stayed back even as his family fled the city
Asaad knew his Palmyra would also not be spared the wrath of the Jihadi extremists. So, even when his family chalked out an escape plan and implored him to join them, Khaled refused to set foot outside Palmyra until and unless he ensured safekeeping of the priceless heritage.
Khaled was assisted by son Walid and a few other individuals. Together, they skipped meals and spent sleepless nights transferring the artefacts from Palmyra museum to an undisclosed secure location. He knew well what awaited him once the ISIS invades the city, but he remained unflinching from his duty.
“I’m not going to leave the city. I’m staying,” he told fellow citizen Abu Ahmed on June 13, when ISIS had summoned him for questioning, reported The Atlantic. Khaled had seasoned his son the same way, so he is prepared to face all forms of brutality from the militants without divulging the secret location till his last breath.
A legacy which death couldn’t mar
In June 2015, ISIS bombarded two ancient Palmyrene shrines, terming those as blasphemous. Soon after, Asaad along with Walid was kidnapped. For almost a month, they were subjected to gruesome torture, but the terrorists failed to extract any information.
Finally, on August 18, 2015, the militant group circulated the news of Asaad’s public execution throughout the city. Afterwards, he was dragged and beheaded in front of an agonised crowd. Later that day, his distorted body was hung publicly for a week, with a placard that accused him of “infidel conferences” and “idolatry”, among others. The whereabouts of his hidden artefacts still remains a mystery.
Much later, nations like France, Poland, Italy and Tunisia have honoured Khaled al-Asaad posthumously for his tremendous contribution. Syria also conferred the Order of Civil Merit on him.
The legacy of Khaled al-Asaad will reign for centuries in the pages of history. The keeper of the history at Palmyra gave the world a superhero to be celebrated till the end of time.