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A martyr for civilisation: The 83-year-old archaeologist who devoted his life to saving Syria’s sublime ruins… and who refused to flee even when he knew ISIS savages would behead him

  • Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded at the archaeological site by ISIS militants
  • Born and raised in Palmyra, he was head of antiquities for 40 years
  • He was devoted to the historic site writing books and excavating it
  • The Syrian historian even named one of his daughters Zenobia

Back in the early years of Islam, Syria was famous for its martyrs: its shahids. Pious warriors would travel from across the Caliphate to fight on its northern frontier against the garrisons of Christian Byzantium.

The men who died there for Islam were hailed by their fellow Muslims as the bravest of the brave. ‘How pleasant to us,’ one of them declared, ‘is the fragrance of dust, and dirt, and blood flowing down our necks.’

Today, young men are once again flocking to Syria to die as martyrs. Many of the Muslims who sign up to fight for Islamic State do so in the belief that those killed for Allah will attain the highest level of paradise.

Propagandists post photos on social media of dead ‘shahids’ with ecstatic smiles on their faces.

Islamic State — or ISIS — sees in the willingness of its fighters to die for their cause the measure of its superiority over its adversaries. The conviction that those who do not share their brutal interpretation of Islam are cowards is one that jihadis have consistently held.

‘We love death,’ Osama bin Laden declared in 1996, ‘even more than they love life’.

Syrian history, though, is about much more than shahids — and those willing to die for it are not always inspired by religious fervour. Last week, this was demonstrated in the most heroic way possible.

Khaled al-Asaad was as unlike an Islamic State fighter as could be imagined. Eighty-three years old, he was clean-shaven, silver-haired and bespectacled. He looked, in short, like the eminent scholar that he was.

Yet this learned and decidedly unmilitant man, taken prisoner by Islamic State fighters, demonstrated a bravery that put their own pretensions to courage to shame. Rather than give in to their menaces, he maintained his dignity and defiance.

Taken to a public square, he was decapitated. His body was hung upside down from a pillar, and his severed head placed at its base. A placard tied


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