Palmyra before the fall: Why ISIS destruction sickens me

Story highlights

  • Activists say ISIS captured modern city of Palmyra -- also known as Tadmur -- on Thursday
  • Fears are growing that ISIS may unleash wrath on nearby ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra
  • ISIS takes destruction of our common heritage to an entirely new level, says Ivan Watson

(CNN)Palmyra: a 2,000-year old city that's remarkably preserved in the middle of the Syrian desert. And now, it's in the hands of ISIS.

The agony of Syria's three-year war just got worse. Activists say ISIS captured the modern city of Palmyra -- also known as Tadmur -- on Thursday.
    Many of its residents will likely flee in terror to escape the public executions and torture that the group directs against its opponents.
    ISIS controls ancient city of Palmyra
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    In addition to the incalculable human cost of this conflict, there are now fears that ISIS may unleash its wrath on the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra.
    I was fortunate to visit Palmyra in 2007, as a tourist on a bus.
    It was an astounding sight: a cultural and historical oasis of ancient Greco-Roman columns, arches, temples, and an amphitheater. My friends and I clambered up the theater's stone steps and imagined the spectacles our ancestors once witnessed there.
    This was once a wealthy caravan town that served as an important stop on trade routes linking Rome to east Asia.
    Seeing it left me humbled. It was a reminder that we are but small chapters in a much larger, longer human story.
    And now this treasure stands at the mercy of an army of marauding nihilists.
    ISIS reveled in the destruction of Sumerian statues in the Mosul Museum in Iraq. It made propaganda videos of the bulldozing and dynamiting of a 9th century BC Assyrian Palace in Nimrud.
    Of course, ISIS is not the only group to have committed sins against world heritage in the Middle East.
    In its long battle for power, rebels and regime forces damaged the ancient bazaar in Aleppo, and scarred the imposing crusader castle called Crac de Chevaliers.
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    From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. The fabled desert oasis saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the Syrian uprising began. It is feared that the ancient city is now under threat from the ISIS militant group.

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    Both rebels and mafia gangs have taken advantage of the collapse of rule of law to loot and sell off other ancient treasures.
    But ISIS takes destruction of our common heritage to an entirely new level.
    I cringe at the thought of new photographs and videos that may emerge from Palmyra in the days ahead.
    It has not been enough to kill and maim hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, to drive millions of refugees from their homes. This war stands on the verge of destroying yet another piece of our collective history, another piece of memory may be irrevocably lost.