Posted on 08/25/2015 | About Tadmur, Syria

An ancient temple in the Syrian town of Palmyra was reduced to rubble by Islamic State militants, a witness said Monday, confirming the complete destruction of the ancient monument in what UNESCO said was a “war crime.”
The UN cultural agency called the destruction of the temple, part of a sprawling Roman-era complex that was once among the most popular tourist sites in the Middle East, an “immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”

Kishore Rao, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, said the ancient oasis city of Palmyra sat at a crossroads between the Roman empire, Persia, China and India, and that its soaring architecture was a “masterpiece of human creative genius.”

“The destruction of any part of it is equally deplorable,” Rao told The Associated Press.

The desecrated Assyrian monastery took its name from Saint Elian, who was martyred after refusing to denounce his Christianity at the hands of his father, a Roman officer.   The church was built on the spot where he died and his remains still rest in a small sarcophagus in a small chapel near its main crypt.

When Mar Elian was renovated in 1969, the plaster which lined the walls was removed to reveal stunning murals dating back to the 6th Century.

An Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, began work to renovate the church one more time around ten years ago. He was kidnapped by ISIS In July 2013 and although his fate is unknown, sources of the Assyrian International News Agency say he was killed by a Saudi-national upon capture.

Activists from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the temple of Baalshamin had been destroyed, suggesting it may have been dynamited one month ago.

The news comes after ISIS used a bulldozer to demolish the 1,500-year-old Mar Elian Monastery, a national Syrian treasure, which has stood in Al-Qaryatayn since 432 AD.

ISIS supporters shared the pictures online and praised them for destroying the building because God 'was not worshipped there'. The extremists also captured more than 200 people when it seized Al-Qaryatayn on August 6 and took 100 of them to the group's de-facto capital of Raqqa.

Of the 230 people who were kidnapped by ISIS in Al-Qaryatayn a few weeks ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims some were taken from a church.

Activists outside Palmyra reported the demolition of the Temple of Baalshamin late Sunday, but there were conflicting accounts of the timing and the extent of the destruction.

The witness, who goes by the name Nasser al-Thaer, said the bombing took place Sunday shortly after 4pm. The militants had lined the inner and outer walls of the temple with small bottles of explosives more than a month ago, he said.

“I went to see it, not from very close because IS (militants) were there and because I was worried for myself and afraid they will ask me what are you doing here. So I saw it from a distance,” al-Thaer told the AP.

“It is rocks on the ground. Nothing more,” he said.

He said he feared other ancient sites in Palmyra might be next, but that no explosives have been placed around them.

An IS operative confirmed the temple was destroyed and said a statement would be issued soon. He spoke to the AP over Skype on condition of anonymity because members of the group are not allowed to speak to media.

The extremist group, which has imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across its self-declared caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq, claims ancient relics promote idolatry. But the IS group is also believed to sell looted antiquities.

The foundation of the Temple of Baalshamin dates back to A.D. 23, which makes it roughly contemporary with the main sanctuary of the city, the Temple of Bel, said Martin Makinson, an archaeologist who lived and worked in Syria until 2011. He is currently a member of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which documents the looting and destruction of historic sites.

The temple was extensively refurbished by a wealthy resident of the city, and most of the structure destroyed on Sunday dated back to A.D. 130, he said in an interview from Paris.