By now we all know the story. Last week, Khalid al-Assad, the 83-year-old director of the antiquities at Palmyra, was brutally butchered by ISIS. He had been held for about a month before he was beheaded, but steadfastly refused to divulge the location of ancient city’s finest treasures. It was a murder “aimed at killing civilization, modernity, and all of humanity,” according to Syrian philosopher and thinker Ahmed Barqawi.
Khalil al-Hariri, a relative of Asaad’s, said that the scholar’s deep connections with “every artifact and every stone” in Palmyra meant he would not abandon his home. “Asaad refused to leave the city, although he was aware of the danger he was facing,” Hariri said. “They brought him to the square in a black van, then used loudspeakers to call for people to come and watch the execution,” Palmyra resident Abu Mohammed al-Tadmuri said after news of Asaad’s killing broke.
And naturally ISIS showed the pictures. From the same Atlantic article (here):
A graphic photo shared by ISIS accounts on social media purported to show Asaad’s bloodied and headless body hung by an orange rope on what looks like a traffic light. The elderly man’s head, its spectacles still intact, had been placed on the ground between his feet. A handwritten placard tied to the body identified the victim as “the apostate Khalid Muhammad al-Asaad” and accused him of being loyal to the “Nusayri regime,” a derogatory term for the Alawite government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He died in vain … from one angle, anyway. Palmyra was destroyed, and ISIS today released the photos of the destruction of the city, which was a caravan stop four millennia ago. It was part of the Seleucid Empire and, after the first century, part of the Roman Empire. Now it is rubble. I will not link to the photos, which are everywhere online, because the week belongs instead to Khalid al-Assad. He was Palmyra’s flowering achievement, rather than the other way around: He was a civilized man. I haven’t read much about this latest atrocity. There have been so many (and I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, among other places), but far and away the best thing I’ve read so far is by Henry Gould over at his blog, HG Poetics. In fact, it’s the reason for this post:
Asaad’s devoted life & iconic death reminded me of some remarks by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, about how a person’s death somehow sums up and defines their life. This was certainly true in his own case : Mandelstam died a victim of a personal vendetta by another Osip (his evil twin), Joseph Stalin – after Mandelstam had written a brief satirical poem featuring Stalin as its target. Not a prudent thing to do in 1930’s Russia (nor in today’s Russia either, as a matter of fact). Yet Mandelstam had a commitment to something beyond his personal survival. As did Khalid al-Asaad. This is perhaps the “true” form of martyrdom, which, unlike the standard model popular today, does not require the mass murder of innocent bystanders in order to achieve its glorified apotheosis in Paradise. No, you only have to give up your own life. …
I would rather stand with Khalid al-Asaad, devoted as he was to some local piles of classical statues & pillars & broken ancient ruins. His devotion & his death reminded me of some lines of another fanatic old codger, Ezra Pound (from Canto LXXXI) :