The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group has blown up a 2,000-year-old temple in the Syrian city of Palmyra, activists said Sunday, realizing the worst fears archaeologists had for the Roman-era city after the armed group seized it.
Palmyra, one of the Middle East's most spectacular archaeological sites and a UNESCO World Heritage site, sits near the modern Syrian city of the same name. Activists said the militants used explosives to blow up the Baalshamin Temple on its grounds, the blast so powerful it also damaged some of the Roman columns around it.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday night that the temple was blown up a month ago. Turkey-based activist Osama al-Khatib, who is originally from Palmyra, said the temple was blown up Sunday. Both said the extremists used a large amount of explosives to destroy it.
Both activists relied on information for those still in Palmyra and the discrepancy in their accounts could not be immediately reconciled, though such contradictory information is common in Syria's long civil war.
The fate of the nearby Temple of Bel, dedicated to the Semitic god Bel, was not immediately known. ISIL supporters on social media also did not immediately mention the temple's destruction.
ISIL members have also looted and vandalized a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul and have massively damaged the ancient cities of Hatra and Ninevah, both UNESCO world heritage sites.
ISIL claims claim ancient relics promote idolatry and say they are destroying them as part of their purge of paganism. However, they are also believed to sell off looted antiquities, bringing in significant sums of cash.
Palmyra's name first appeared on a tablet in the 19th century B.C. as a stopping point for caravans travelling on the Silk Road and between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.
The temple is one of the most important sites in Palmyra, a previously well-preserved archaeological oasis northeast of Damascus.
Al-Khatib said the Baalshamin Temple is about 550 yards from the Palmyra's famous amphitheater where the group killed more than 20 Syrian soldiers after they captured the historic town in May.
The temple was built in 17 AD and is dedicated to the Phoenician god of storms and fertilizing rains. It was expanded under the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian in 130 AD.
The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said Friday that ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq are engaged in the "most brutal, systematic" destruction of ancient sites since World War II — a stark warning that came hours after militants demolished the St. Elian Monastery, which housed a fifth-century tomb and served as a major pilgrimage site. The monastery was in the town of Qaryatain in central Syria.
In May, Bokova called on Syrian troops and ISIL to spare Palmyra, saying it "represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and the world."
In June, ISIL destroyed the grave of Mohammad Bin Ali, a descendant of Imam Ali, cousin of Islam's Prophet Muhammad and a deeply revered Shia imam and and was the final resting place of a Sufi scholar, Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine. Both sites were in the Palmyra area.
News of the destruction of the temple comes after relatives and witnesses said Wednesday that Khaled Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who devoted his life to understanding Palmyra, was beheaded by Islamic State militants, his bloodied body hung on a pole. He even had named his daughter after Zenobia, the queen that ruled from the city 1,700 years ago.
Al Jazeera and wire services