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Archaeologist Works To Track The Islamic State's War On Culture


ISIS has been targeting the ancient heritage and culture of Syria. Archaeologists and historians have been especially concerned about the group's seizure of the ancient city of Palmyra. It's home to an ancient site filled with Greco-Roman temples that was once one of the Middle East's most visited tourist destinations. Michael Danti is an archaeologist who's been working with the American Schools of Oriental Research and the State Department to track ISIS and its war on culture, and he joins us now from Boston. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL DANTI: Thank you - good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, what's the significance of Palmyra?

DANTI: Palmyra is essentially the jewel in the crown of Syrian heritage in many people's assessments. It's an incredibly well-preserved Greco-Roman site. It brought in tens of thousands of tourists every year. And for me, it was probably my favorite archaeological site, having worked in Syria for 25 years.

SIEGEL: And this weekend, there have been reports that ISIS has detonated explosives at the Temple of Bel. It's not clear. We don't have a very firm picture of what exactly has happened. But that, I gather, would be the most important temple at the site.

DANTI: It's certainly the largest temple, and it's where most people visited when they went to the site. The site is huge, but the Temple of Bel, essentially, was the center point of it. And we had been waiting for ISIL to detonate these IEDs for some time. Shortly after ISIL took the archeological site of Palmyra, we received reports that they had set up IEDs in most of the major structures at the site and had begun looting the - what was left inside the museum and some other cultural repositories in the area.

SIEGEL: How do you and your colleagues in the American Schools of Oriental Research project, here - how do they handle the reaction of some that no matter how beautiful or interesting an archaeological site, its destruction doesn't compare with murder or with making refugees out of millions of people?

DANTI: Right. On a daily basis, we're immersed in that humanitarian situation. Our colleagues and friends are being arrested, are suffering great injuries. They're homeless, or some of them have recently been killed. And so we really don't separate out from the larger humanitarian effort. We see our work as supporting local stakeholders on the ground who are trying to preserve their communities. And as long as I think our Iraq and Syrian colleagues are willing to risk their lives and work on a daily basis under grueling conditions to try to preserve their future - their cultural identity and their future, we're going to be there to help them.

But on a daily basis, it is extremely depressing, and it's extremely difficult to work on these topics because, again, it is part of this larger humanitarian situation. And it's essentially atrocities every day.

SIEGEL: Is there a site in Palmyra that you know well from your visits there that's especially meaningful and that may not be there anymore?

DANTI: When I was a professor of archaeology, I would regularly lead tours at Palmyra. It was essentially the end of our touring in Syria. We always saved Palmyra for last. And my favorite temple at the site was the tiny Baal Shamin temple, which was an interesting example of the Palmyran style of mixing that fusion, mixing Iran and Syria with the Greco-Roman world. It was a spectacular temple - special structure, very well preserved. And just last week, I believe it was, ISIL blew it to pieces. So that was probably my favorite monument at the site. But it's hard to pick. Palmyra has so many well-preserved remains.

SIEGEL: That moment last week must have been more than just an academic or scholarly loss to you.

DANTI: Yeah. It's very personal, I think. And you know, at the same time, we lost some Syrian colleagues and cultural heritage as well in some really, really terrible attacks. So it's the entire humanitarian picture. ISIL is waging cultural cleansing. They're destroying cultural infrastructure. They're wiping out Syria's future.

SIEGEL: Archaeologist Michael Danti joining us from Boston, thanks for talking with us.

DANTI: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.