STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The self-proclaimed Islamic State has destroyed an ancient temple. It's at Palmyra in Syria. That city is home to some of the best preserved buildings from the days of ancient Rome. And in the view of the Islamic State, an ancient temple is an affront to Islam. Liz Sly is covering this story. She, as the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post, has long experience throughout that region. Welcome to the program.
LIZ SLY: Hello.
INSKEEP: What was this temple?
SLY: This was the temple of Baalshamin. It's one of the better preserved temples at the Palmyra site. We're told it dated to the year 17 A.D. It had been well-preserved because it's actually been converted to a Christian church in the very earlier stages of Christianity. So it has actually had a structure built around it that post-dated the Roman era. And it was blown up yesterday, we understand, from activists in the area.
INSKEEP: Now this is interesting. I can see why the Islamic State fighters would want to destroy a so-called pagan temple, but you're saying it had become a Christian church. And Islam is supposed to have some kind of respect for Christianity. What happened there?
SLY: Well, they have also been blowing up Christian sites around the Middle East. They blew up an ancient monastery in northern Syria, the weekend. They attacked and defaced churches in many of the places that they've been to. One of the troubling things about this - or disappointing things I would say - is that there had been some hope that these ruins would not be destroyed because a few months ago, shortly after they took the city, they did issue an audio recording in which they said they did not intend to destroy these ruins because they are just buildings. A lot of what they've destroyed has been, like, statues and frescoes and things that depict living beings which are against Islam. But they had specifically said they would not target just these ruins, which is basically, there are a lot of columns, there are a lot of structures, but, you know, not statues and things like that. And so they've actually gone, even, against what they said they'd do themselves with regards to blowing up this temple today.
INSKEEP: This makes me wonder if they're doing this for propaganda value.
SLY: Well, yes, I think it's very clear that they gain masses of propaganda, masses of publicity every time they blow up or destroy something that is valued by the world. And they seem to take great delight in the attention that they get from doing these things.
INSKEEP: Now how is this connected, if at all, with the beheading of a Palmyra scholar, an 81-year-old scholar, some days ago?
SLY: Well, yes, this is another interesting question, and again, we can only speculate here. We know so little about what's going on. But reports from activists in Palmyra and from his family say that he had been tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures, buried treasures, buried remains, whichever it may be, that may still be at the site and that he was beheaded after he refused to divulge, under torture, these locations. So it could be that one reason they had not blown them up until now is simply that they were hoping to find other valuable things there and they failed to do so because this guy refused to talk under torture. But again, we can only speculate about that.
INSKEEP: Valuable things, meaning they're destroying what they destroy but also selling what they can sell.
SLY: Well, yes, exactly. We also know that they don't blow these places up until they've stripped them clean of items that can be sold, that can be shipped out of the country, smuggled out of the country and sold to buyers. So another reason it's taken them a couple of months to blow up these ruins is probably because they've been stripping them of what they can sell.
INSKEEP: OK, Liz Sly of The Washington Post, thanks very much.
SLY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: She's reporting on the destruction of a temple in Palmyra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.