Doctors swear an oath for their patients. Archaeologists don't, but they effectively work to protect the sites and objects that they set about excavating and recovering, documenting and sharing their research with the public, which helps us understand our shared past on our journey into the future.
There are certain prominent public figures in Archaeological circles. When I was at university, the flashy, antiquities professionals were often taken with a grain of salt. Zahi Hawaas, the boss man of Egypt antiquities is one of the kind of people who attract a raised eyebrow and a begrudging acknowledgement in academic circles. I remember one of my old lectures referring to him as being something of a circus ringleader who didn't do anything off camera.
Khaled Al Asaad wasn't as well known, but the 82 year old spent his life documenting and enriching our understanding of Palmyra, one of the world's most significant and picturesque archaeological sites. But he spent the last month of his life in IS captivity. Reports indicate that he endured interrogations from IS militants, who tried to force him to reveal the location of Palmyrian treasures and artifacts, and who summarily executed him when he refused to do so.
Reports indicate that Al Asaad was killed in a town square nearby Palmyra, his body then taken to the famous, picturesque antique site that Al Asaad had been in charge of until his retirement in 2002. His body was left to hang, his head tossed below it.
IS has been looting and selling antiquities on the black market while publicly denouncing any pre-Islamic evidence of civilisation in the Levant and beyond, conveniently referring to anybody who admires and respects these unshakeable testimonies to our collected pasts as being idolators. Khaled al Asaad, they said, in a sign which accompanied his brutalised corpse, was an apostate who they claimed was in regular contact with the Syrian regime and other infidels and idolators.
This is a disturbing and heartbreaking tragedy on a human level: not just for Khaled Al Asaad and his family, but for us as a global community. An instance in which the sword seems mightier than the pen, but we know that Al Asaad's lifelong commitment and unspoken oath to Palmyra will live on much longer than the scourge of the IS movement, which for all its showy moves and bleak violence, will never earn the respect that a life dedicated to learning, protecting and enriching will.
May Al Asaad rest in peace, and may we ever remember him and those others who have fallen before him, doing something just even in the face of grave danger.