Earlier this week, Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist, was beheaded by the Islamic State. His body was hanged from a column in the main square of Palmyra. For more than 50 years Asaad worked at Palmyra, the site of Roman-era ruins and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for 40 of those years he was in charge of archaeological work there. According to news reports, Islamic State militants had been searching for historical valuables evacuated from Palmyra earlier this year. For a month they held Asaad, interrogating him — ultimately unsuccessfully.
The Islamic State’s march across the Middle East has made many martyrs; one thinks, particularly, of the Christians who have refused to apostatize before the sword. I’ve no idea Mr. Asaad’s religious inclinations, but he, too, ought to be added to the ranks of the martyrs — a martyr, a witness, to the importance of historical memory. The Islamic State has declared its antagonism to the independence of memory, as all totalitarians must do. Territory is never enough; the enemy is time. Everything that has gone before must be brought under the tyrant’s control, so that everything that comes after might, too. Mr. Asaad resisted such efforts, and his death was of a piece with his life: a selfless effort to preserve a people’s history, to preserve the symbols that animate and ground them, that remind them of the seamless garment of existence of which they are a part.