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Duke Biblical Scholars Warn of ISIS Control of Palmyra

Baal temple, Palmyra

A 2014 photo shows the external courtyard of the sanctuary of Baal in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra. Photo by Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

ISIS' threat to the ancient desert city of Palmyra has sent "shockwaves through the archaeological community," says a Duke scholar who specializes in biblical studies and archaeology.

The militant group reportedly defeated Syrian government forces to take control of the city, whose ancient ruins date to the days of King Solomon.

"The archaeological community fears for the fate of the remarkable antiquities of the site," says Carol Meyers, professor emeritus of religion at Duke. "At risk are the magnificent structures visible above ground and also the untold numbers of invaluable artifacts that lie unexcavated beneath the surface, ripe for plucking by plunderers who would sell them to fund ISIS operations."

Meyers says the city is prominently mentioned in the Bible. Its prominence as a desert oasis meant that by Greco-Roman times, it became in important part of the east-west trade route of the ancient world, Meyers says.

"Its interaction with the major powers of that time are evident in its material remains, which show a successful blending of Semitic, Roman and Persian cultures," according to Meyers. Fellow biblical scholar Eric Meyers, husband of Carol Meyers and also a professor emeritus of religion at Duke, calls Palmyra "one of the best preserved sites of classical antiquity in the entire world."

The city, located about 130 miles northeast of the capital of Damascus, is recognized as one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage sites, he says. His research has included a focus on the social setting of late biblical prophecy in the Persian period.

"Its importance derives not only from the beauty and majesty of its ruins, but from its incredible literary pedigree," Eric Meyers says. "That pedigree included its Semitic name, which is mentioned in the Bible as 'Tadmor' (2 Chronicles 8:4), where it is known as a city built or fortified by King Solomon. While that is probably a misidentification, it is later known as Palmyra in the classical periods."

Keith Lawrence, Alison Jones and Steve Hartsoe assisted with this story.