BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants in Syria committed an "intolerable crime against civilization" by destroying the Temple of Bel, one of the ancient world's most iconic monuments, the head of the U.N. cultural agency said Tuesday.
The militants used explosives to destroy the two-millennia-old temple in the ancient city of Palmyra on Sunday. Witnesses described a huge blast and the destruction was later confirmed by U.N. satellite images.
Over the past year, IS has seized one-third of Iraq and Syria and imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law in a self-declared "caliphate" straddling the two countries. The group captured the ruins of Palmyra and an adjacent modern town of the same name in May.
The militants claim ancient relics and sites of worship promote idolatry. They have blown up several ancient treasures in Iraq and destroyed a smaller Palmyra temple, Baalshamin, in late August.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said Tuesday that "the destruction of Palmyra constitutes an intolerable crime against civilization, but 4,500 years of history will never be erased."
"The power of culture is greater than that of all forms of extremism and nothing can stop it," she added.
She said her agency will try to protect "all that can be saved" from destruction by IS.
UNESCO "will pursue its unrelenting fight against illicit trafficking in cultural objects, the documentation of sites, and the setting up of networks that link thousands of experts in Syria and all over the world, to transmit this heritage to future generations, notably with the help of modern technology," Bokova said in a statement.
Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said that "We have lost the most beautiful temple in Syria."
"We lost a Syrian icon," he said.
The Temple of Bel, dating back to 32 AD, shows a unique merging of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture. It is dedicated to the Semitic god Bel and is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the first century. The temple consisted of a central shrine inside a colonnaded courtyard, with a large gateway within a complex that has other ruins, including an amphitheater and some tombs.
It stood out among the ruins not far from the colonnades of Palmyra, which is affectionately known by Syrians as the "Bride of the Desert."
Palmyra was an important caravan city of the Roman Empire, linking it to India, China, and Persia. Before the outbreak of Syria's conflict in March 2011, the UNESCO site was one of the top tourist attractions in the Middle East.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.