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Khaled al-As'ad

1934 – 18 August 2015

Appreciation by
Andreas Schmidt-Colinet

Khaled al-As'ad

'Everything was possible with him, nothing was possible without him.'

Khaled al-As'ad was brutally killed by members of Islamic State (Daesh) in Palmyra on 18 August 2015. The world was shocked and horrified by this news, which was documented internationally in all kinds of media. Khaled al-As'ad left behind his wife and 11 children.

Khaled al-As'ad—Abu Waleed as his friends called him—was born in 1934 as member of a noble Palmyrene family. During his study of history at Damascus University, he participated in the great excavation project of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in the very centre of ancient Palmyra; it was directed by the two doyens of Palmyrene archaeology: Adnan Bounni and Nassib Saliby. In 1963, al-As'ad was appointed Director of the antiquities and museum of Palmyra, a position he held until 2003, when his son Waleed took over his official role.

During these 40 years, al-As'ad organised, managed and directed all of the excavation, restoration and research work in and around Palmyra. As a young man in 1969, he orchestrated a guided visit to Palmyra for the participants of the International Congress of Classical Archaeology, which was held in Damascus at that time. Later, one of the most important points of his career was when Palmyra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980. Then, in 1992, he organised the International Colloquium on 'Palmyra and the Silk Route' in Palmyra itself on behalf of UNESCO and the DGAM. Business as usual for al-As'ad was to act as guide to high-ranking political and cultural officials and delegations from all over the world. I remember the visits of the French President, Giscard Destain, and the American Foreign Minister, Henry Kissinger.

In addition to his knowledge and research on ancient Palmyra, one of al-As'ad's favourite interests was the family relationships of the Bedouin tribes around Palmyra, and their far-reaching connections, even down into Saudi Arabia. Consequently, he cared very much for other ancient sites in the Palmyrene region, such as Khan al-Halabat and especially Qasr al-Kher al Sharqi. With all this research, he obtained the highest international recognition, which was also supported by his publication activities. His considerable international reputation is documented by his long-term membership of ICOM (International Council of Museums), and by the conferral on him of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (Order Zaslugi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) in 1998.

Apart from his academic activities, it was his unflagging and selfless engagement in helping others and organising research possibilities for colleagues and missions from all over the world (Poland, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, UK, USA) that was so highly appreciated.

In addition to the aforementioned scientific, cultural and political achievements of al-As'ad, I offer here some personal impressions of him. I had the great fortune to work with Abu Waleed in Palmyra for 30 years from 1980, for about two months every year. In 1981 we commenced excavations and research in the Valley of the Tombs; then it was textiles, later the quarries from Palmyra and finally we started research in the area of pre-Roman Hellenistic Palmyra, south of the wadi. This fieldwork and research relied on the help of many colleagues and students from Syria and abroad. And it was Abu Waleed who placed at our disposal all of the technical and human infrastructure for the work. It was he who organised the 80 (or more) workers who attended the dig at dawn. The selection of these workers was a difficult undertaking as all the families of Palmyra had to be taken into account; the workers had to obey a foreman, the famous Hadji Saleh Taha, or just 'The Hadji', who had previously worked with Robert Amy in the twentieth century on the restoration of the temple of Bel, and for whom everybody had the highest respect and admiration. Further, it was Abu Waleed who ensured that everyone on site had enough water throughout the whole day, as the temperature was 45? or more in the shade alone; he too provided tents so that everyone could sit out of the sun during the tea break. It was Abu Waleed who found a trustworthy day-and-night excavation guard, who permitted the use of a crane on the excavation whenever necessary, and a bulldozer, and who arranged for the use of the hydraulic lift belonging to the 'belediye' (city hall) so as to take area photographs with special lighting at certain times of the day. Indeed, it was Abu Waleed who cared for everything in the old guest house in the sanctuary of Bel, including the famous house guardian and cook, Hadji Abu l'Ashair, who had also previously worked as a kitchen boy with Amy and was thus able to prepare meals à la cuisine française!

All of these factors were directed and organised by Khaled al-As'ad, and always in a friendly but firm tone. His knowledge of, and his good relations with, everybody in Palmyra and the surrounding area made him the most important and influential figure there. One cannot forget his hospitality either, for there was always a great feast in the old guest house, or when he invited the whole mission to his house, sitting together and having the delicious mansaf (a traditional Jordanian dish made of lamb) offered by the 'grandseigneur' Abu Waleed.

All of our work and research, and all of our life in Palmyra, would have been impossible without him. During these years, we shared our research interests as well as our private lives, and thus became esteemed colleagues and friends.

In the end, Abu Waleed decided not to leave 'his' ruins alone: he could not hand in 'his' antiquities to the philistines of Islamic State. As with the captain who stays on the bridge until the ship goes down, he said, "Before I leave Palmyra, you will have to kill me". And so he defended the ruins, aware that they were part of his and our cultural memory. Ultimately, he paid with his life for his knowledge of, and his deepest love for, the ruins and the history of Palmyra, and for his openness towards anyone who tried to increase the knowledge of this history. We will all remember him and keep him in our grateful hearts.