The ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert northeast of Damascus, is on the brink of destruction, having just fallen under the control of ISIS.
The seizure of the 2,000-year-old city at the end of a week-long siege that led to the collapse of Syrian pro-government forces means Isis now controls 50 percent of the country.
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"There are no forces to stop them entering the ruins," Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
Known as the "Venice of the Sands," Palmyra was once Syria's star attraction for its towering Roman colonnades and temple remains spectacularly rising from a palm-fringed oasis.
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The city's unique collection of monuments blending Greek, Roman and Persian influences might be bulldozed at anytime, following the fate of major archaeological sites in Iraq that that pre-date Islam.
Nothing remains of the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, not to mention statues and artifacts at the Mosul Museum.
"Hundreds and hundreds of statues we were worried would be smashed and sold are all now in safe places," Syria antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told reporters.
"The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world's battle," he said.
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Palmyra has already suffered four years of conflict, going through looting and damage.
A wealthy caravan center that stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, the city has been at the center of struggles throughout much of its history.
In 41 B.C., Mark Anthony attempted to lay hands on its riches, but had to give up on any booty as he found the city deserted by its inhabitants.
Palmyra, also known as Tadmur in Arabic, was made part of the Roman province of Syria during the reign of Tiberius (14–37) and grew to become the wealthiest center in the eastern empire during its golden age in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Romans gave the Palmyrenes considerable freedom, allowing them to elect their own senators and govern the city under the Roman banner.
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Standing across stone-paved streets, the city's columns and archways represent both the power of the Roman empire and the fight against it.
Indeed, in the 3rd century, queen Zenobia, the widow of the local ruler Odenathus, declared her independence from the Romans. She resisted sporadic attacks by the Roman legions and created an empire that stretched from Turkey to Egypt. Eventually she was defeated by the emperor Aurelian in 271 A.D. Sent to Rome, Zenobia was reputedly paraded as a trophy in the streets, bound in gold chains.
A further rebellion in 273 saw the Palmyrenes massacring the Roman garrison. This led to a mass slaugthering; the city was torched and never really recovered from the blow.
Reduced to a small frontier city, Palmyra was conquered in 634 by Khālid ibn al-Walīd and assimilated into the Muslim caliphate.
It was devastated by earthquakes in 1068 and 1089 and fell into ruin after the Turko-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane sacked it at the end of the 14th century.
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But the city has never entirely succumbed to its turbulent history. With its warm colored, intricately carved stoneworks, Palmyra boasts some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity.
A grand colonnaded street stretching some 3,600 feet still stands as testament to the city's imposing and wealthy past.
Major monuments include the Temple of Ba'al, the Agora, the Theatre, and other temples and urban quarters.
"Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-Roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city's walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises," the UNESCO wrote about the city.
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Only small parts of the site have been excavated, and more priceless ruins are believed to be buried in the desert sand.
In a last, desperate and likely vain attempt to save Syria's jewel, the antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim called on the U.S.-led military coalition to prevent ISIS turning the ancient site into dust.
"We are trapped in a sickening paradox where to save the world heritage site of Palmyra we are forced to call on the international community and the coalition to attack ISIS forces in support of the Syrian regime," Syrian antiquities expert Amr Al-Azm wrote on Facebook.
Image: Palmyra's priceless ruins. Credit: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.