F. Bandarin/© UNESCO

Islamic State militants have seized control of the ancient Syrian ruins of Palmyra, causing alarm for cultural historians and preservationists.

Local activists told the Associated Press that Syrian government forces collapsed and fled in the wake of the IS takeover, which began in the Syrian town and then spread to the historical sites on Thursday.

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"This is one of the most famous and beautiful world heritage sites and it's so big, very well known, any damage would be absolutely terrible," said Einar Bjorgo, manager of UNOSAT, the United Nations satellite imagery and analysis program.

Bel Temple in Palmyra, Syria.
G. Degeorges/© UNESCO.

The most recent satellite imagery, which was collected in Dec. 2014, found that Palmyra has suffered moderate to severe damage, but nothing had been destroyed.

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In the wake of the IS takeover, UNOSAT has ordered new satellite images, which they expect to be obtained in the next few days.

Palmyra, Syria.
Winne Denker/© UNESCO.

Palmyra is one of Syria's six designated UNESCO World Heritage Cultural sites, all of which are listed as endangered by the organization. Palmyra, which sits northeast of Damascus, is home to monumental ruins of one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world, according to UNESCO. The ancient city was once along an important trade route that linked Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire.

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"Any loss to Palmyra is not just a war crime, it will mean an enormous loss to humanity," said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, during an interview.

Bokova called on the international community to protect the civilian population and safeguard the "unique cultural heritage" of Palmyra.

Monuments at Palmyre, temples.
Winnie Denker/© UNESCO.

"It sits astride a really important military and mercantile route and while it ceases to be such an important trading place, you can see why it still has that military value," said Julian Raby, director of Smithsonian's museums of Asian art.

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Raby, who has visited the ancient site various times since the 1970s, said that Palmyra is so well-preserved that you can actually get a sense of what it was like to walk through the streets during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

"Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, they're full of amazing sites, but this is one of the great ones," he said.

Triumphal arch, Palmyra.
G. Degeorges/© UNESCO.

IS fighters have a record of deliberately destroying cultural artifacts and historical sites, including the bulldozing of of Iraq's ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, taking sledgehammers to stone sculptures in the Mosul Museum, and the apparent destruction of Jonah's tomb, according to CNN reports.

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Raby said he's concerned that there is a deliberate campaign to destroy artifacts and eradicate history. He also worried that the more the west complains about the destruction by IS, the more they will destroy.

"There's an adrenaline in nihilism and a testosterone of destruction," he said.

A limestone funerary relief bust of Haliphat, a fashionable bejeweled woman of Palmyra's prosperous merchant class who died in 231 CE., which is a part of the Smithsonian collection.
Smithsonian

The Smithsonian takes part in cultural preservation initiatives around the world, which currently include Nepal and the Kurdish region of Iraq. However, he pointed out that sending personnel into Syria is untenable, given the current conflict.

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The best way to combat the loss of cultural heritage lost to war, is to help preserve it elsewhere, using technology and record keeping, according to the Smithsonian. Raby said he hopes these preservation efforts can help "offset the destruction of collective memory."

"If you save lives, but at the same time leave people feeling completely rootless, then you're saving the body, but perhaps you're depriving the spirit," he said.

Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.