PALMYRA, Syria, Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Islamic State militants attempted to destroy the ancient temple of Bel in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, but failed, government officials said Monday.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums, confirmed that though there was a large explosion near the 2,000-year-old site, the temple is still intact. The extent of the damage caused by the explosion is unknown because witnesses cannot get close to the temple, but initial reports had said the site was partially destroyed.
The explosion was the latest example of the terror group attempting to destroy artifacts and historic structures in what UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has called a "cultural cleansing." IS -- also identified as Daesh and by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL -- succeeded in destroying the smaller Baal Shamin temple located nearby. Abdulkarim said the amount of explosives used in that case was much greater.
Following the destruction of the Baal Shamin temple, IS published its own pictures of militants destroying the site.
Palmyra, which features world-famous Greco-Roman temples, has been under control by IS since May. The Temple of Bel is considered one of the best preserved parts of the city, which was dedicated to the Palmyrene gods.
Palmyra itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was once one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Greco-Roman techniques were fused with Persian influences to produce thousands columns and a necropolis with more than 500 tombs. Prior to the conflict in Syria, 150,000 tourists would visit the city each year.
IS has previously targeted such sites in Syria and Iraq, claiming they are heretical. It also recently executed Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old man who had spent his life preserving the antiquities in Palmyra. He was killed by militants after refusing to reveal the hiding place of various relics.