BEIRUT – A look at Palmyra, the Syrian archaeological gem captured by Islamic State fighters.
A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital Damascus with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. Home to 65,000 people before the latest fighting, the town is located 155 miles (215 kilometers) east of Damascus.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Palymra boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades, temples and priceless artifacts that have earned it the affectionate name among Syrians of the "Bride of the Desert."
They are the remnants of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia, with Palmyra as its capital. Before the war, it was Syria's top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC, according to UNICEF's website. The town was the hub of a network of caravan trails that carried silks and spices from eastern Asia across the Roman province of Arabia to the Mediterranean.
Palmyra became a prosperous region during the Hellenistic period. It later became part of the Roman Empire.
But its rebellious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome's authority. The city was plundered in 272 A.D. after she was captured during a long siege.
Following Palmyra's capture by Islamic State militants, many fear the extremists will destroy the archaeological site as they did other ancient ruins in neighboring Iraq.
In March, IS members razed the ancient cities of Nimrod and Hatra in Iraq — both UNESCO world heritage sites. The move was described by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon as a "war crime."
The militants have released videos in recent months showing fighters proudly destroying artifacts with hammers and drills in a museum in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and using explosives to wreck other sites.
The Sunni extremists, who have imposed a violent interpretation of Shariah law in the territories they control in Syria and Iraq, believe ancient relics promote idolatry.
Since capturing Palmyra and its archaeological treasures, IS has not said what it plans to do with them.