The Ancient Wonders Of Palmyra Are At Risk Of Destruction By ISIS

05/15/2015 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2015

Islamic State fighters on Thursday reached the outskirts of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, one of the most important cultural heritage sites in the Middle East.

"If I.S. enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction," Syria's director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told Agence France-Presse. "If the ancient city falls, it will be an international catastrophe."

Palmyra lies at the crossroads of several ancient empires, and is packed with the ruins of 1st and 2nd century temples and monuments that reflect Islamic, Greco-Roman and Persian history. UNESCO says the World Heritage site is "one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world."

Fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, are battling government forces for control of the city as they advance west in Syria, amid a parallel offensive in Iraq.

Palmyra's antiquities have already been damaged by fighters on all sides of Syria's four-year civil war, an anti-government activist told The New York Times. Residents now fear the extremists will raze the ancient city if they manage to capture the site.

The militant group has already destroyed a string of cultural heritage sites in Iraq that fell under its control, including Hatra, Nimrud and several ancient sites in Mosul.

The extremists have released videos of fighters smashing, shooting and bombing precious monuments in Iraq, claiming to destroy idolatrous figures in the name of religion. However, Iraqi officials say that behind the propaganda, the group is also selling off artifacts to fund its wars in Iraq and Syria.

palmyra syria

A view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

Syrians walk in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

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The ancient oasis city of Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

A view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

Sculpture depicting a princess from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra at the city's museum, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

The Tetrapylon (Monumental Entrance) in Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

The ancient theater in Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

palmyra syria

The sanctuary of Baal in Palmyra, March 14, 2014.

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