I couldn’t stop thinking about Khalid al-Assad, even before I knew his name. The BBC was reporting that archaeologists had replicated some ancient statues destroyed by ISIS. In passing, the reporter mentioned that a museum curator had been beheaded by ISIS when he refused to reveal the locations of artifacts he had hidden from the terrorists.
That man’s name was Khalid al-Assad, he was 83 years old and he lived his whole life in Palmyra, Syria. Palmyra is a world-heritage site and contains the ruins of an ancient oasis city. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of homes, temples, cemeteries and even a theatre. But nobody discovered anything without the help of al-Assad, who was known as ‘Mr. Palmyra.’ His scholarship was fueled by his love for his city. He taught himself to read the ancient inscriptions and often lectured in English at international academic conventions. He was the city’s director of antiquities and the director of its museum until he retired in 2003. When ISIS rebels seized his city, he refused to leave. He didn’t think they’d hurt an old man who had dedicated his life to preserving history. He was wrong. I’m choosing not to describe the horrid brutality of his death, because I want to consider the terrible beauty of his life.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Khalid al-Assad because his story reminded me of something, but I couldn’t figure out what. When I heard about the circumstances of his death, of course I thought he was noble and heroic. But I was troubled by his choice to trade his own life for ancient artifacts. However precious they are—they are things, and he gave his life to protect them. Surely his life is more valuable.
But the more I learn of his story, the more I begin to see. Mr. al-Assad gave his entire life to the care and preservation of the ancient history of Palmyra. Clearly, this work was his life. It’s an honorable thing to be the curator of a museum. Most of the time that life involves rigorous academic study, fundraising, field work and giving speeches. But what does that identity—as museum director, as director of antiquities, as ‘Mr. Palmyra’—require when ISIS rebels are at your door? It’s one thing to be a museum director in New York City when the job comes with honor, respect and a 6 figure salary. It’s quite another to be the curator in Palmyra, Syria in 2016. These ancient artifacts have survived thousands of years of pillaging and looting. How many curators before Mr. as-Assad protected them with their lives? How could he hand them over for destruction now? He wasn’t giving up his life when he died to protect them. He was fulfilling his life. He was the curator—the keeper, the custodian, the guardian of that which had been entrusted to his care. He would not give them up to try to save his own life. Saving them was his life.
Mr. al-Assad’s story captivates me because he reminds me not of something, but of someone. Jesus. His life’s purpose is certainly different than mine, but his witness convicts me. How easily do I claim the identity of a believer when it suits me? When being a disciple gives me common ground with a stranger, makes my neighbors trust me, helps me earn my living—well, that’s when I claim my identity with passion and purpose. But how easily do I set that identity aside when it prompts me to do something dangerous, controversial or costly?
When Charlotte was reeling with anger and pain, I knew a Christ follower should be out on the streets as a peace maker bearing witness—but I looked down at my sleeping infant and thought, ‘No one could expect that of me.’ When a stranger says something bigoted and hateful and I know a Christ follower should speak the truth only in love, pray for and bless her enemies—but I think, ‘no one could expect that of me,’ and formulate a hateful response instead. When the gospel text for Sunday is ‘sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come and follow me,’ may God help me I preach ‘no one really expects that of us,’ don’t worry about it.
Mr. al-Assad’s life reminds me that our identity is revealed in the moments that cost us something. What’s the point of having a curator if he won’t protect the museum in its moments of greatest danger? What’s the point of being a believer if we won’t love the unlovable, give beyond reason and offer grace to the undeserving? None of this is reasonable, but all of it is essential. Just because no one expects it of us, doesn’t mean it isn’t our call.
ISIS rebels didn’t have the power to take Mr. al-Assad’s life. He laid down his life in order to save it. We didn’t expect that of him—he expected it of himself. It was for that moment he was born. He reminds me of my savior. The world is not worthy of him. May we go to live and die likewise.
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