North Africa, West Asia

ISIS, identity and the destruction of antiquities

Confronted with the suffering of Syrian refugees, mourning world heritage seems academic at best. But Islamic State must not succeed in its cultural cleansing.

Marcu Niculescu
11 September 2015
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Oscar Espinosa/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

There is so much loss and sorrow, writes Nicci Gerrard, author of The Twilight Hour, in a July piece for The Guardian about her advocacy work on behalf of dementia patients and their caregivers. Gerrard describes this suffering—the loss of an identity that’s rooted in mutual cognition, the erasure of history, the insidious, irreversible attack on knowing and being—as a “blasted landscape” that makes us ache. “Who are we when we no longer have our memories?” she asks.

Many of us know that familial ache, without ever thinking about archaeology and war. This existential erasure, though, is akin to the collective loss that Syrians—like Iraqis, Afghans and others before them—experience in the aftermath of Islamic State’s most recent attack on the Temple of Bel, or the week before at the UNESCO world heritage site at Baal Shamin. That “blasted landscape” in Palmyra is the latest hole in the Syrian narrative, and in our shared understanding of human history and civilisation.

In late August, as the world mourned the death of Khaled Assad, the Syrian antiquities scholar beheaded by Islamic State, the United States FBI issued a warning to art and antiquities dealers. It said items from this “industrial-level looting” are making their way from Mosul to the market; from Nimrod and Hatra, stolen from the Baal Shamin site in Palmyra or the Mar Elian monastery near Homs, which fell on 6 August. ISIS leaders also have threatened the pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt.

Cultural cleansing

It is understandable that FBI news about a key funding source for the Islamic State might be overlooked. The world’s attention is rightly riveted on the priority of finding a unified EU solution, as more refugees die at the hands of human traffickers in Austria and on the Mediterranean. Confronted with the suffering of Syrian refugees who risk their lives to leave behind the ones they’ve lost, mourning the damage to world heritage seems academic at best.

But if Islamic State’s immediate goal is to fund a revolution, the basis for that revolution is the erasure of memory and identity until even history—in a sense, time—are under Islamic State control. Countless experts and officials, including Irina Bokova of UNESCO, have decried the pillaging as cultural cleansing. University of Cambridge professor Tim Whitmarsh, describing the Palmyra treasures and their significance for non-specialist readers, called it “antiquity’s best counterexample to ISIS’s fascistic monoculturalism.” Sturt Manning of Cornell University, chair of the classics department, calls on the west to remember as Islamic State seeks to destroy the evidence of a tolerant, diverse past. “What it fears is memory and knowledge, which it cannot destroy,” Manning writes.

Memory and knowledge are the defining elements of human agency that we recognize as integral to the autonomous self, and the executive functions of human agency that govern and express that identity. They may fail as a result of dementia, writes author David Keck in his own philosophic exploration of the disease. But culture is memory too, and often subject to collective manipulation and political distortion.

“Items from the past represent the attempts of those in power to legitimate their power and dominate the memories of the future,” Keck says, citing Foucault and other examples. “Freedom and memory are inseparable. There is a powerful political potential for the manipulation of memories. The first task of a revolution is to rewrite the past.” Islamic State is arrogating that past on the basis of warped theology, insisting that to establish its caliphate renders obsolete any previous narrative of the human enterprise.  

“It’s never about artefacts”

This Islamic State’s “war on history,” as evidenced to date, is meant to erase identity. Others in the modern era include the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, and the 2012 Timbuktu attacks in which Islamic radicals in Mali destroyed a 15th century mosque and 4,000 ancient manuscripts on law, philosophy, astronomy and history. The discipline of archaeology itself can be co-opted, as in the Israeli-Palestinian debate to prove land rights. In modern-day China, Mexico, and India, our antiquities inform an understanding of ancient conquerors whose nihilism has no place in our world.

Though scholars and intellectuals—the cultural forces whose dissent Islamic State also seeks to erase—mourn the destruction of Mosul and Palmyra, the cities are inseparable from the destroyed lives of people seeking shelter from that “fascistic monoculturalism.” Their capacity for memory, for preserving a cultural identity in all its complexity, for sharing a history and protecting its narrative, continues as a sacred trust vouchsafed to those who are witnesses. The world’s heritage remains within that witness. Islamic State ultimately will be silenced by the power of preservation in both the personal and political.

“It’s never about artefacts,” said Columbia University archaeologist Zainab Bahrani in a March Boston Globe interview. Rather, it’s about the right of a people to exist—and for the aggressive protection of their history and cultural contributions to continue, across that “blasted landscape” of memory.

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