Bookended as it is by images of the destruction of the Baalshamin and then of the Temple of Bel in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, Syria, by members of Daish/ISIL, it has been a terrible week for the international archaeological community, but most of all for the long suffering people of Syria. The destruction of two of the most iconic and beautiful archaeological sites in the World, wrought by fighters from Daish/ISIL, may be a destruction of our shared world heritage as designated by UNESCO and generations of scholarship, but it is their homeland, their future tourist economy and their lives which are being blasted into the desert air. It is probably inevitable that such brutal and on the surface inexplicable and apparently counterproductive action, brings with it a discussion about the ethics of discussing these actions and sharing and distributing the accompanying images. Some argue with conviction that to share and distribute the cultural “snuff” video’s of the destruction of cultural landmarks like the Baal Shamin is to buy in naively to the propaganda grid of the tech and media savvy Daish/ISIS leadership. Indeed, there is evidence that provoking a reaction from the “Kuffar”, the unbelievers, may be one of the objectives of the apparently nihilistic exercise and thus even publishing this article is a small victory for Daish/ISIL.
The Daish/ISIL English language online magazine Dabiq had this to say after the damage to the Assyrian City of Nimrud in March.
“This caused an outcry from the enemies of the Islamic State, who were furious at losing a “treasured heritage.” The mujāhidīn, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffār, just as Ibrāhīm was not concerned about the feelings and sentiments of his people when he destroyed their idols.
With the kuffār up in arms over the large-scale destruction at the hands of the Islamic State, the actions of the mujāhidīn had not only emulated Ibrāhīm’s (‘alayhis-salām) destruction of the idols of his people and Prophet Muhammad’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) destruction of the idols present around the Ka’bah when he conquered Makkah, but had also served to enrage the kuffār, a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.”
Dabiq Issue 8 March 30 2015: Quoted in https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/what-is-isis-media-strategy/
As a result, it is sometimes argued that such images should not be republished in order to remove the incentive to commit further cultural atrocities. thePipeLine does not take that view. For a start, as Dabiq suggests, Daish/ISIL might well have done this anyway simply to provoke a response in the West. This means that while we must recognise that all archaeologists, and particularly those with friends and colleagues in Iraq and Syria, must be extremely careful in their public statements in case a loose comment puts sites, or worse individuals, at risk, we argue that as archaeologists, but first as concerned human beings, we cannot and must not pretend that such events as the destruction of the Temples of Baal Shamin and Bel have not taken place. Neither can we pretend that the destruction is not being spun for propaganda purposes in many directions, in ways which must be investigated and shown up for what they are. Indeed, thePipeLine feels that the lesson of previous attempts to ban controversial individuals and organisations from the Media, for example the re-voicing of PIRA and Sinn Fein leaders by the UK media in the 1980’s at the insistence of the then British Government, only leads to the public becoming more curious, while the targets of what is, be in no doubt, censorship, are able to claim a false sense of victimhood. It is also arguable that, when it comes to issues of politics and religion, censorship is an admission of laziness or weakness. The would be censor is either too lazy to come up with a powerful enough counter argument, or is too weak to be able to create one. Instead they would do well to remember that, while there may be in that cliched phrase from the 1980’s an “Oxygen of publicity”, in certain circumstances such as deep sea diving, oxygen can also be lethal.
Neither do we accept the argument that to concentrate so much time on the physical damage to the heritage of Syria and Iraq is to downplay the countless human tragedies of one of the most vicious periods of civil conflict in recent decades. To express sadness and outrage at the desecration and destruction of Nimrud, Hatra and now Palmyra [not to mention the vast majority of the sites destroyed by Daish/ISIL which are Islamic and which for various reasons, perhaps because western tourists never visited them, do not make the lead or second lead in major news bulletins] does not mean there is no room, for outrage or compassion left to spend on the human victims of the various warring factions. In fact quite the contrary. In news terms, the destruction of sites like Palmyra serves to highlight the ongoing destruction of civil society and ordinary lives in the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria in the way that yet another barrel bomb dropped on a marketplace tends not to and so provides a framework which explains why people might flee as refugees. Even at the risk of their three year olds being washed up drowned on a beach in Turkey.
What is a major concern is that this whole issue is so emotive and so at risk of being loaded with cultural assumptions and borderline racist analysis which would label any Muslim as a potential cultural vandal, that thePipeLine also feels any of us engaging with this subject, especially those sitting safely distanced from the hardest choices in the West, would do well to remember a number of things. Most important of all, in this political and cultural media war, the essential foundation of discussion is the recognition that the destruction of antiquities by Daish/ISIL is not about Islam in the broader sense. If the Daish/ISIL ideology held that Clifford the Big Red Dog was the One True Creator and Lord of the Universe its adherents would be setting out to destroy the images and physical being of all other toy dogs for propaganda effect. This is about political and ideological power and purity and the fact that Daish/ISIL professes a violent fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam is just incidental. An expression of a violent cultural intolerance and the fear of inspirational items which might challenge their “truth” is common to all ideologies, religious and secular, which claim a single true revelation. After all, it was white, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians, many educated in the western, post enlightenment model, who destroyed the Synagogues and looted the cultural treasures of Europe on behalf of the Third Reich’s final cultural solution. In the 1920’s and 1930’s it was professedly atheist communists, just as revolutionary in their way as today’s Jihadi mujāhidīn, who demolished Russian monasteries and blew up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Earlier still it was Orthodox Iconoclasts who destroyed the interiors of the Great Churches of Constantinople and Henry VIII, the founder of the Church of England, who sanctioned the destruction of the monastic cultural treasure houses of Medieval England, partly out of religious belief and in large part because of politics and the desire to raise cash.
As the Syrian author and cultural commentator Dr. Halla Diyab observed in Al Arabya, Daish/ISIL is trying to create a new identity for its fighters and their entourage of idealistic, lonely or culturally adrift supporters and groupies [ http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/08/12/ISIS-wages-cultural-warfare-on-Syria-s-heritage-.html ]. In this world view the destruction of sites associated with “idolotry” masks the fact that this new identity cannot allow the questions begged by the presence of older more complex identities which the new citizens of the self proclaimed Islamic State are leaving behind. Especially places which are expressions of precisely the kind of tolerance and cultural cross fertilisation as is represented by the Oasis City of Palmyra itself. This is a view which is echoed by Lebanese/French archaeologist Joanne Farchakh who told the veteran Middle East correspondent of the Independent, Robert Fisk,
“There will not be a ‘before’ in history. So there will not be an ‘after’. They are saying: ‘There is only us’. The people of Palmyra can compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ now, but in 10 years’ time they won’t be able to compare. Because then no one will be left to remember. They will have no memory.”
Effectively the areas of Syria and Iraq under the control, however temporarily that may turn out to be, of the fighters from Daish/ISIL are in the process of being converted into a vast “Call of Duty” style sandbox MMORPG game. However, it is a game played with real guns and IED’s and where some of the levels require players to obliterate the cultural landmarks which demonstrate that life is not that simple and someone else was there first, while also allegedly earning money for upgrades by selling antiquities into the western Art market.
However, amid the grief that many feel at the destruction wrought in Palmyra it is important to suggest that in all likelihood what Daish/ISIL have done is on many levels utterly futile. In particular, the lesson of history is that the practice of the obliteration of identity, the Damnatio Memoriae of the Ancient World does not work and it is archaeologists who have often provided the evidence that demonstrated it does not work. We still know the names and deeds of Pharaoh Akhenaten as well as the lost city of Amarna, while from Rome we know the name of Sejanus and possess the coins from which his name has been erased, as well as those which show his name. More importantly, we also argue it is vital to the integrity of the intellectual and practical response to what are unquestionably cultural war crimes commited by Daish/ISIL, that the spin and propaganda of all sides in the increasingly messy and intractable conflicts of North Africa and the Levant are deconstructed and discussed in the manner pioneered by scholars, such as Dr Sam Hardy of the Conflict Antiquities web site [https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/], who occupy that murky and difficult, sceptical but vital, hinterland between traditional scholarship and investigative journalism.
In the end, perhaps the greatest weapon in the hands of anyone who cares about the past and the destruction of the physical reminders of the past like the Baal Shamin and the Temple of Bel is the fact that collectively, by discussing, sharing and questioning the knowledge gathered over generations by scholars, including those like Khaled al-Asaad, who it seems gave his life to Palmyra in the most profound way possible, it is possible to demonstrate that, whatever headlines nihilistic destruction gains in the short term, in the long term Daish/ISIL will inevitably become nothing but a passage in the history their political and cultural strategists seek to manipulate. In so doing they will discover that the life and material culture of the complex past, is just not that easy to eradicate. The Baal Shamin was, is and will remain an archaeological site of world importance, preserved by record in the unreachable libraries of the academic world and across the diversity of Cyberspace, and still present in the desert as a fact on the ground in three dimensions. A place to be surveyed and recorded again one day, even if the site has been transformed through the application of fertiliser based explosives by a calculating Salafist ideology. An action the consequences of which are now, of course, part of the archaeology of the site.
Remember too that History and Archaeology exist to take the long view and sometimes they attempt to stabilise, conserve and heal the ravages inflicted on the physical remains of the past by time and by people. This activity occurs in a cultural and political space which is constantly redefined, as Dr Gabriel Moshenska, Lecturer in Public Archaeology at University College London observed in a recent paper
“…curated ruins remain the tools of a more subtle but no less calculating set of agents intent on harnessing their capital in all its forms to further their assorted social, political, and economic ends.” [http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1179/1350503315Z.00000000095 ]
This is what Daish/ISIL have done and it is what the authority which takes charge of Palmyra when Daish/ISIL have gone will do, only differently.
As an example of the long view recall that the scaffolding visible around the Parthenon today is there to satisfy the modern Greek Government’s ambitions for the site, but it also serves, at least in part, to help repair the damage done when a Venetian mortar bomb ignited an Ottoman gunpowder store housed in the still substantially complete temple on 26 September 1687. An event which were it to occur today would almost certainly represent a cultural war crime under the terms of the Hague Convention and lay the Venetian commander and Head of State, Doge Francesco Morosini, open to charges; particularly as he allegedly compounded the offence by calling the round “a lucky shot” and in an early attempt at trafficking conflict antiquities, attempted make off with some of the Parthenon Sculptures.
Today few remember Doge Morosini, but the Parthenon remains a universal symbol of culture, beauty and human achievement. A much kinder fate, which we must hope will also be that of the shattered cultural jewels of beautiful, cultured and tolerant Palmyra.