This was a difficult post for me to write. The deliberate and systematic destruction of world heritage sites by ISIS causes indescribable rage in me. But I must first start off by saying this is not a political post. While I recognize there are many factors responsible for the rise of ISIS, I am not even a novice enough to try to unravel who bears responsibility. Nor am I capable of pretending to offer suggestions for dealing with these monsters. This post rather is an attempt to sort out some of my own thoughts out about what ISIS is trying to do by obliterating the physical vestiges of humanity’s history.
There is no question that since the rise of the Islamic State to prominence on the global stage, it has been an awful year for the human race. The refugee crisis brought on by ISIS is nothing short of hell on earth. The human toll exacted by the militants should keep us up at night. Human life must always be regarded as intrinsically valuable and our revulsion at this brutality is the appropriate response by any right thinking person. And so people rightly ask why when then there is so much human suffering should real outrage be directed against the destruction of historical sites.
This is a natural reaction and has a lot of merit, but what ISIS is doing isn’t just mere vandalism (apologies to the Vandals). Just as they are attempting to exterminate whole ethnic and religious groups who do not fit in their perverted sense of a pure Islamic caliphate free from the stain of cosmopolitanism and cultural and religious coexistence, the erasure of the sites in Mosul, Palmyra, and other areas which they hold is part of their agenda. By destroying statues and temples and manuscripts they hope to obliterate history and wipe the slate clean so that the only history is their history.
The world by now knows of the destruction of the temple at Palmyra which had stood for nearly 2500 years.
As a professional historian I cannot help but sorrow at the loss of these places. But the question that keeps coming back to me can history truly be obliterated? Can ISIS actually succeed in wiping the memory of past cultures from the human psyche? And it is at this question that I become more hopeful because I believe that no, ISIS can never really succeed in doing that. All the things they find offensive – toleration, coexistence, compassion and the striving for something better than ourselves – exist in more than stones or parchment.
Sadly, the Islamic State is only the most extreme and recent expression of one group of people trying to erase another group of people. During his lifetime, the Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaton had imposed monotheism on the Egyptians which proved highly unpopular. When, Akhenaton died, the new ruling elite immediately set about effacing any physical reminder of the pharaoh and any reference to the Sun God by physically removing his name from the buildings and official documents. The Old Testament records in language not all that different from the rhetoric of the Islamic State the efforts of the ancient Israelites to exterminate all the indigenous peoples of the Middle East supposedly because God said so (or most likely was misquoted).
The Library of Alexandria, the centre of higher learning in the ancient world was destroyed and its librarian Hypatia murdered by zealous Christians who in 391 after the order of the emperor Theodosius to destroy paganism rampaged destroying not just the library, but anything that was associated with non-Christian belief systems. 500 years later the Byzantine Empire was convulsed by the iconoclastic policies of Leo III who viewed religious icons as forms of paganism. The extent of the loss of the rich religious heritage of early Byzantine Christian art is immeasurable.
We don’t even have to look all that far to see that culture is guilty of trying to erase other people’s history. European colonizers did their best, starting with the Spanish, to wipe all traces of indigenous cultures from memory. The conquistadors destroyed and burned whole libraries and whitewashed the temples and transformed them into Christian churches. To the Catholic Spanish, the temples were symbols of devil worship and paganism that needed to be eradicated in order to save the souls of the natives.
In Canada, the same mentality played itself out as we see with the legacy of the Residential Schools where a cultural genocide took place in the name of civilizing the native. Well, we’ve seen how well that worked out for our First Nations peoples.
This is not to justify the actions of ISIS. There is no justification. But rather that ISIS is not the first and tragically won’t be the last group who will undertake to eradicate the cultural and history of people they consider their enemies for whatever excuse they can come up with. Rather, this is a call to be aware of these horrors and work hard to not repeat them. I realize this is an impossible hope, but with any luck humanity will continue to progress and find ways of coexisting and recognizing the intrinsic value of all cultures and belief and non-belief systems. We also need to be aware that we have lost more history than we have available to us. It not only human agency that is responsible. Natural disasters and the passage of time have eliminated possible more history than we have deliberately destroyed. Pompeii and Herculaneum are very famous examples. The Guardian reported this week (Sept 7) that an older stone circle has been found at Stonehenge. Apparently someone had forgotten where they had put it.
So, can history be obliterated and whole cultures wiped away? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I tend to argue that no, ISIS will not succeed. They may destroy the remains of a vibrant past, but the human race will remember those past cultures longer than we will remember the fanatics of the Islamic State. Warsaw is a case in point. Many people who visit the old city may not realize that though it looks ancient, it is in fact only 60 years old. During WWII as the Soviets were advancing into the city, the Germans dynamited it and leveled about 98% of the city. In one of the very few enlightened decisions taken by Stalin, he had the old city rebuilt as an almost exact replica. In the 21st century with technological advances in experimental archaeology and reconstruction, many of the sites that have been destroyed can be rebuilt. With the advent of the digital camera and drones, anyone can have access to these historical wonders at the click of a link.
More important, the human spirit is more resilient than anything that ISIS stands for. Moving past the legacy of the Residential Schools, First Nations peoples are reclaiming their history and recreating new cultural legacies to be passed on. Ever since the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 70AD by Roman forces under Titus, the Jews have fought to carve out their own cultural identity. With their identity so connected to the Temple, its destruction would have seemed to signal the end of the Jewish people. But they reclaimed their identity in the synagogues which were reminders of the original Temple. Though often a culture within a culture, Jews assimilated and adopted and adapted to historical developments to create a vibrant and rich heritage that not even the Nazis could finish off.
I don’t know if ISIS will be stopped any time soon or if it will have staying power. But even as they continue their insane campaign of violence it is important to remember that while they can blow pillars and smash statues and burn books, they can only achieve victory if we allow ourselves to forget all that came before us and made us who we are.