The destruction of statues in the Museum of Mosul by Islamic State Militants. AFP/HO/Media Office of the Nineveh branch.
There have been many news stories about the recent destruction of antiquities in the areas of the Middle East currently controlled by ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State. This post will not make claims to understand the totality of the conflict in the region and its many threads. Instead I would like to focus on the destruction of archaeological and historical artefacts, documents and sites and how they relate to a bigger problem; international apathy.
Cultural erasure as a weapon of war is likely as old as warfare. The most famous recent example (pre-dating the current Syria/Iraq/Lybia/Nigeria situation) is the Afghani Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyian Buddahs in 2001. At the time there was international outcry, this was the destruction of a religious monument and cultural site of worldwide importance. One that showed the history of Buddhism in the region. My question then is why is there no such outcry this time around? Is it because there are no believers in the Assyrian gods who have been struck down from their museum pedestals? If so then the world and media fundamentally mis-understand the importance of history, of place and of the traces of the past left behind. There is a reason that the destruction of archaeological, historical and culturally important sites and monuments is classed as a war-crime; erasing the history of a place and people erases those people.
No matter how far removed we feel from the religion and time represented by these statues we cannot accept their destruction quietly. These artefacts contribute to the history of all mankind, not just those long dead Assyrians, or even the current occupants of the deserts in which they resided. As Boris Johnson pointed out in a recent Facebook post, art-historically these images a clear predecessors of Greek aesthetics which themselves are one origin point for western art styles. That is just one of the many reasons why these sites are key to the common history of modern civilisation, and it can feel like shouting to the wind trying to convince the world of them all. The trouble is that that is exactly what we need to do; educate and keep shouting! And I don’t just mean school children or those of us who choose to pursue history, archaeology or related subjects at university or for a living. I mean EVERYBODY. Everybody has a stake, the history of one culture belongs to all of us; we are all human and we all should be able to learn the lessons of the past.
Regardless of the fact that there are reports many of the statues destroyed in the Mosul museum were replicas, there were genuine originals in that gallery and the two other main galleries where no film has been released, and I foresee the potential for even more destruction. ISIS has already stated their aim to destroy the sphinx and pyramids. In Libya there are extensive and important Roman remains that we now have to consider under threat. In Nigeria where Boko Haram operates there are the remains of the Walls of Benin and Taruga (the under-representation of African history and archaeology is aanother topic entirely). The loss of these, just as we appear to have lost large parts of Ninevah, Nimrud and Hatra would be a further blow to the shared history of the human race.
Something must be done, but what can we do?
Christopher Booth 20.3.2015
Johnson, B. (2015) – http://on.fb.me/1MQ2WXA – accessed 18/3/2015
UNESCOPRESS (2015) – http://bit.ly/1bjIeBN – accessed 18/3/2015
Gannon, M. (2015) – http://www.livescience.com/50072-isis-attack-on-ancient-history.html – accessed 18/3/2015.
RT News (2015) – http://on.rt.com/0nfp9a – accessed 18/3/2015