Cultural Vandalism and the Islamic State: Rethinking Our Connection to the Past

By Jennifer Morris

Last spring, I showed the students in my introductory art history class a slide of a lamassu taken from the Citadel of Sargon II in the ancient Assyrian city of Dur Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad, Iraq). They looked bemused as I explained how these colossal man-headed bulls with wings, most of which date to the late eighth century BCE, served as gateway guardians and protective spirits of fortresses and palaces. Their expressions promptly shifted, however, as I showed them an image of a bearded man shrouded in a black tunic chipping off the face of a lamassu with a jackhammer. With gaping mouths and indignantly furrowed brows, they listened as I described how the photo was a still from an Islamic State propaganda video chronicling ISIS militants’ sacking of the museum in Mosul. A moment of silence followed, then somebody piped up: “Let’s nuke ‘em.”

As an art historian, I too experience bursts of disbelief and rage when I consider the Islamic State’s rampant and flamboyant destruction of religious sites, historical homes, museums, and other forms of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq. I feel moments of profound sadness as well. My stomach flipped when news headlines flashed reports of the beheading and unceremonious hanging of Khaled al-Asaad’s body from one of the columns in Palmyra, the ancient site to which the Syrian archaeologist had dedicated his career. Khaled al-Assad was one of us – the art historians and archaeologists so devoted to studying and preserving material remnants of the past that we (quite literally, in Khaled al-Asaad’s case) are willing to sacrifice years of our lives to the cause. But would we, my student’s comment made me wonder, ever contemplate putting someone else’s life in peril in the name of “rescuing” antiquity? Is there any legal basis for military intervention on behalf of cultural heritage?

The Islamic State’s frequent and skillful use of viral images, short films, and social media clickbait to showcase the jihadists’ iconoclasm has made it easy for lay observers to jump onto the cultural heritage bandwagon. Even though they may not know what a lamassu is or what historical significance it may hold, they are infuriated by the fact that jihadists in a remote land are destroying it. They feel like they can, or want to, do something – even if only utter “let’s nuke ‘em.” This widespread condemnation of ISIS militants’ destruction of religious and cultural sites reveals some uncomfortable polarities in our own thinking, however. Just as the Islamic State draws a distinction between believers and infidels, so do we draw a somewhat blind distinction between “good history” and “bad history.” The bad history, unfolding right now, is still history nonetheless – as terrible as it is for us to contemplate in the moment. Although we may not like it, the Islamic State’s annihilation of cultural heritage will be extensively studied in the future, benchmarked as a turning point in the history of art and architecture; Raqqa, the location of ISIS’s Syrian headquarters, will likewise become worthy of scholars’ attention at some point.

The uncomfortable reality is that we need to consider the extent to which ISIS’s activities in Syria and Iraq, as abhorrent as they are to our own belief systems and sense of historical propriety, fall perfectly in line with the past. It is somewhat ironic that the public invokes “history” as a reason to care, all of a sudden, about the legacy of ancient Syrian and Iraqi cities when those cities have very dark histories of their own that nobody seemed to care about before the jihadists came into the picture. Should we really mourn the loss of monuments built by ancient tyrants (upon the ruins of even earlier cities that they razed) and demolished by modern tyrants? What makes a city like Palmyra receive the stamp of UNESCO approval when it (just like the seats of more recent ‘caliphates’ like ISIS) came into existence on the shoulders of violence, destruction, and slavery? Don’t get me wrong – I will be the first to argue that there is special art historical and archaeological merit to these sites and that we should try to preserve them as long as possible. But there is another side to the story worth considering.

I want the Islamic State’s savage acts of cruelty against cultural heritage to stop just as much as anyone else does, but we also need to recognize the biases in our own thinking that tempt some of us to believe it would be okay to launch rockets at the bulldozers and illicit excavators reportedly demolishing ancient sites in Syria and Iraq. We have remained detached from similar events throughout history; before the Internet age, we did not have all the images of destruction in front of us that now make cultural heritage feel more personal. We continue to glorify ancient Athens and Rome without remembering the tens of thousands of people who fell victim to the brutality of those empires’ enslavement of children, frequent use of rape as a war weapon, and repeated slaughtering of the masses to establish control. We visit those cities and marvel at the Parthenon and Colosseum, forgetting that these monuments have been wholly stripped of centuries’ worth of post-antique trappings. This, too, is an obliteration of the past, but this time it is we in the West who are responsible. Should we be held legally accountable?

Our respect for antiquity needs to be measured against our respect for human life. Whose history is more important? History is a palimpsest, one that looks different from all angles, and we need to remember that the past – even the Western past – is dominated by empires and caliphates that were ruled by violence, murder, slavery, and destruction. One could easily write a history of art based upon the material effects of massacres and iconoclasm throughout the millennia. In the end, the motivations behind these atrocities are usually the same: to gain attention and/or raise money, often in the puritanical guise of religious purity. By expressing pseudo-informed outrage at ISIS’s shocking activities – which, when put into historical perspective, are nothing new and therefore not all that surprising to archaeologists and art historians, even if they are upsetting and run contrary to international legal principles, – are we giving the militants exactly what they want? When we put dollar figures on the objects looted or destroyed by ISIS operatives, are we creating even more hype around the destruction? Put another way, why is the market value of irreplaceable antiquities even relevant here? Does it make it easier for us to demand military recourse if we attach a fancy number to the cultural goods we have lost?

In reality, aside from the major monuments in museums and ancient sites that have received the majority of press attention, many of the objects being illicitly excavated in Syria and Iraq are worth a relatively negligible sum on the art market. An antiquities dealer in New York City revealed to me earlier this summer that he had been trying to sell a Syrian cylinder seal for $500 for years, to no avail. But that is not the point. The point is that our reverence for the past is selective, and it is not longstanding. Before the birth of international laws for the protection of cultural property in the second half of the twentieth century, few people were concerned about the humanitarian record of historical figures who built glittering new capitals upon the ashes of the people they conquered in the name of “cultural cleansing” or “religious purification.” What most people were concerned about were the packaged versions of material history that felt most comfortable to a Western mentality. Although the historical value of monuments should neither be determined nor undermined by the moral corruptions of their builders, framing the issues from a devil’s-advocate perspective is enlightening.

I will admit that I have often been tempted to think that the material remnants of the past were more valuable than anything else; I have, after all, devoted my professional efforts to art history and cultural heritage law. As UNESCO tells us, cultural heritage is a human right, and sacrificing a few lives that are only a blip on the historical calendar may seem like a small price to pay for the preservation of millennia-old buildings and objects that speak to the history of an entire people. But this cannot be the correct way to approach the issue. While cultural property surely deserves more robust legal protection, it should never be a reason to wage war. Moreover, given the massive loss of life and degree of suffering among the non-militants subjected to the control of the Islamic State, worrying about the welfare of mute ruins seems almost silly. What good are ancient monuments if the people whose voice they are supposed to represent no longer exist? Of course, these questions are rhetorical, and military intervention is quite unlikely ever to occur for the sake of art objects alone. Instead, we might begin thinking of how military countermeasures intended to protect the innocent victims of the Islamic State might also be deployed for the preservation of cultural heritage.

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Jennifer Morris holds a BA in Art History from Duke University (2008) and a MA and PhD in Art & Archaeology from Princeton University (2011 and 2014); she is currently a third-year law student at William & Mary and will receive her JD in January 2017.  Her research focuses on legal issues pertaining to art, museums, and cultural heritage, particularly in developing nations.
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