When cultural heritage is targeted for destruction, everyone asks us what can be done? Can’t we swoop in and save these priceless millennia-old artifacts? I get asked this question a lot.
I remember wishing someone would invade Afghanistan in February 2001 before the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. At the time it struck me that a murderous regime needs to keep its disaffected and indoctrinated youth busy smashing things or they will turn on their own.
Culture becomes a convenient rage outlet for murderous thugs, and one which has a similarly terrorizing effect on the population. When I have been interviewed regarding destruction in Syria over the last two years I end up resorting to the same expressions of frustration and platitudes about the value of culture. What can we do?
The first thing to remember is that there are real-life Monuments Men and Women who have been working to save these things inside war-torn regions. These people exhibit tremendous courage trying to hide what they can and document what they can. Second, Global Heritage Fund is working with other international organizations as well as technology experts to tackle this issue. In a world where everyone has a cell phone and images can go worldwide in minutes, we have more tools than we used to. Now we need to be creative about using them for documentation and mitigation.
In the last week we have seen ISIS/ISIL inflict its suicidal nihilism on Nimrud, Nineveh and artifacts in the Mosul Museum. This follows similar acts they have undertaken in the territories they have taken over in Syria and Iraq. They actively promote and distribute this hate as mandated by their crypto-religious ideology, although how it plays out reveals more mundane and material needs. It is yet another example of how very important heritage is to humanity and how those who would burn books or destroy cultural artifacts are identical to those who would murder and undertake genocide.
Terrorism is a state of mind and how convenient for reptilian ideologues that the mutilation and destruction of cultural artifacts can have a similar effect on a population as the mutilation and destruction of people. My colleague Bob Stanton was quoted on Australian radio last Friday and appropriately noted how these actions erase deep layers of history and identity. On purpose. Rootless people are easier prey for demagogues.
These actions are also evidence of the economic underpinnings of this pseudo-state, which are much more important than the ideological stage dressing. Stage One: They loot and traffic antiquities to fund themselves. This happened for two years. What is happening now is different and the videos they have been distributing make this plainly clear: Everything they have been destroying in Nimrud and Nineveh and Mosul is basically too BIG to sell on the black market. They are less movable and thus less convertible to cash.
That means we are in Stage Two: Immobile artifacts are commodified as part of ISISISIL viral marketing. They become assets in their strategy to appeal to the reptilian and anti-establishment impulses common to young men especially, which is why they are less a local product than an international one.
Who wants the uncertainty of critical thought when you can have unyielding truth and certain death?
What can be done? Step One is to shut down the markets, through whatever mechanisms are available. Step Two is to somehow disrupt the marketing ISILISIS. You may recoil in horror when you see the destruction, but those raised on Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto see something enticing.
Lamassu in Oriental Institute, Chicago
A corollary ripple effect in the world of cultural heritage is that the Mosul destruction – following many other such acts and simultaneously publicized with defacement of the Nineveh gate, has highlighted museums, primarily in the West, who collected artifacts from places like Iraq and Syria (and Egypt and Greece, etc.). The Elgin Marbles notwithstanding, we are in an era when repatriation of artifacts to those places where they came from has become more common. It was a growing phenomenon that called into question the encyclopedic museum.
But with the destruction in Nineveh and Mosul and Nimrud – and the recent burning of libraries in Mosul, Cairo and Timbuktu – as well as the ongoing ruin of nearly every heritage site in Syria – many are arguing for the encyclopedic museum. In the wake of these events, they appear as safe harbors. You can still see pieces of ancient Iraq and Syria in London and Chicago and elsewhere. The discussion has now shifted to what extraordinary methods to help evacuate heritage when danger approaches. Repatriation just got further away.
Sometimes evacuation is the solution. Global Heritage Fund was involved with the Prince Claus Fund in the effort to save ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu when they were threatened in 2012 by Islamist militants. The sad fact of that situation and so many others is that the most frequent targets of supposedly “Islamic” militants are in fact elements of Islamic heritage.
British Museum, London
Beyond providing safe harbor, museums can help police and heritage professionals as they attempt to document sites, identify artifacts and disrupt the trade. There are also new technological tools that could conceivably be deployed. Archaeology has been revolutionized over the last decade with LIDAR, GPR, GIS, drones and a variety of other imaging and documentation tools. Big Data can help as we look to antiquities markets and try to enforce the existing heritage conventions.
To deal with Stage Two, the thing that needs disruption is the marketing collateral of ISIS/ISIL. For every historian who weeps when they see hooligans sledgehammering treasures, there are two Eastenders who think it is cool and want to do it too. Someone needs to disrupt this market: right now they are feeding the beast.
Assyrian at the Met
Focusing on ideology or even culture in this case crafts a misleading analysis. These thugs are not the Other, and the current marketing campaign is aimed less at the so-called “Arab Street” than the banlieue. This is not a regional enemy but an international magnet for alienation and hatred.
Heritage is a nonrenewable resource. What is lost is lost forever. We will only stop the destruction when we see past the ideological pretensions to how these actions function to underpin this violent entity.