Culture wars: tracking the destruction of Middle East monuments


Who cares about architectural heritage in Syria and Iraq when people are dying by the thousand? Well, more and more people care as it becomes understood that cultural genocide is inextricably linked to human genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Attacks on ancient Middle Eastern monuments are more than a loss for architectural history, they are part of ethnic cleansing — which makes tracking the destruction more important than ever.

Attacks on a community’s history — its cultural identity and the ancient monuments that bear witness to centuries of presence — are calculated. They say you do not belong here and never did; your churches, your Sufi saints’ shrines, your Shia mosques will be swept away so that you are terrified into leaving and are never tempted to return.

It is too easy to put down the recent wave of destruction, from Timbuktu to Libya to Pakistan, to a fundamental antipathy within Islam to symbols and images. While this may be true of the puritanical Islamic State (IS) movement with its roots in Salafism and its absolute intolerance of images and shrines and disregard for the sacred sites of other faiths, most Muslims are horrified at what is happening to their own built heritage and that of other congregations.

It is assumed that Islam has a single outlook regarding “shirk” (the sin of idolatry). It does not and there is little in the Koran to justify the iconoclasm of the Islamic State adherents. They are purist zealots who justify their actions using some much-disputed commentaries (Hadith) on the Koran that forbid relics to be venerated and graves to be covered by structures or to be taller than a hand’s span. But Islam has many congregations and many different attitudes to both images and shrines; just as Christianity has produced St Peter’s in Rome and plain Quaker meeting houses, Islam has built both the Taj Mahal and austere white prayer halls.

This lack of understanding in the West (and among some Muslims) about the plurality of Islamic attitudes helps conceal other motivations for destruction by the likes of IS that go beyond the doctrinal. Not only are their actions political and territorial as well as religious, they are a form of violent propaganda — terrorism is also about sending messages with its choice of targets: “The Crusaders and the Jews only understand the language of murder, bloodshed and of burning towers,” said terror leader Ayman al-Zawahri of the felling of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Using videos and social media, these messages are becoming more sophisticated and are aimed at both the West and Muslims worldwide.

Some commentators think the timing of the demolition of shrines in Timbuktu by Islamist extremists of Ansar Dine in July 2012 was to coincide with a Unesco meeting’s decision to place Mali’s world heritage sites on its list of those in danger. At the time, a spokesman for Ansar Dine told the media: “There is no world heritage. It does not exist. Infidels must not get involved in our business.”

The Taliban’s earlier snubbing of international calls to preserve the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan was similarly pointed — they wouldn’t sell the statues to a Western museum, carefully tied their actions and announcements to events such as Islamic holidays and insisted that the West needed to prioritise poverty instead of worshipping art.


Crucially, these iconoclastic attacks on monuments not only accompany murders but are often an advanced warning of worse attacks to come. At Bamiyan, dynamiting the statues in 2001 was prefaced by a campaign of ethnic cleansing against local Hazara people for whom the buddhas were a symbol of local identity. Over the past decade, Iraqi sectarian divisions have also ratcheted up in the wake of earlier attacks on holy sites, most notably after the 2006 bombing of the historic Shia Al-Askari mosque in Samarra by an extremist group of which IS is the successor.

But these are divisions that go beyond the religious to the territorial, including the desire to control Iraq’s vast oil and gas wealth. It has been hastened by a deliberate dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s carefully constructed Iraqi national identity. This wove together many diverse aspects of the country’s ancient history and archaeological record to meld an identity that crossed sectarian and ethnic lines. The Baghdad government has (with the backing of the US) been systematically demolishing Ba’ath-era monuments as part of the revisionist programme.

Islamic State in Iraq is also part of a Sunni insurgency that has rejected the Shia-supremacist government in Baghdad. And alongside the Salafists are more secular-minded forces such as the Jaish Rijal Al-Tariqa Al-Naqshbandiya (JRTN) led by a former deputy of Saddam Hussein. This heterogeneous alliance may offer some insights as to the fewer violent attacks on non-Muslims and their cultural property in Iraq (compared with that seen in Syria). Shiites and Yazidi, as supposed apostates and heretics, are suffering far worse than the region’s Christians (so far at least).

shrines3What has been happening in the parts of Syria and in post-US invasion Iraq controlled by IS and similar groups should have alerted us to what is now unfolding in Iraq. As the Syrian fighting took on an increasingly sectarian and doctrinal character, so churches and mosques were not being carelessly damaged in crossfire but became targets in themselves, accompanied by the reported slaughter of communities. Assad’s forces have also been accused of sectarian targeting such as damage to the Um al-Zennar church in Homs, parts of which date back to 50AD.

Dr Emma Cunliffe is one of a group of archaeologists who have been tracking the damage to Syrian culture in detail. Among the buildings and artworks reported as deliberately targeted for destruction in the IS-run town of Raqqa have been a statue to the poet Abdul ‘Ala Al-Ma’arri, a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic, carved Assyrian lions (though their antiquity is questioned) and an 18th-century Sufi shrine. In Maaloula, where fighting started late last year, there were stories of massacres of Christians, smashed icons, church bells removed and the bodies of saints dug up.

The Syrian (and now Iraqi) Christian diaspora makes much of these stories and circulates the videos online to make the case for action to save their communities and their heritage. Extremists use the same videos to demonstrate their power.

But while some of these reports are depressingly accurate, not all of these rapidly circulating stories are true. In the last month images appeared on Twitter and in newspapers around the world (including the UK) showing the burning of an 1,800-year-old church in Mosul. It was actually a photograph of a fire nearby that happened some time ago — the church had not burned, at that stage at least. Other photos of IS church- burning in Iraq have also proved inaccurate — sometimes they have been images of arson attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt.w460

Archaeology blogger Sam Hardy is now using his site, Conflict Antiquities, to separate fact from fiction. Last month, for example, Mail Online showed footage of IS militants taking a sledgehammer to the Tomb of Jonah in Iraq. The monument (largely a modern update of an older structure) has since been almost destroyed but the Mail’s pictures first surfaced 10 months ago and have been used to provide proof of previous attacks on Shia tombs in Raqqa and even ancient Jewish tombs in Syria. In its ignorance of the region and of Islam, the media is too ready to report inaccuracies, propaganda or pure hoaxes such as stories of supposed Islamist plans to demolish Egypt’s pyramids — which remains unlikely if not entirely unthinkable.

It is vital to establish the truth. This is not only so propaganda can be recognised but also so that genuine patterns of destruction are accurately tracked. These patterns are not only important as evidence of past genocides — and have been used in trials related to the former Yugoslavia at The Hague — but also because they could warn of emerging genocides in the way that the Holocaust was foregrounded by the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht. If more attention had been paid to such activities in Syria, tens of thousands of Iraqis might not have been stranded up a mountain in fear for their lives.

Few human rights NGOs have had much time for heritage, just as few heritage NGOs put cultural destruction in its proper political and human context. Human Rights Watch appears now to be tentatively making the connections but, unfortunately, perhaps not as fast as the extremist destroyers.

Since the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda the international community has tried to develop computerised systems that offer an early warning of potential genocides and ethnic cleansing situations. Various political, demographic and economic indicators are combined to predict the level of danger but none of these models include cultural destruction in their measures. Doing so could greatly improve their accuracy and usefulness.

We must remember that you can erase a group of people by steadily eroding their identity and cultural memory just as effectively as by swiftly killing them. Who will remember the cultural diversity of the Middle East when it is gone? Saving historic treasures and saving lives are not mutually exclusive activities.

This article written  by Robert Bevan originally appeared in The London Evening Standard


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.