Culture & Art / Politics / World News

The Islamic State is Erasing History

Palmyra never stood a chance

by Marie Baleo

Palmyra 2005 pre bombing

Palmyra (2005). Funerary towers may be seen in the top right corner. Image © Marie Baleo.

A year has passed already since the self-proclaimed Islamic State, an extremist Salafi group, captured the world’s attention with its ruthless conquest of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, its taste for medieval brutality, and its perfectly orchestrated, viral executions.

The threat posed by the group to those it considers its enemies has forced thousands of Syrians to flee their homes or live under the group’s terrifying rule. Like a pandemic, the Islamic State has spread across borders: it now controls territories in Libya, Yemen, and Nigeria, and has spawned South-East Asian affiliates. It has inspired young Frenchmen to slaughter Charlie Hebdo journalists, and caused droves of confused European teenagers to book one-way tickets to Turkey, leaving appalled families behind. It has perfected the art of murdering foreign journalists, aid workers, and soldiers paraded in Guantanamo-orange suits in front of video cameras.

In May 2015, news broke that the militant group had gained control of Tadmor, a small desert town perhaps better known as Palmyra, home of one of most beautiful historical sites in the Mid East. While the unsurprising fate of Tadmor’s inhabitants at the hands of Daesh did not cause much of an outcry in the West, the capture of Palmyra ignited fears over what lay ahead for the invaluable 2,000-year-old ruins.

Palmyra delenda est…

Incorporated into the Roman Empire in the first century AD, Palmyra evolved into a magnificent stop on the busy trade route connecting Persia, India, and China to the sprawling Roman Empire. The ruins of the prosperous city were discovered in the 17th century, and their influence on European architecture is manifest. The ancient city, once home to well-preserved temples, funerary towers, colonnades, and a roman theater, is recognized by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. With its unique blend of diverse architectural influences, Palmyra has fascinated observers and travellers for centuries.

Ruins of palmyra 1753 robert wood

Ruins of Palmyra, Robert Wood, 1753. Image via Mashrabiyya

In spring 2014, three years into the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State officially established a caliphate, a Sunni state governed by supreme leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, whose lineage the group claims may be traced back to Prophet Muhammad.

As a Salafi group, the Islamic State promotes an extreme version of Sunni Islam, whereby the defense of religion and the establishment of the caliphate involve claiming authority over Muslims worldwide, and warrant persecuting “infidels” and performing what amounts to cultural and ethnic cleansing.

In May 2015, what many had long feared finally happened: Daesh forces seized Tadmor. The town of 70,000 was abandoned by the regime, as the army neglected to evacuate its inhabitants before the launch of Daesh’s offensive.

Once in Tadmor, Islamic State forces beheaded and shot hundreds of Syrian Army members and loyalists, and executed 20 pro-Assad fighters inside Palmyra’s magnificent Roman Amphitheater.

Execution in the Roman Theater. Image © Daily Mail.

Execution in the Roman Theater. Image © Daily Mail.

But the group refrained from destroying any of the ruins, even releasing footage of the Temple of Baal and the Roman Theater in support of its claim that the site had not been damaged. In an interview broadcast on Syrian radio, an Islamic State commander declared:

“Concerning the historic city, we will preserve it and it will not be harmed, God willing. What we will do is break the idols that the infidels used to worship. The historic buildings will not be touched and we will not bring bulldozers to destroy them like some people think.”[1]

In July, just when the world had forgotten about Palmyra, came the news of the partial destruction of the Baalshamin Temple, quickly followed by the appalling and gruesome execution of Palmyra’s head archeologist, Khaled el-Asaad. A member of the Baath party, the renowned 83 year-old Syrian scholar had studied Palmyra and worked to preserve it for half a century. He was widely regarded as Palmyra’s Howard Carter.

Asaad had overseen the evacuation of Palmyrene artefacts shortly before the town fell to the Islamic State, and subsequently refused to reveal the location of the objects he had helped smuggle. A group of Islamic State militants beheaded him, tied his mutilated body to a column on the historic site, and put up a board in front of his body accusing him of supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and of managing the town’s collection of “idols”.

A few days later, the Temple of Baal, dedicated to the eponymous Mesopotamian god in 32 AD, was wiped off the surface of the Earth, followed in early September by several of Palmyra’s iconic funerary towers. Satellite images show nothing remains of these towers and the Temple of Baal. Any reconstruction thus seems highly improbable.

A New York Times Graphics tweet shows photos of the Temple of Baal taken before and after Daesh’s actions.

It is hard to fathom how we were able to collectively entertain the fantasy that a fanatical group with a sense for public spectacle and Youtubed massacres would not seize the opportunity to destroy the pre-Islamic ruins its enemies, be they the West or the Syrian regime, most treasured.

But the Islamic State’s treatment of Palmyra is only in line with its methodical destruction of places of worship, monuments, effigies, shrines, museums, and other historical sites of high significance in Syria and Iraq. From the Mosul Museum to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud to the Great Mosque of Aleppo to the Chaldean Catholic monastery of St. George in Iraq, no symbol of the region’s identity and culture is spared by the Islamic State’s attempt at altering the course of history by erasing it.

Religious motives – officially

A recurring motif with the Islamic State is its invocation of religion to justify inhumane, barbaric practices an overwhelming majority of Muslims consider indefensible.

The Islamic State’s official explanation for the perfectly-timed, progressive destruction of Palmyra is the combat against idolatry and polytheism (or “shirk”). The Islamic State, which appeared as early as 1999 and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004, is a Salafi movement, meaning it advocates a fundamentalist approach to Islam and the implementation of Sharia law, while rejecting “bidaa”, or religious innovation.

The movement supports a radical interpretation of Islam’s aniconism. Islamic State militants are quick to point out that the Prophet himself destroyed statues in Mecca’s Kaaba because they were deemed idolatrous. This disingenuous analogy is conjured to rationalize the destruction of invaluable pre-Islamic art. Incidentally, Daesh’s promotion of strict Islam and its project for a new caliphate are the motivation for the genocide of the Yazidis and mass executions of Shia Muslims and Christians.

Destroying cultural heritage considered idolatrous is a fairly common practice. One need only think of the destruction by the Taliban of the 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in March 2001. Other extremist Salafi groups such as Al-Shabaab or Ansar Dine have destroyed or threatened cultural heritage for similar reasons.

bmiyan buddhas before after

The Bamiyan Buddhas, before and after. Image © AP/AFP via BBC.

A majority of Muslims believe this destruction to be entirely unwarranted, as these ancient statues are not regarded as idols for worship, an opinion Taliban leader Mullah Omar apparently held about the Bamiyan Buddhas, which he initially wished to preserve. It is worth noting that Mullah Omar considered the Bamiyan Buddhas a “potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors[2].

The trafficking of history is indeed a very lucrative business, and the Islamic State quickly understood the monetary value of cultural heritage as a fast and easy way to secure much-needed income. Daesh militants have pillaged ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, operating on an industrial scale and smuggling the items abroad, where they are purchased by wealthy private collectors. The Islamic State has sold unregistered, easily movable ancient items of extraordinary value – yet this is sadly reassuring when one thinks of the fate of the artefacts that remained on site.

museum aleppo damaged

A damaged museum in Aleppo. Image © UNESCO/Prof. Abdulkarim via UN.

The Guardian[3] reports that “Isis initially levied 20% taxes on those it “licensed” to excavate but later began to hire its own own archaeologists, digging teams and machinery”, while Reuters[4] reveals that “some sites in Syria had been ransacked so badly they no longer (have) any value for historians and archaeologists”.

Symbolic violence

By erasing one of the best-known symbols of Syria’s identity, the Islamic State is out to destroy Syrian history and culture, to erase the very signs of Syria’s existence, and to deliver a harsh blow to an already near-obliterated Syrian morale.

By removing from existence countless cultural heritage sites, the Islamic State has achieved all-encompassing, total destruction: physical, economic, and now symbolic.

Destruction of architectural masterpieces and historical heritage as a way to symbolically harm a nation and its identity is no new feat. Neither is it Daesh’s prerogative. One need only think of Al-Qaeda’s highly symbolic choice of the World Trade Center, regarded as a symbol of American capitalism. Traditional wars between States have been replaced by cross-border or internal conflicts along intercultural lines, and the destruction of culture as a warfare tactic is bound to prosper.

Further, the Islamic State has always displayed a keen understanding of how to capture public attention worldwide. It has shown a cynical understanding of human nature, and it knows the death of an individual scars us far more than the death of unnamed, faceless thousands ever could. That is why its video executions regularly provide previews of who the group’s next victim might be, in what resembles a cynical parody of a TV show’s next episode preview, and leaves ample time for public concern to grow. Daesh is a macabre performance artist, and the West has given it its full attention.

Meanwhile, most of us forget about the thousands of Yazidis, Kurds, Shias, Syrians, Iraqis, women, children, men killed by the militant group (How could we not? We hardly even think about the even larger number of Syrians killed by their own regime.)

daesh executioner jihadi john

Hostage David Haines and infamous Daesh executioner Jihadi John. Image © Daily Mail.

Palmyra and its columns must seem meaningless to the thousands of Syrians who have lost their loved ones, their homes, their comfort, and their happiness since the beginning of the tragic Civil War. But the symbolic blow delivered by destroying cherished monuments is not to be underestimated. When the nightmare is over for Syrians, no matter when that is, the symbols of national identity which would normally provide moral support and a reminder of collectivity will no longer be there.

Throughout history, we have been ready and willing to die to protect our identities and our communities, be they national, religious, cultural, or ethnic. The universal sense that our collective identity is our most prized possession warrants sacrificing our own lives. Identity is what animates us, and history is its greatest symbol. Symbols such as Palmyra are known of all. They are the sign of a common past, a shared pride.

Works of art are the prime conveyors of historical narratives, safeguarding our collective memories, reminding us of where we came from, who our ancestors were, and why our societies and nations have evolved just so. To destroy cultural heritage is to reverse the course of history, to force a nation to outlive its own identity.

Beyond its urge to erase the past and the modern history which precedes the establishment of its caliphate, Daesh is confronted with a daunting predicament: its inability to reconcile modernity and globalization on the one hand, and its nostalgia for an early Islam it never knew on the other hand.

The Islamic State is striving to reject modernity, while using quintessential modern tools such as social media to attract attention, and the cognitive dissonance is making it increasingly nervous.

To an outside observer, it almost seems as though Daesh’s leaders do not so much care about religion as they do about reclaiming a sense of control in a changing world. But a cynic may well say, what’s religion got to do with it? Daesh is a human tragedy, in the sense that it may very well be, much like any other event in history, a story of power and money.

Either way, these narratives all forebode a very unpleasant outcome for Syria and its inhabitants, caught between the unmovable Bashar al Assad and the ruthless grip of Daesh. The Islamic State has killed Syria’s past, and its future is looking very bleak.

[1] As quoted in The Guardian.

[2] As reported in The Economist.




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