I love history – and I love historical monuments. I love the feeling of walking in the footsteps of people hundreds and thousands of years past and the feeling of connection and continuity you get. But the outcry over the ISIS destruction of ancient monuments in Iraq has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. It is reminiscent of the story about an incident in 1921 Dresden when fighting between workers and the German army resulted in damage to a Rubens in the Zwinger Gallery – and the reaction focused more on the damage to the artwork than the loss of life.
An Oxbridge-educated elite decry the destruction and looting of ancient monuments and thank goodness that we have preserved many examples in the British Museum; the British Empire looting a previous empire, who in turn looted the empires before it. As a window on the past I find it distressing to see these monuments destroyed – as it signifies knowledge that we will never learn; empathy that we will never share. However we must also acknowledge that the continuity we experience through historical monuments is, more often than not, the continuity of kings and oppressors. We so rarely seek to understand life as lived by the people. The very monuments that ISIS are destroying at the moment were monuments erected to assert the power of the Assyrian Empire over the peoples of the Middle East as much as 4000 years ago.
Of course the very fact that the ISIS ideology is so threatened by symbols of the distant past, emphasises its fragility rather than its power. Meanwhile we in the West seem to prioritise it over the present. Are we really more concerned about the emperors of the past than the people of the present? On the evidence it seems we are. The same people who condemn the people of Greece to austerity would howl in outrage if the monuments of ancient Greece were treated with similar contempt. These same people will quite happily ignore the suffering of people in foreign lands so long as it does not extend to the monuments of the past. Are we really honouring our ancestors with our reverence of these monuments to the hubris of past dictators and oligarchs? Honestly, do we wish our bequest to future generations to be the self-aggrandising edifices of Canary Wharf, New York or Bahrain? No, we want to pass on our culture, our beliefs, our knowledge – some sense of who we are – of which those buildings are only a fraction – and a fraction of the elite fraction that lords it over us and have extracted a tithe from us as great as any Egyptian King may once have done.
Part of the wonder of history should be that it challenges hubris. I took my daughter to see Hadrian’s Wall – an ancient monument. Then I told her that the pyramids (much like the Assyrian Empire) were as old to the builders of Hadrian’s Wall as Hadrian’s Wall is to us now. One of the interesting things about the history of empires is that we very rarely have solid information on how they met their end. The edifices of power are very different from the edifices of humanity. Our humanity is transmitted to the future in folklore, story and song; in our culture. If there is a future.
Is the destruction of Assyrian ruins in Mosul any worse than the devastation wrought during the Gulf War? Is it any worse than the destruction of our communities in the name of profit? Is it any worse than the destruction of our planet in the name of a fast buck? No of course it isn’t. It is an act of petty vandalism by a group who lack any real power other than their brutality. The Western media that labels them barbarians fails to acknowledge that it is only the face to face nature of their actions that appears to make them barbarous. They lay waste with hammers; the West does it with bombs. They behead with machetes; the West does it with drones.
Of course the destruction of historic monuments is a contemptible part of the ISIS fundamentalist plan to obliterate any competing culture or ideology from history. Much the same as the Tories’ more subtle assault on social history in favour of the battles of Empire and the dates of Kings and Queens: Much the same as the capitalist control of the media, of culture, of books, of Hollywood. The free transfer of information and ideas is essential to human freedom. No society that seeks to control that can call itself free. ISIS, the UK, the US, Russia, the EU and the rest: All Cnuts who seek to shape culture, history, science, the very fabric of reality to their will: All oppressors rather than liberators of the people.