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Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance

March 17, 2015

ISIS Nimrud

Does the desecration of Nimrud and Hatra by the so-called Islamic State add ammunition to the argument that priceless antiquities scooped up from around the world by the colonisers and the wealthy should stay within the safe embrace of Western museums?

You bet, if you believe that sooner or later the black flags will fly over Athens, Cairo and Baghdad. And to boost the argument further, it wasn’t the Daesh storm troopers who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas and looted the museums of Cairo and Baghdad.

In conflict zones where religion plays a part, it seems that antiquities are fair game, either as a source of funds or as a means of making a politico-religious point. Nothing unusual in this – the newly powerful have a habit of trying to erase evidence of the formerly powerful by destroying things. The early Christians in their desire to eradicate pagan worship pulverised much of the finest Greek and Roman statuary. The Byzantine iconoclasts ripped down and burned thousands of exquisite religious artefacts in the cathedrals and churches of their declining domains in the hope that God would thereby again look favourably upon them.

In Baghdad, the Tigris ran black with the ink of books cast therein by the invading Mongols. When Henry VIII destroyed the English monasteries, gold and silver treasures were melted down to fund the King’s endless arguments with France. His son Edward VI and the puritans of a century later finished the job by whitewashing the walls of the churches.

And in case we imagine that great acts of cultural destruction are carried out only by invaders and religious fanatics, consider the burning the Great Library of Alexandria by Julius Caesars’s troops, and the demolition of cathedrals and churches by Stalin’s henchmen in Moscow.

Yet for all the efforts of the blind, the bigoted and greedy, enough remains from every era of history to educate and inspire future generations. Daesh may seek to erase history and make a fast buck in the process, but their task is made harder than ever by the very medium that they have exploited to feed its rise: the internet. Every museum has a website. Books are being digitised and many universities have put the efforts of their scholars online.

What is above the ground has been documented, analysed and pondered over, even if future generations will now be deprived of the opportunity to revisit the conclusions of the past in Nimrud and Hatra. But what is still under the ground is equally important, and the likes of Daesh would need a massive fleet of JCBs to erase what has yet to be discovered in the territories they control. Beyond the Middle East, two-thirds of Herculaneum lies unexcavated under metres of volcanic ash. Cities are still being discovered in the jungles of Central America, and under the sands of the deserts that skirt the ancient Silk Road.

Of course it’s sad that young Iraqis will not have the opportunity to touch the walls of their ancient cities. Not just Iraqis – anyone who has an interest in the history of earlier civilisations. In one sense, ancestry doesn’t really come into it, because there are not so many ethnic groups on our mainland continents whose genes can’t be traced back to forebears from any number of geographical areas, whether as the result of migration or conquest. I am likely to have as direct a line of descent from an inhabitant of ancient Nimrud as a modern Iraqi, just as the blood of Genghis Khan flows in sixteen million people across the world.

But national heritage counts. Egyptians – those who don’t want to raze the sphinx and the pyramids – feel proud of their pharaonic past, just as the Irish are proud of their Celtic lineage, even if Egypt is a melting pot of African, European and Asian ancestors, and archaeologists cast doubt on the central role of the Celts in the pre-history of the British Isles.

Though organisations like Daesh try to expunge physical evidence of an inconvenient past, and fashion the minds of their youth through selective education and ideological control, they have no more chance of erasing history than they have of capping a volcano. There are too many books, too many internet nodes, too many satellite dishes and too many people. Information borders are way more porous than the walls and fences that separate countries.

I’m the proud owner of a modest collection of ancient coins. Every so often I take one out – perhaps an Athenian tetradrachm or a denarius of the Roman Republic – and I hold it in my hand, knowing that I’m touching something that merchants, slaves and small farmers might have used over two millennia ago. That’s just one way in which I connect with the past. Some sing songs and recite poetry. Others listen in churches, mosques and synagogues to tales of suffering and exultation. Or read books and visit museums.

Whether we’re illiterate or hold a doctorate from Harvard, we are all touched by history in one way or another. And it’ll take more than a bunch of psychopaths with sledgehammers to wipe out the history of Iraq and Syria. Just as when the murderers are all dead, buried or atomised, the memory of the suffering they inflicted will be passed on through generations.

People in the Middle East have long memories, in case Daesh have forgotten. The tragedy is that so many of their stories are soaked in blood.

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