26.09.2015 Author: Alexey Sarabyev

Is Anyone Surprised by the Barbarism in Palmyra?

965096A culture that stops reproducing itself stays rooted in the past. This statement concerns the actions of ISIS, in the territory where actually every square foot of land “exudes” history, in two aspects.

The first one lies in the sphere where we speak about the past civilizations and monuments left from the distant epochs and which have by far survived the bearers of ancient cultures and long-forgotten traditions. They have survived the people who worshipped their long-forgotten gods, who defended their motherland in the fights with enemies who have also fallen into oblivion. Such types of cultural objects appear to us as some kind of exhibits not designed for use, not to mention their cultural reproduction.

Nevertheless, these objects, whether they be architectural monuments, household items, manuscripts or anything else, serve the needs of the people whose heritage they are, being a strong foundation for their cultural self-identification and simultaneously the substance uniting the whole nation. Though the people who presently inhabit those lands have not much in common with the ancient ethnic groups which have left the heritage for them, the land itself, as well as its history, serve as the basis for the culture of the present-day generations. It is the land and the history that make it possible to consider representatives of different religions and bearers of distinguishing traditions as a single nation. In this sense, the cultural monuments of the ancient Palmyra (Tadmur) are an element of distant history, and if somebody believes that this art is prohibited in Islam, this is by no means present-day art, it is not reproducible and of course it is not reproduced by the contemporary Syrians, meaning that this art cannot in any way threaten Muslims’ spiritual life and the integrity of Muslim culture. The same refers to the religious “load” of the monuments being destroyed by ISIS: even if at some moment of time they served as temples for the gods overthrown by Islam, this happened about 1,400 years ago, and since then these cults have remained non reproducible.

The second aspect lies where we try to understand the motives of the militants by which they are guided in their large-scale acts of vandalism – the destruction of recognized objects of global cultural heritage (for the time being, we do not speak of the well-established illegal trade in the stolen valuable museum pieces). The chain of these events consists of numerous links, each of them is of dramatic significance for the culture of the Middle East. For example, in Iraq these were collections of sculptures and bas-reliefs and other exhibits from the Mosul Historical Museum (February 2015), the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud-Calah (March 2015), funeral mounds, architectural monuments and excavation sites of the ancient Babylon, which have been partly destructed or fully destroyed. In a strange manner, most of these actions were committed much later than the beginning of the active phase of the fight of the “international coalition” headed by the USA against the Islamic State.

We get the impression that neither the Islamists themselves nor their patrons actually are concerned with the issue of non-compliance of the artefacts and local cultural symbols with Sharia. Nor does anybody recall the confrontation (or the “clash of civilizations”): “the interested parties” are not interested with abstract confrontation of civilizations. The goal of confrontation with unacceptable local customs – the political, ideological, religious, cultural ones – acquires a new meaning as the fight with the things that, in any case, must be changed or – even better – destroyed. Then these foundations are given a new interpretation: political dictatorship, anti-humane ideology, religious sectarianism, cultural backwardness. On most of such points, the approaches of radical Islamists and the American warmongers are astonishingly close. The issue is transferred from the sphere of cultural philosophy, political philosophy and geopolitical speculations to the sphere of military and strategic goals.

Both aspects of the thesis regarding cultural heritage, when associated with the facts of their barbarous destruction, lead up to the idea that the offenders and the “commissioners” of the crimes perfectly understand the utmost importance of “the war against the monuments”. One can imagine what will remain of the Syrian people’s self-awareness if such element as the historical monuments is removed from their culture, and a religious ban is imposed on their cultural memory.

Meanwhile, in many countries of the Middle East the underestimation of political steps for the preservation of their own culture is evident now. Its unification as per a certain “Western” mould, dilution and neglect of peculiar features of national traditions, to put it simply, the decay in reproduction of culture, is mostly neglected on the part of state power. But, as we can see, it is not considered unimportant by those who confront these states and societies. Both the correction of historical memory and regulation of relevant cultural and religious traditions are among the most important strategic priorities of the fight that is conducted by ISIS militants in the territories of Iraq and Syria and that they are attempting to conduct in Lebanon, on the Sinai and in many other African regions and Middle East countries.

Apart from the monuments of Palmyra (the temple of Baalshamin, the temple of Bel, the Funerary Temples, etc.) which were exploded within a week’s interval, and later on – with an interval of two weeks, in August and September 2015 the militants indirectly attacked an international organisation – UNESCO. The systematic and thorough destruction of monuments of global cultural heritage, alongside with the brutal murder of the director of the museum complex, a world-known scientist Khaled al-Asaad must probably demonstrate complete failure of the idea of protection of both the cultural objects themselves and their related administrative and institutional structures by the international community. Obviously it is not quite accidental that the acts of barbarism were committed on the eve of the opening of the milestone session of the UN General Assembly (September 15, 2015) – the site at which the issues of preservation of the global culture and peacemaking are discussed.

We can say with regret and pain that the events happening in Palmyra were quite predictable and constituted a naturally determined and well-thought-out step of the force whose actions are being watched (for now – just watched) by the whole world. It would be wrong to underestimate the marked tendency of the toughening of ISIS’ “cultural policy”, and the possibility of similar actions in the future cannot be excluded. In any case, undoubtedly, the “cultural war” occupies a significant place in the strategy of merger and re-formatting of the lands conquered by ISIS. It is also evident that there is a certain logic in these actions, which were well planned. Therefore, the issue of who exactly is surprised by the barbarism in Palmyra turns out to be a merely rhetorical one.

Alexey Sarabyev, PhD in history, head of the Research and Publications department of the Institute of Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.