By Hajrah Mumtaz
May 25th, 2015
The rise of the self-styled Islamic State seems to have left much of the world nonplussed. The threats it poses go far beyond the immediate concerns dominating the bulk of the global discourse, though. No matter how the story of this conglomerate of barbarism eventually turns out, one dimension of this threat that will prove enduring with absolute finality is that of its effect on history and culture.
Last week, the self-proclaimed IS overran the modern settlement of Tadmur in the Homs province of Syria. The Syrian state media has conceded that pro-government forces have pulled out after “assuring the evacuation” of “most” of the inhabitants.
The sporadic reports coming out of the area say that the people left here are desperate to leave but have no way out, and are angry — in particular with the Western media. That is because the world narrative after the fall of Tadmur has not been so much about the residents and their dire situation, but about concerns for Palmyra, the ancient ruins that lie adjacent to the town of Tadmur.
The Palmyra ruins may be the next IS target.
Palmyra is a Unesco World Heritage site, dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries. Considered one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, it is also called the Venice of the Sands. Unesco’s director-general Irina Bokova says that any destruction in Palmyra would be “not just a war crime but ... an enormous loss to humanity”.
Sadly enough, there are fears that the world’s concern about this site may actually present an incentive for the IS to destroy it, just as it has other sites in Iraq that pre-date Islam.
Earlier this year, for example, the group threatened to destroy the walls of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh in Iraq, which it has under occupation, if government forces tried to retake the area. Though thankfully that eventuality has not yet materialised, in February the IS destroyed artefacts, mostly Assyrian, at the Mosul Museum. A few days later, the group demolished irreplaceable remains at world heritage sites Khorsabad, Nimrud and Hatra. In the process of its ascendance, it has destroyed many shrines and tombs, including those said to be of the biblical figures Daniel and Jonah.
Why this wanton destruction of capital that is part of humanity’s shared history? Obviously, the IS believes such artefacts and sites are idolatrous and blasphemous. Notwithstanding this belief, however, there is a sordid pecuniary side, too. Amidst the destruction at Mosul Museum, it is believed that the group also plundered pieces to sell overseas. And with the fate of Palmyra looming large, Unesco has warned that there is a real risk of plunder from the site being trafficked by the IS to swell its coffers. “This is part of the financing of extremism,” said the Unesco director-general. “It is absolutely imperative that we stop these channels of illicit trafficking.”
Still, if the IS is an illegitimate force whose destruction of the region’s historical markers is abhorrent, a glaring example is at hand of a formally recognised state that is doing similar injustice to places and artefacts that are held in high esteem by a huge multitude that does not reside within its borders, and over whom it therefore has no governance rights. This would be the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that has quietly but systematically been erasing, particularly in Makkah and Madina, many of the physical traces of Islamic history — traces that withstood the onslaught of centuries of wear and tear in harsh desert conditions, but were helpless against those whose narrow view of faith propelled them to take apart what others consider history.
And if Islam’s holiest site now stands in the midst of a multitude of high-rise buildings where sufficient money can obtain a place in which to pray amidst luxuriousness, the world can draw its own conclusions. The needs of the millions that come on pilgrimage must be catered to. Thus, the £2.3bn Abraj Kudai that lies just over a mile south of the Grand Mosque, which will be when it opens in 2017 the largest hotel in the world with 10,000 rooms, 70 restaurants and four helipads — and five floors reserved for the royal family.
In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum stands the Ishtar Gate, the eighth entrance to the inner city of Babylon that was constructed in about 575BC by the order of King Nebuchadnezzar II. This is a reconstruction with the original bricks that were excavated a century ago. Germany, like all the other countries that hoard in their museums treasure which does not belong to them, has over the decades received its due share of criticism. Reality is an unpleasant double-edged sword, though. One can’t help but wonder if it is indeed safer there than in its own region, at the mercy of militant groups, and even capricious governments. Had they been in a more stable country, the Bamiyan Buddhas would have survived.
Hajrah Mumtaz is a member of staff.