Erasing history: ISIS, Balkans, US Civil War statues, and Saddam Hussein.

The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in time of war is not new. Or as a means of oppression. What has changed is the growing conviction that destroying landmarks of the ancient past amounts to a crime not just against a specific group, but against all of humanity. The annihilation of archeological monuments and ruins has received wide coverage in social media, writes William Dowell, but the increased publicity has not kept perpetrators from attempting to erase history. In fact, protests from the West and other more open societies may even encourage it.

ISIS mobile propaganda photo of the blowing up of Palmyra.

FOCUS: Destruction of cultural heritage in time of conflict. 

The following article is the cover story of Global Geneva’s 2018 winter edition. It is also part of an ongoing FOCUS series on the destruction of cultural heritage.

The whirlwind of destruction in Iraq and Syria that followed the invasion by ISIS (also known as DAESH from its Arabic acronym) was dedicated to obliterating pre-Islamic history. Among the sites badly damaged was the former Assyrian capital at Nimrud, 30 kilometres south of Mosul. ISIS bulldozers and earth-moving equipment flattened the mudbrick walls that were once part of an Assyrian palace nearly 2,000 years old.

I had driven a rental car from Baghdad to Nimrud in 1990, when British archeologists uncovered what they suspected might be the tomb of the daughter of Sargon, a powerful Assyrian king.  The entrance to the mudbrick palace was guarded by two enormous lamassu – statues with a human head and the body of a bull. They represented Assyrian gods protecting the city. An archeologist explained that Nimrud was particularly interesting because Babylonians, Hittites, Scythians and others who had had been ravaged by the Assyrians had converged on the city and burned it to the ground in a single day.

Like Pompei, Nimrud is a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. Excavations at the site eventually produced many of the Assyrian sculptures and artefacts now in the world’s leading museums. They bear witness to a period in human history that was characterized by fierce brutality and an astonishing artistic refinement. We look at these ancient works of art now and tend to forget the price that went into making them.

The partially destroyed Colonnade at the World Heritage site of Palmyra. © UNESCO.

Reigns of terror while creating exquisite art

At one point, I was impressed by a relief sculpture. It portrayed an endless line of soldiers paying tribute to the king. Each carried the severed human head of a presumed enemy. Another relief showed a totem pole of skulls imposed on a stake.  Inscriptions boasted of the king’s readiness to dismember his enemies, to put out their eyes, cut off their hands and feet and to build towers whose walls were made with the flayed skin of enemies. These towers were filled with the bones and dismembered bodies of those who dared to rise up in rebellion.

The ancient Assyrians, in short, had instituted a reign of terror that might intimidate even today’s ISIS, and yet they, or their slaves, were capable of creating exquisitely refined works of jewelry and art. I asked one of the archeologists who had provided the finances for the excavation of this exceptional site. “Saddam Hussein,” he answered. Then he added, “I guess he is looking for his roots.”

Cultural objects from the World Heritage site of Palmyra, Syria, have been subject to looting for the purposes of illicit trafficking. © UNESCO.

Public destruction of culture on social media, while selling on the black market

ISIS insists that its destructive campaign was intended to prevent the worship of idols. UNESCO, curator of the World Heritage list, and most Westerners did not see it that way. ISIS video tapes of the destruction on YouTube appeared senseless and its efforts to erase history were denounced as “cultural genocide”.  In the end, it looked more like grand larceny. Many of the smashed sculptures showed up with relatively little damage in art markets in Switzerland, London and other major capitals. ISIS had videotaped itself destroying copies – which encouraged extremists elements elsewhere to do the same – and then sold the originals. (The Boko Haram website is believed to have been produced with the help of ISIS). The profits, according to Interpol and other sources, went to buy weapons on the black market. It did not take long before the dreams of the Caliphate evaporated much the way that Nimrud had.

I was struck, nevertheless, by the issue of cultural genocide. ISIS is not alone in wanting to erase all memories of the past. The Taliban in Afghanistan blew up the gigantic, statues of Buddha, nearly 50 meters tall, arguing that the statues were a violation of the prohibition in the Koran (and the Bible) against the worship of idols. Protests by both the West and Afghans fell on deaf ears and even encouraged the Taliban to deliberately destroy the statues. This they did first by rocketing (to no avail), then forcing locals to climb the artefacts in order to place explosives.

Burned manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali. © UNESCO/Lazare Eloundou.

ISIS-backed rebels in the battle for northern Mali in January, 2013 also set fire to and ransacked priceless Islamic manuscripts in the library at Timbuktu, another UNESCO heritage site. They bludgeoned to pieces the shrines of Sufi saints, which failed to fit their interpretation of Islam. Fortunately, a group of archivists managed to hide tens of thousands of medieval documents just before the militants entered the city.

And then there was the damage done to the ancient Roman site at Palmyra, notably the Temple of the god Bel or Ba’al, in Syria. Known as “the Venice of the Sands”, Palmyra was built between the first and third centuries AD and remained largely intact for nearly 2,000 years, making it one of the best preserved Roman sites from antiquity. Until war broke out in 2011, some 150,000 tourists visited the site every year. ISIS relied on social media to make certain that the world learned of its destruction of the temple, ostensibly because it was a symbol of polytheism which is anathema to their interpretation of Islam.

The shelling of Dubrovnik by Serbs and Montenegro forces in 1991. (Croatia photos)

Cultural destruction is a growing trend in modern warfare these days, and it is not restricted to Islamic radicalism.  Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, recalled in a conversation with Global Geneva’s editor, Ed Girardet, that he had had a powerful reaction to the destruction of cultural artefacts during the war in the Balkans. “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage,” de Mistura said, “is the destruction of a country’s soul, its heritage, its past.”

When a Serbian artillery officer boasted about shelling the medieval Croatian port city of Dubrovnik, de Mistura asked him why he was so anxious to destroy the city. “Oh, you don’t understand,” the Serb reportedly told him. “We’re not destroying the city. Dubrovnik represents the Croatian woman. We’re simply scarring her face.”

Many of the items belonging to the Museum of Palmyra either were subject to damage or looting, or destroyed altogether by violent extremists. © UNESCO.

Destruction depends on who’s in charge

Destruction of the past does not need to be motivated by ideology.  Expedience, greed and sheer ignorance can cause just as much damage. During the 2003 Gulf War, US and Polish troops insisted on building a military depot on a site covering part of the ancient city of Babylon, despite protests by the British Museum in London. Allied troops have been guilty of trafficking looted artefacts.

Recent fighting in Syria has also damaged the Crac des Chevaliers, which had been one of the most perfectly preserved crusader fortresses dating back to the Middle Ages. An even greater loss was the Syrian town of Maloula, which was attacked by the al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, in 2013. Maloula was one of three remaining villages where a version of Aramaic, the language of the New Testament, was still spoken. It was a resource for the world’s linguists. It had once held an important library of manuscripts in Aramaic, but that burned to the ground in a dispute between Christian factions.

4. A consecration ceremony to celebrate the reconstruction of 14 of the 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu, Mali, was held in February 2016. © UNESCO/Clarisse Njikam.

The urge to destroy cultural heritage usually depends on the message that the artefact represents and who is motivated to do the destruction, or more to the point, who happens to be in power at a specific moment in time.  After deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the American occupying forces made a major show of US soldiers pulling down a gargantuan statue of Saddam Hussein. No one at the time considered the destruction of a statue of Saddam to be a major loss to civilization, yet the major difference between the destruction of a contemporary statute and the Lamassu at Nimrud is timing and the message the sculpture conveys.

The destruction of history is not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember walking through an art fair on the river that runs through Moscow. Behind a warehouse, I found a graveyard filled with discarded statues of Stalin. Obviously Stalinism is politically incorrect in today’s Moscow and the statues were, to say the least, an embarrassment.  Yet on another trip, this time in the Romanian countryside, I walked behind a peasant cottage and discovered a bust of Stalin. An admirer had laid roses in front of it.

Statue commemorating Confederate soldier in Georgia. (State archive)

More recently, the southern states in the United States have been embroiled in contentious debates over what to do with statues that commemorate the Confederate southern states’ rebellion against the North in the American Civil War. To many southerners the statues paid respect to those officers who had fought a heroic but doomed struggle to protect their home states and southern honour.  To most African-Americans, the statues were a painful reminder of slavery, racism, white supremacy and more than 4,000 lynchings that took place in the years that followed the Civil War.

Ignorance as well as a careless disregard for a site’s historic importance can be as important a factor as ideology when it comes to the destruction of monuments. In 1687, a Venetian military expedition damaged much of the Parthenon in Athens, when a mortar hit a stockpile of gunpowder, which the Ottoman Turks had stored inside the priceless architecture.

Americans and Europeans universally denounce ISIS for its destruction of historical sites, but President Donald Trump turned a deaf ear to both cultural preservationists and native American tribes when it came to saving the Bear’s Ears National Monument, which preserves spectacular landscapes that include more than 100,000 important archeological sites. Trump slashed the size of the area, which had first been settled by the Clovis people some 13,000 years ago, by 85 per cent. Trump’s motivation seems to have been spurred by nothing more than a determination to reverse the political decisions of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had declared the 1.3 million-acre (5,260 square kilometers) territory a national monument the year before.

Trump also halved the area of another national monument, this one created by President Bill Clinton in 1996.  The Escalante Grand Stair Case National Monument in Utah covers one of the most inaccessible areas in the country, yet its status as a national monument suddenly produced tourist traffic that brought thousands of jobs into the state. The reason for destroying it was ostensibly to open the land for coal mining, even though the market for coal is declining sharply. For Trump the monuments were nothing more than a token sacrifice intended to appeal to voters in a political chess game. In that, it could be argued that his approach shared a common logic with ISIS.

The power of the myth: Who does culture represent – and belong to?

The importance of cultural destruction is obviously in the eye of the beholder. That said, ISIS and the Taliban were clearly onto something when they contended that the visible symbols of a culture are emotionally powerful. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee suggested that history is basically a myth that we all agree on, while the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana noted that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it was Joseph Campbell, author of ‘The Power of Myth,’ who explained myths as the easily accessible, cultural glue that holds societies together. They identify the things that we value in traditional systems and point the way forward.  A myth, in short, is often an allegorical diagram of our beliefs.

Monuments and historical artefacts and ruins are the visible reminders of those beliefs that existed in the past. They remind us of where we came from, and in a very real sense, they can strengthen our sense of identity. Of course, the early myths stretch credibility. No one seriously believes today that the half-man, half-bull Lamassu existed in real life.  But we can recognize that the statue was a visible placeholder for an idea, in this case, the Assyrian determination to defend the palace and the city-state that it guarded.

Campbell warned that as we pick holes in myths, the structure of the society that they were intended to support weakens, loses its sense of organization and eventually descends into chaos.  It is that structure of society, even inertia of society, which ISIS and the Taliban sought to erase and replace with their own ideas concerning the Caliphate.

Does context matter? Or does it depend on political correctness of the day?

Where does all of this leave us?  Perhaps, the importance of saving these monuments and ruins would be clearer if we thought more deeply about who the people who made them really were, what they stood for, and how that knowledge fits into the context of our lives today.  The importance to history is undeniable, but how their cultural message is interpreted can be just as important.

Erasing a monument in an effort to erase the history it represents depends very much not only on what riddles of history we want to understand, but also on which values we want to promote. In some cases the original purpose of the monument may have been long forgotten. When I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the entrance to the campus was guarded by a statue of a Confederate soldier holding a rifle. The statue was nicknamed “Silent Sam”, because in their rough ways, the male students joked that the statue would fire its rifle if a virgin passed in front of it.

The statue’s original homage to the Civil War had long been forgotten, or simply dismissed as irrelevant. If anyone had a reason to object to it, it would have been the female students on campus. All that changed after Dylan Roof, a 21-year old white supremacist, shot nine African-Americans in the middle of a church service he attended in Charleston, South Carolina. When a white supremacist rally turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Confederacy suddenly became an issue again. Silent Sam began to represent something considerably more serious, and before long students mobilized and tore it down.  A general cleansing of Confederate monuments and academic buildings named after once important figures who had supported slavery has gathered momentum across the south.

Cleansing the past nevertheless raises serious questions, not just in the US but elsewhere as well.  Is it is justifiable today to look at historical figures out of context and to destroy the legacy of a particular group because it reminds another group of past injustices? In Zanzibar, for instance, UNESCO wants to preserve the island’s Old Stone Town, filled with narrow passageways and historical buildings dating from the islands past, which coincided with its role as a hub for commerce and slavery. The island’s poorer inhabitants are understandably less enthusiastic about preserving a reminder of the oppression their ancestors suffered.

Demonstrations prior to the pulling down of the Ceil Rhodes statue in Cape Town. (Photo: UCT Rhodes Must Fall campaign).

The controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town University, which was removed in 2015, is another example. For many, it represented a despised colonial past; for others, a legitimate part of southern African history. It could be argued that leaving such statues – as those of Lenin and Stalin in Russia and the Ukraine – might prompt public debate in future generations.

ISIS and the Taliban, after all, are far from the first to try to erase the past in order to remake the future. The French Revolution decapitated the statues of the saints on the façade of Notre Dame, and then went further than that. It tried to change the names of the months in the calendar in an effort to make a fresh start and to counter a royalist cultural inertia.  In Cambodia, Pol Pot, following the French example, took a similar approach, but ended by creating the slaughter of the killing fields. After the American War of Independence, Noah Webster was so incensed at Britain that he forever changed the spelling of numerous English words when he compiled his dictionary.

Occasionally, some of these revolutionary ideas work. Most of the time, they don’t.  History judges, and its judgment is often final.  In the end that may be the most powerful argument of all for saving these remnants of our history. We need to remind ourselves of that observation by Edmund Burke: Those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it.  These reminders of the past provide vital clues as to who and what we once were. More important, they help explain why we are the way we are now and who we are likely to be in the future.

William Dowell is the Americas’ editor of Global Geneva based in Philadelphia. He has reported widely across the globe for TIME, ABC News and other media. 


How ethnonationalists use the UNESCO World Heritage label. “Since November, Muslims have been banned from praying at the Taj Mahal mosque except on Fridays, by order of the Supreme Court: exclusion rationalised as historical preservation. In China […] Uighur musical traditions have been stripped of their Islamic roots and presented as a branch of Han Chinese culture. Dozens of Uighur mosques and shrines – some more than 800 years old – have been destroyed. It was in the name of safeguarding humanity’s “heritage” that European colonisers appointed themselves the rightful guardians of the rest of the world’s treasures, while ruthlessly dismantling the civilisations that produced them.” Al Jazeera. 4 August 2019.


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