Jewels of ancient Iraq bulldozed by fanatics
The IS frenzy of destruction has claimed three remarkable ancient cities in Iraq, considered to be treasures of global heritage. Why are tyrannies so hostile to art and history?
Iraq is known as the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’. The fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates were home to the first cities, the first writing, the first code of law and the earliest empires. Now, 6,000 years after the area then known as Mesopotamia made such huge steps for humanity, Iraq is a warzone. Much of the country is controlled by the fighters of IS (so-called ‘Islamic State’), and ancient cities such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra have been largely destroyed.
Dr Lamia Al-Gailani, a leading archaeologist on Iraq, said of the destruction of Nimrud ‘They are erasing our history’. She hoped it could be the catalyst for military intervention in the region. Nimrud, excavated in the 1840s, was home to great palaces, temples and other buildings, as well as several statues and hundreds of smaller artefacts. Now it has emerged that a similar destructive fate has befallen Hatra. The city withstood attack from the Romans but was levelled by a deadly mix of IS explosives and bulldozers.
What is motivating the systematic destruction of these revered sites? IS claims that the statues are idols and false gods. Under its extreme version of Islam, depiction of humans or animals is prohibited. Shocking images have spread around the world of IS fighters smashing statues and blowing up ancient buildings. But not all artefacts have been destroyed; many have been sold on the black market, and the antiques trade is now a major source of income for IS.
Hatred of history and art by tyrannies is not new. The Taliban in Afghanistan used the same logic as IS to blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, while extremists in Mali burnt hundreds of ancient books and manuscripts in Timbuktu. This malicious brand of historical revisionism has been around for centuries. The USSR, for example, wiped people out of photographs if they had fallen out with the Communist Party.
The past is no more
This is no ideological crusade, say many distraught lovers of history — it is mere barbarism and malice. This type of wanton vandalism is the work of people who simply do not understand the world as it is. Just as with many other conquering forces, IS is indiscriminate about what it destroys. The attacks on Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra are nothing more than a grisly show of strength.
IS might be callous, others reply, but its destructiveness is not random. By destroying the past, IS and many other revolutionary groups hope to win triumph for their radical future. They want to mould everything in the world to fit their worldview. Art has long been used as a form of resistance against dictatorships, and all tyrants view it with fear. We have seen this terrible hatred of history before.
- Does destruction of ancient cities by IS strengthen the case for intervening in Iraq?
- ‘Art and history are the enemies of dogma.’ Do you agree?
- Class debate: ‘This House believes it is worth risking lives to save historical treasures.’
- Research an ancient city in the Middle East, and make a presentation about it to your class.
Some People Say...
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”Edmund Burke
What do you think?
Q & A
- This is all happening very far away. Is IS a threat to me?
- So-called ‘Islamic State’ has arguably overtaken Al-Qaeda as the main focus of the world’s jihadi movement. IS has concentrated the vast majority of its attacks in the Middle East, but the large number of people joining the movement from European countries, including Britain, has led many to think they pose a threat here.
- Surely we should do something about this?
- Many people are now calling for direct military intervention in Iraq and Syria. They say that rich countries cannot simply stand by and watch as thousands are killed and cities are destroyed. However intervention is not a simple business, and some say the ongoing problems in Iraq are thanks to the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
- Meaning ‘the land between the rivers’, much of this area is now under IS control. The region stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in Syria to the Arabian Sea in what is now Kuwait.
- An image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.
- Plural of the word talib, members of an Islamic fundamentalist political movement which originated in Afghanistan. While in power they enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic religious law). They were condemned internationally for their brutality, particularly against women.
- Buddhas of Bamiyan
- In 2003, two 1,500-year-old statues carved into a cliff in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, were blown up by the Taliban in a piece of cultural vandalism comparable to the destruction of cities in Iraq. The Taliban used almost identical reasons to justify their actions.
- Historical revisionism
- Meaning simply ‘reinterpreting history’, this term is not always used negatively. However history can be incorrectly rewritten to suit a political purpose. This was particularly true in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.