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Why Do Monuments Matter?

The Islamic State’s destruction spree poses a question to the global community.

Written by Alexander A. Bauer | Updated: September 7, 2015 2:48 am
islamic state, isis, islamic state palmyra, palmyra, isis palmyra, palmyra ruins, islamic state syria, palmyra roman ruins, palmyra heritage sites, syria heritage sites, palmyra news, islamic state news, islamic state of iraq and the levant, syria news, world news Islamic State militants have blown up one of the most important temples in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, accelerating their relentless campaign of destruction against the historical treasures that have fallen under their control. (Source: AP)

Last month’s horrific destruction of the archaeological site of Palmyra by the Islamic State (IS) is the latest example of ideologically driven vandalism meant to shock those who care about great human cultural achievement. Like their ransacking of the Mosul museum and the sites of Nineveh this spring, and the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, the stated goal of such destruction is to eradicate idolatry seen as blasphemous to a particular religious perspective. But the real aim is to grab attention and destroy something that the global community deems valuable — because they can.

Such destruction is no doubt tragic and a great loss to the appreciation of culture around the world. But such actions are not new — they have occurred since antiquity as a way of attacking the very identity of a group that might see such monuments and works as constitutive of its culture. Many of the greatest artworks of the Mesopotamian Bronze Age were, in fact, discovered by archaeologists in Susa, a site in southern Iran, where they had been taken. Ancient texts often speak of razing cities and sowing salt instead, showing that it is not only people who were conquered, but buildings themselves that had to be destroyed in order to symbolically erase another group. It was only in the past century or so that rules of conduct during wartime outlawed the intentional destruction of culturally significant monuments, buildings and objects.

Though, as an archaeologist, I am sad to see monuments destroyed, I am truly saddened by the loss of life in these conflicts. Part of the reason such places are targeted is because they are seen by some as being more treasured than the lives of those who live around them. This high regard for monuments is sometimes seen as a kind of idolatry, and the IS no doubt undertakes such destruction because it knows the global community will react with horror. If we bemoan the loss of monuments above and beyond human suffering and loss, it will feed this narrative. The Bamiyan Buddhas were bombed at a time when Afghanistan was offered no international aid to address a food shortage, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art was offering millions of dollars to transport the Buddhas to New York in order to preserve them.

This is not to say that tangible things are not worth preserving. In many cases, people are willing to give up their lives for the objects and monuments they value — most recently illustrated by Khaled al-Asaad, the chief of antiquities at Palmyra, who refused to open the site to the IS and paid with his life. Images, as art historian David Freedburg has so eloquently shown, have “power”, and history has witnessed countless episodes where art or objects were safeguarded in the midst of mortal danger, or vandalised because people felt threatened by their power, and so felt the need to neutralise them in some way.

But the wanton destruction of archaeological sites and cultural monuments will continue so long as the global community continues to express shock and outrage each time it happens. The perpetrators want just such a reaction. If the destruction of objects and sites in Syria grab bigger headlines than the ongoing plight of the Syrians themselves, this may lead hopeless people there to sympathise with the IS and regard the rest of the world as having its priorities.

We ought to pay attention to Syria for the sake of its people — those refugees who risk drowning and commit to living forever displaced from their homes, those living in shelters and camps trying to avoid the fighting, and those staying behind to defend the homes they have lived in all their lives. We can care about sites and monuments too — not because they are important for “us”, but because they are part of communities where people have been working, living and dying for thousands of years. “Saving culture” does mean preserving objects. But it also must mean safeguarding the people and communities that live with it and carry it into the future.

The writer, associate professor of anthropology at Queens College, City University of New York, is an editor for the Oxford Companion to Archaeology, Second Edition.

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  1. K
    Sep 7, 2015 at 10:10 am
    By destroying archeological sites any political problem cannot be solved except grabbing attention of the world community for some time. Thre are a number of ways to press the attention of the world to a problem for example, paralysing normal work, which has been emplo to a certain amount of success. But the problem is these forms take a long time and patience. The present organisations have neither patience nor strategy to press demands and achieve them. This applies to all fundementalists.
    1. Ali Shahanshah
      Sep 7, 2015 at 10:18 am
      Monuments are a legacy left behind by our predecessors as a reminder of the Rich and Cultural heritage foundation laid by them.All nations hold their monuments in great pride. Destruction in these times indicates a plan to completely wipe out tracks and traces of a heritage and civilizations. It is devious and must be stopped!
      1. I
        Sep 7, 2015 at 10:35 am
        Evil forces are stupid to believe that they can erase history by destroying visible symbols. Islam is only 1500 years old, whereas mankind is over 5000 years old. Pre-islamic history, art and culture cannot be wiped away by mindless violence.
        1. F
          Sep 7, 2015 at 11:05 am
          The pyramids will be the next target, the so called Muslim majority who claim to be peaceful adherents are equally culpable because of their lack of opposition to such wanton destruction. The world has to recognise this as an Islamic problem and make plans to deal with it.
          1. A
            Sep 7, 2015 at 8:44 am
            American cow boy military adventurism is to blame for this kind of structural destruction of historical sites, monuments and palaces since America invaded Iraq and without a fierce resistance from the part of Iraq army, American army did not prevent hooligans and rioters from destroying/looting Iraq museum, library, palace goods and other historical places and buildings. Taliban/ISIS monsters are now free roamers to destroy historical monuments, sites, buildings, and palaces without immunity. At least UN forces may intervene to declare historical places of war zones to be declared as peace zones with adequate protection.
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