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Expropriation of artefacts as a demonstration of power

This article is prompted by the current state of affairs in Iraq & Syria, where ISIS fighters are systematically destroying heritage from cultures that do not fit entirely into their worldview. This is not a new approach however & has been going on for as long as people can remember. The means & the stated aims might vary, but the end result – denigration of the culture of the local population – is invariably the outcome.

The empty seat once occupied by the Bamiyan Buddhas before they were systematically destroyed by the Taliban [1]

The empty seat once occupied by the Bamiyan Buddhas before they were systematically destroyed by the Taliban

Guardian [2]

If great architecture belongs to humanity, do we have a responsibility to save it in wartimes?
Jeff Sparrow
Tuesday 7 October 2014 03.25 BST

The lands of Syria and Iraq gave rise to some the oldest societies we know: the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Parthians, the Romans and many others. Traces of all of these peoples remain in archeological sites of the utmost significance.

And now they’re being destroyed.

A fortnight ago, satellite imagery revealed the cultural effects of Syria’s civil war. “The buildings of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, has suffered extensive damage,” explained Archaeology magazine. “The ancient city of Bosra, the ancient site of Palmyra, the ancient villages of Northern Syria, and the castles Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din have all been damaged by mortar impacts and military activity.”

So too in Iraq.

Sometimes, the destruction is accidental (if that term means anything in wartime). Sometimes it’s deliberate, with the Islamic State systematically leveling ancient religious sites.

After looters rampaged through Baghdad’s National Museum in 2003, Francis Deblauwe established the (now defunct) Iraq and Archaeology site, which eloquently expresses what’s now once again happening. He wrote:

War in this cradle of civilization beyond the horrendous, almost invisible casualties – always somebody’s husband, always somebody’s son – and downplayed ‘collateral damage’ – always somebody’s wife, always somebody’s child – inevitably takes its toll on the archaeological heritage as well. After all, this fertile flood plain and surrounding mountains gave birth to agriculture, to writing, to cities, to laws, to the 24 hours in a day, and many more things we take for granted.


Iraq takes its name from Uruk, the ancient city said to have been ruled by Gilgamesh, sometime between 2,500 and 2,700 BC.

In the epic poem that bears his name, Gilgamesh leaves Uruk, a place he constructed, stricken with grief after the death of his friend. After many adventures, he accepts that only the gods endure forever, and returns with a new appreciation of the city – a human achievement that offers the only immortality humans can expect.

David Ferry’s beautiful translation describes Uruk as follows:

The outer wall

shines in the sun like brightest copper; the inner

wall is beyond the imagining of kings.

Study the brickwork, study the fortification;

climb the great ancient staircase to the terrace;

study how it is made…

Uruk’s ruins were rediscovered in the 19th century, 250kms south of Baghdad. That means we can, quite literally, study the brickwork and the fortifications and the outer walls upon which Gilgamesh once gazed – and when we do, we confront the same questions about eternity and loss he pondered some 4,500 years earlier.

The ancient stones exemplify the persistence of our collective culture, a persistence that provides, as the poem suggests, our sole consolation for the inescapability of our individual deaths. That’s why, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin argues that we have a responsibility to such artefacts. He warns:

They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they labored for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate.

Great architecture, Ruskin says, belongs to humanity as a whole, and not to “those mobs who do violence to it”. It’s an argument that surely applies to the relics of ancient Mesopotamia, caught between Islamic State fighters and US strike bombers.

But can we – or, rather, should we – proclaim the rights of the dead when patently we cannot guarantee the rights of the living?


Nearly 200,000 people have already perished in Syria’s civil war. Estimates of deaths from the 2003 Iraq invasion vary from several hundred thousand to over a million, depending on which source you cite. In the midst of almost unimaginable blood and suffering, is it wrong to care about the walls of Uruk?

“I wish to be absolutely clear,” writes Deblauwe, “no epic Sumerian cuneiform tablet, majestic Neo-Assyrian lamassu sculpture or any other Mesopotamian artifact is worth a human life, be it Iraqi, American, British or other.”

The bluntness of that statement, from a man who palpably cares about Sumerian cuneiform tablets, contrasts with the abstraction of Ruskin’s formulation, which champions a generalised humanity over the flesh and blood of today’s people. Call it the antiquarian temptation: a tendency to privilege a bygone world over the one in which we actually live.

There’s a long, disreputable tradition of venerating ancient Rome and Greece while denigrating anyone with the temerity to live in those cities today. When ideologues seized cultural treasures from subaltern populations, they generally did so on the basis that the ignorant locals couldn’t appreciate the stuff’s value. That’s how major British museums built their collections, from the Elgin Marbles to the bones of Aboriginal people.

Yet it’s worth thinking about the perceived need for such expropriation.


Why did the Taliban dynamite the Bamiyan buddhas? Like all despots, Mullah Omar and his men made the past into a guarantor of the future. The giant statues represented an alternative system of thought. By blasting away the ancient sculptures, the Taliban proclaimed, “there are no choices here – and there never have been.”

The absorption of other civilisations’ treasures into the British empire spoke to the same need. Consider the incorporation of the diamond known as the Koh-i-Noor into the crown of Queen Elizabeth, an obvious and ostentatious demonstration of Britain’s power over India.

Likewise, settler societies such as Australia have always needed to denigrate the achievements of those they displaced, so as to justify the fiction of terra nullius. It’s a process that continues today. Some archaeologists calls the Brewarrina Fish Traps the oldest human constructions in the world – but how many white Australians have even heard of them?

In 1258, Genghis Khan sacked Baghdad, and systematically annihilated its famous House of Wisdom, the first ever university. “It was so horrible there are no words to describe it,” wrote the Persian poet Saadi of Shiraz. “I wish I had died earlier and not seen how these fools destroyed these treasures of knowledge and learning. I thought I understood the world but this holocaust is so strange and pointless I am struck dumb.”

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein records remarkably similar responses to the plunder of the National Museum of Iraq after the US invasion. “It was the soul of Iraq,” said one local merchant. “If the museum doesn’t recover the looted treasures, I will feel like a part of my own soul has been stolen.” “Baghdad is the mother of Arab culture,” said another man, “and they want to wipe out our culture.”

I wish I had died. My own soul has been stolen. Can we truly assert that no cultural artifact’s worth a human life?

Of course, the question’s unanswerable, since valuing the irreplaceable (whether a person or an artwork) constitutes, almost by definition, a category error. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the past and its culture cannot be so easily disentangled from the present and its politics.

Klein explains the pillage of Baghdad’s museum in terms of the neoconservative attempts to reconstruct Iraq as a deregulated, free market utopia. She quotes the coalition economic advisor Peter McPherson, who saw looting as a DIY privatisation, a legitimate beginning to the downsizing of state assets. “I thought the privatisation that occurs sort of naturally when somebody took over their state vehicle, or began to drive a truck that the state used to own, was just fine,” McPherson explained.

How can you protect a common human heritage when you’re innately opposed to collectivity? More importantly, why would you even try?


In the New York Times, Ziauddin Sardar discussed the historical destruction taking place taking in Mecca, where ancient sites have been crudely bulldozed by developers.

“The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, has been turned into a block of toilets,” he says. “The Makkah Hilton is built over the house of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the prophet and the first caliph.”

Like the Islamic State militants they fund, the Saudi Salafists despise alternative interpretations of Islam. It’s common to call their philosophy “medieval”, but the label misrepresents the entirely 21st phenomenon taking place in Mecca. As Sardar argues, the Saudis have turned the “spiritual heart of Islam [into] an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount.”

The same might be said of the Islamic State itself. Its supporters raze ancient sites, not only to wipe out the traditions they represent, but also to capitalise on the thriving market for antiquities in the west, reportedly raising US$36m alone from the looting of al-Nabuk in Syria.

On the surface, the rich cosmopolitans who buy the stuff and the ascetic fundamentalists who steal it could not be more different. But they share an identical indifference to history as a collective resource for humanity. Do we need, then, a team of George Clooney-style “Monuments Men”, specially trained to guide the US forces in Iraq and minimise the historical damage they cause?

In 2009, the archeologist Yannis Hamilakis wrote a stinging rebuke to colleagues embedding with western militaries, arguing that they simply legitimised the destruction they sought to forestall. He quoted the Iraqi-born academic Zainab Bahrani: “The entirety of Iraq is a world cultural heritage site, and there is no way that a strategic bombing can avoid something archaeological.”

Just as recent “humanitarian” interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya have culminated in humanitarian catastrophes, efforts by what Hamilikis dubs “the military-archaeology complex” are unlikely to succeed, since long-term preservation depends upon a relationship between the history of a site and those who inhabit it today.

The great poet and designer William Morris argued something similar during his campaign to spare the ancient buildings of Britain from the ravages of industrialisation.“Believe me,” he explained to supporters, “it will not be possible for a small knot of cultivated people to keep alive an interest in the art and records of the past amidst the present conditions of a sordid and heart-breaking struggle for existence for the many, and a languid sauntering through life for the few.”

On another occasion, he put it like this: “If we have no hope for the future, I do not see how we can look back on the past with pleasure.”

The same might be said about Iraq and Syria today. The fight for our collective heritage necessarily involves a struggle for peace and social justice, for it’s only when people feel a stake in the world around them that they can appreciate the achievements of the ancients as part of their lives.