Ancient ruins, terrorism and technology: what the world refuses to lose

The once Temple of Bel, Palmyra (2009)

Following the capture of Palmyra by Daesh in May of this year, historian Tom Holland wrote that ‘to mutilate a country’s past is to cripple its future.’ Following this argument, the imminent destruction of one of the most spectacular Greco-Roman ruins in the Middle East would not be mere collateral damage, but would have long-term repercussions for generations to come. In August and October, fears were confirmed with the explosive demolition of Palmyra’s Temple of Baalshamin (and later the Arch of Triumph), just days after Daesh publicly beheaded the site’s antiquities director. Satellite images and photographic evidence supplied by the extremist group reduced the 2,000-year-old structure to a pile of rubble. And yet, weighed up against loss of life and that of entire communities, reports on material destruction seem to fall flat. But can the plight of civilians be separated so rigidly from their cultural heritage? Are we overlooking the many forms that violence can take when it comes to terrorism?

The destruction joins a long list of obliterated ancient sites and symbols that once epitomised the Middle East’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage and diversity. Similar historical sites and artefacts in Iraq have been targeted this year, justified by Daesh in their fight against ‘idolatry’ and the upholding of their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. Researchers and activists also point towards the incentive of a large financial gain and the profit of the looted antiquities and relics. January witnessed the central library of Mosul ransacked and thousands of books burnt; in February, Daesh demolished masses of ancient artefacts at the city’s central museum; in March, a video emerged showing jihadists blowing up the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud; in April, footage was broadcast in April depicting militants violently damaging Iraq’s ancient city of Hatra with sledgehammers and assault rifles. Such calculated and personal destruction of beautiful wall structures and statues, bit by bit, makes for painful viewing.

Yet while 2015 appears to have witnessed an unprecedented scale of destruction, vandalism of cultural heritage is nothing new. The erasure of the past in order to legitimise a current regime is an act that has been carried out in varying levels throughout history.. Famously, the Library of Alexandria (Egypt) was one of the most significant libraries of the ancient world, until its destruction by fire and the loss of an incalculable mass of cultural knowledge. Opinions vary, but many sources seem to corroborate a fire set by Julius Caesar during his siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. Socrates of Constantinople later writes of the elimination of all pagan temples in the same city, around AD 391. Clearly, the destruction of cultural monuments dates back a long way, often perpetrated in the midst of war and in the name of religious extremism.

Even today, Daesh is not a sole player in its attempted eradication of any memory and history at odds with its own ideologies. Since 1985 especially, fast-paced and ongoing demolition of sites associated with early Islam is commonplace in Saudi Arabia. Today, the government’s planned expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque has led to the obliteration of surrounding eighth-century marble columns and arched porticos, as well as the extensive destruction of multiple mosques and key sites dating from the time of Muhammad. When compared with widespread responses of international indignation to Daesh’s movements in Iraq and Syria (as well as similar condemnation in other countries, such as when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001), Western reaction to Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored destructive activity has been noticeably absent.

Extensive media coverage of Palmyra, along with the UN announcing the Temple’s destruction as a ‘war crime’, resulted in some people declaring the absurdity of such grief over material loss in the face of much greater attacks on and disruption of human life. Yet why does it have to be an either/or matter? If there’s a question of coverage deficiency on Daesh’s brutal massacres in the Middle East, or a rather Eurocentric media output in the West (which is certainly an issue), we have a problem that needs to be dealt with in its own right. The answer is not to decrease other avenues of media representation on issues such as the destruction of Palmyra, but to raise awareness of all of Daesh’s crimes to the same necessary level and quality of discussion.

Although Daesh’s campaign against ancient history is not a direct assault on human life, it is an assault on human culture and the nature of this unique civilisation. It is an assault on thousands of years of preservation, care, creativity, and worship. As Holland goes on to argue, it’s not just a matter of preserving the past: ‘When, in due course, the killing stops, the blood dries, and the Syrian people attempt to refashion something out of the rubble to which their land has been reduced, they will need symbols.’ The destruction of these sites and artefacts is as important for the future as it is for the past.

However, as Daesh continues to threaten centuries of historical symbolism and achievement, changes are being implemented to conserve and make known some of the greatest historical wonders of the world, wonders that do still exist. Efforts at conservation and chronicling of cultural heritage is an outlet for solidarity in the face of terrorism, for revival in the face of destruction, for cultural appreciation in the face of cultural vandalism. One detrimental impact of war in the Middle East has been a huge hit to tourism and an obstacle to cultural awareness and enjoyment of one of the most historically rich regions in the world. Hope comes from an unlikely source: Google.

Temple ruins of Al-Deir, one of the largest monuments in Petra, Jordan.

Just last month, Google Street View expanded its coverage to the ancient archaeological site of Petra (and twenty-nine other sites across Jordan), allowing history enthusiasts to enjoy a narrated tour of the ruin’s extensive tombs, sites and amphitheatres with a click of their keyboard. The launch joins a number of ‘world wonders’ already viewable from Google, such as the temples of Angkor in Cambodia and the ruins of Pompeii. Although concerns over virtual tourism are not lost on me – certainly ‘travel’ of this type is not going to generate much local revenue –, the move has been hailed by many as a new era of accessible cultural knowledge for all, especially when tourism in many of these areas has dwindled in recent years due to increasing conflict. Advocates of such technology also point out damage in the past caused by the thousands of tourists visiting sites like Petra every day. Is technology and highly-advanced cyber-viewing a new way of promoting both the preservation and accessibility of history?

While I’m not sure that the long-term vision of allowing tourists to explore the world from their armchairs is particularly wise, I’m inclined to think that the temporary virtual exploration of sites either threatened by future destruction or rendered unvisitable by violence in the Middle East could be a good thing. Stories of violent destruction and inhumanity are so unrelenting that the rich abundance of culture and history hidden within the borders of war-torn countries tends to be overlooked. Failing to value their heritage would be adding to the existing tragedy. We should look forward to a time in which computer-simulation of tourism becomes unnecessary – but, for now, technology and history seem to be improbable allies banding together in defiance of a common enemy.

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