Palmyra, Syria.  Photo: ALAMY via The Telegraph


Can it save key world sites currently doomed by fanaticism?

Cultural treasures throughout the Middle East are in danger from Islamist fanatics.

The Telegraph tells us

Isil ‘blows up Temple of Bel’ in ancient Syrian city of Palmyra

It is the second of the city’s ancient temples to be destroyed in a week as jihadist groups continues its programme of “cultural cleansing”

Readers may be aware that Islamists also blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas (2001), have destroyed and threaten many others, including the Pyramids, and—should they reign unfettered in Turkey—will likely destroy Gobekli Tepe, the earliest extensive religious site, from about 12000 BC.

Western governments today do not typically care much about this sort of thing, despite formal protests. They believe that all cultures and belief systems are equivalent, regardless of their basis or outcomes. Destruction is as good as creation.

Second, the citizens whose votes they now seek often know little of human cultural history and do not consider its destruction an issue. 

But, for those who wish to know, there is a concept in Islam called Jahiliyah

the period preceding the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muammad. In Arabic the word means “ignorance,” or “barbarism,” and indicates a negative Muslim evaluation of pre-Islamic life and culture in Arabia as compared to the teachings and practices of Islam. – Britannica

Many Islamists believe that it is their religious duty to destroy all evidence of Jahiliyah.

It’s not even confined to non-Islamic religion. Referencing an earlier extremist religious movement, Wahhabism, The Guardian reports,

The influence of Wahhabism meant that 90% of Islamic monuments, holy places, tombs and mausoleums in the Arabian peninsula were destroyed on the grounds that they were “polytheistic”. In 1924, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud occupied Mecca and destroyed the grave of Khadijah, the prophet Muhammad’s wife, and that of his uncle, Abu Talib. In Medina, he demolished the mausoleum over the graves of the prophet Muhammad’s descendants, including that of his daughter, Fatimah.

Historically, this is not even a new type of situation. Christian fanatics sometimes destroyed largely abandoned pagan temples toward the end of the Roman era (350–600 AD). And, during their heyday, the Vikings destroyed many Christian artifacts, for the value of the metals.

Can anything be done? Simon Jenkins, Britain’s National Trust chairman, suggests

What the West can and should do is prepare for the aftermath of this devastation. A huge task will one day face those who care for these places. Syria and Iraq host the records of the dawn of the known world. The ancient city of Aleppo has been flattened. The Assyrian and Parthian capitals are bulldozed. The oldest Christian churches on earth are being wiped off the map as you read this.

These sites must be restored, with replicas if necessary. There should be no ideological Unesco nonsense about ‘inauthenticity’. As many of Europe’s medieval churches are Victorian, so many Mesopotamian sites had been heavily restored. Like Arthur Evans at Knossos, early archaeologists were keen to ‘stabilise’ these sites, including Agatha Christie’s husband, Max Mallowan, who worked at Nimrud. The Bamiyan Buddhas were themselves partly restored. The ruins of Palmyra were reconstructed by the French. As for what remains of Babylon, it is mostly the creation of a certain Saddam Hussein.

Another suggestion is to use digital and laser technology to replicate the treasures, at least in form, if not substance:

Residents of Bamiyan got a rare opportunity over the weekend: a chance to once again see giant Buddhas that have been piles of rubble for over a decade. 3-D projection technology has already been used to resurrect dead music legends and pipe busy politicians into campaign rallies, and now it’s been employed to recreate a cultural icon that watched over this valley in Afghanistan for more than 1,500 years. … Reproductions like Afghanistan’s laser Buddhas are inadequate substitutes for destroyed artifacts, but they can nevertheless defy that destruction and preserve some measure of cultural patrimony. 

We need to consider these options seriously. Today we soon face much destruction of physical artifacts by unreasoning fanatics. But not necessarily of the information that underlies them, if we choose to use our new technologies wisely.

In a report on the situation in ISIS-held Mosul this week, the BBC’s Ghadi Sary told a story about leaving a reproduced sculpture of a winged bull (ISIS had destroyed the original) in his hotel room, only to later find a note on it apparently written by someone on the hotel staff: “It said, ‘My greetings to you and to whoever sculpted this. It smells of our civilization. It smells of our lost heritage.’ Signed, ‘The son of Iraq.’”

A daughter of Canada greets you, son of Iraq.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...