War over the destruction of ancient ruins is madness

Roundup
tags: Syria, Palmyra, ISIS, ISIL, Ancient Artifacts



Rory Olcayto is an award winning journalist and critic. He is a frequent contributor to newspaper, radio and television features with an architectural focus and regularly speaks at a number of industry events. Before entering the field of journalism, Rory studied architecture at the University of Strathclyde, worked in practice in Glasgow, Liege and Istanbul, and as a designer in the videogames industry.  Thumbnail Image - "Grande collonade street06(js)" by Jerzy Strzelecki - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Is the destruction of Palmyra by the self-proclaimed Islamic State ‘unique’? Do its actions represent a new level of barbarism hitherto unseen? Should we go to war against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq to save other classical sites from destruction?

No. Nevertheless these are questions worth asking, if only to fully understand the nature of what is happening in the lands now under Islamic State’s control. I raise these points for two other reasons. First, in our Culture essay this week Dan Cruickshank says that risking human lives to save Palmyra from further destruction is the right course of action. Second, last week I was asked by the BBC to speak on Radio 4’s World at One, an offer I rejected on the basis that I was required to say that Islamic State was ‘doing something that no culture in the region has done before’.

In truth, the actions of Islamic State, the wilful destruction of cultural assets, are typical – both in the region and elsewhere. For example, in 2001 the Taliban blew up the giant Buddha of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. This is what happens in war, almost as a matter of course. And it has happened before to Palmyra, too: at the end of the 14th century it was comprehensively wrecked by Tamerlane.

There are numerous other similar examples which show this isn’t simply a Middle Eastern – or Muslim – phenomenon.  The Parthenon was vandalised by early Christians. England’s cathedrals were hammered by Protestants. More recently Croats destroyed the bridge at Mostar, largely on the basis that it was considered a Muslim edifice. So to describe Islamic State as somehow exceptional would be to misunderstand completely what is happening in Syria. It is, instead, entirely predictable. It does not, as others have said, provide evidence of how empty Islamic State’s thinking is, nor show them to be more ‘evil’ than other aggressors down the ages. And it certainly does not provide an incentive for war, as both Cruickshank, this week in the AJ and Rowan Moore (in The Observer) have written. Such a course of action would play into Islamic State’s hands: it thrives on violence and war. Who knows how long such a conflict would drag on for, and how many innocent lives would be lost?. ...




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