Muslims need to be sensitised to their own material past, claims professor

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[The writer is the professor of Islamic art and architecture at the Université de Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) ]

At the end of August, The Art Newspaper revealed the stunning news that Donny George, president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq, had been forced to flee the country in fear of his life and take refuge in Damascus. In recent months, Dr George sealed up the treasures of the National Museum in Baghdad behind concrete walls, as it was too dangerous to leave them exposed. He was replaced by a relation of the Minister of Tourism, who comes from the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and leader of the resistance movement.

Quite rightly, the world reacted with horror to this new threat to Iraq’s antiquities. No technically competent director is left to protect one of the world’s finest archaeological heritages. A situation with catastrophic potential, such as a new pillage of the museum could take place or objects could be sold off en masse.

It is worth deconstructing this event, in order to understand what has really happened and what the dangers are.

Dr George has worked tirelessly since the invasion in 2003, to protect and recover the antiquities then pillaged from the museum. I have the highest admiration for what he has done. He was and is the right person to interface with Western archaeologists, for the recovery of smuggled artefacts and getting help from Western institutions. I suspect that relations with his own government were by no means so warm. The problem is not that he is a Christian, or that he was a Ba’th party official. In my experience, he did not have a great interest in the Islamic heritage, and no doubt this communicated itself to superiors, whose main interest is indeed Islam.

Frequently, archaeologists in Arab countries follow the role models provided by their Western counterparts. Dr George is one of them. Overwhelmingly, Western archaeologists in the Middle East concentrate on the ancient cultures—Egypt, Mesopotamia, Biblical archaeology, etc.—no doubt seen as the ancestors of their own culture. Medieval Islam is of little interest. In a recent meeting in Paris, intended to relaunch French excavations in Iran, there were 23 ancient expeditions, and one Islamic. Not an untypical example. Many of my colleagues have a genuine goodwill towards more recent studies, but others have no interest at all, and it shows.

It would not be surprising if less well-informed Muslims—I do not speak of the cultivated middle classes, who have a genuine interest in their past—were to see the archaeology of the Middle East as in some way belonging to the foreigners and not to themselves. In some cases, they are right: Hellenism and Rome in the East were colonial empires. In others they are not; a modern Shi’i Iraqi probably has the DNA of a Babylonian. In addition, of course, Islam has a revolutionary tradition, that is, Islam replaced earlier civilisations which were considered to be decadent. Islam has a high appreciation of Jesus, but his prophecy was succeeded by that of Muhammad.

Islamist governments, that is, governments of people with more or less fundamentalist Islamic opinions, are a fact of life in the Middle East these days. There may be more tomorrow. Some effort has to be made to deal with them, in order to protect the archaeological heritages of the countries they govern. Simply giving up on contact is not an option. The archaeological heritage cannot be replaced once it has disappeared. ...

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Barrie Lambert - 11/8/2006

You say that, "Islam has a revolutionary tradition, that is, Islam replaced earlier civilisations which were considered to be decadent". At the risk of seeming pedantic, won't it be more appropriate to describe Islam's revolutionary tradition, literally and practically, as one of rebirth, of reclaiming the pure faith of Abraham for the faithful, just as the renaissance recovered the knowledge of antiquity from beneath the intervening ages? In this sense, revolution implies not so much the rejection of the past as a rejection of the present and its injustices expressed as a desire to reach the future by first returning to an idealised past.