Recently, Iraqi government troops waging a bloody battle for Mosul recaptured the historical Great Mosque of al-Nuri from ISIL. Or to be more precise, its ruins: only a week before, this monument of architecture, which is referred to as the Iraqi Leaning Tower of Pisa, was destroyed. Coalition forces blame this vandalism on the Islamists, who in turn insist that it was the Americans that bombed the culturally important structure. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri is just one of many historical and cultural monuments that have been destroyed in recent years in the Middle East. Experts have repeatedly suggested removing ancient artifacts from the conflict zone and placing them in museums all over the world. How do we preserve humanity’s heritage? Lenta.ru investigates.
The Minaret That Fell Down
Several simultaneous explosions on different levels of the giant leaning tower, and a few seconds later – clouds of black smoke billowing out of nearby structures, and a thundering that could be heard from miles away. The minaret of the al-Nuri mosque soundlessly falls on its side, to rare cries of ‘Allahu akhbar’.
The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was one of the symbols of Mosul and all Iraq. It was built in the thirteenth century, but either the architects miscalculated or the bricks couldn’t withstand the hot sun – in the end, the minaret leaned. It was called the Iraqi Leaning Tower of Pisa; the Muslims believed that the minaret leaned to bow to Mohammed as he passed, the Christians – that the structure bowed to the grave of the Holy Mother, which legend places near Erbil. The explosion put an end to these debates.
The Islamists state that airplanes led by US coalition forces bombed the mosque and the minaret as part of a routine airstrike against Mosul districts where insurgents had become entrenched. The Iraqi government and the coalition forces insist that terrorists destroyed the building, not wanting a sacred place to fall into enemy hands – after all, it was at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri that, in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a ‘worldwide caliphate’.
Whatever the reason, the al-Nuri mosque is no more, just like many other monuments to the past that have been wiped off the face of the earth by the wars and revolutions that have wracked the Middle East in recent years. In 2015, Islamic terrorists destroyed Mosul’s central library, building a fire of thousands of ancient treatises on history, philosophy and culture; they tore down an exhibition at a Mosul museum with sledgehammers and jackhammers. The following year, they destroyed the ‘Gate of God’ – the entrance to Assyrian Nineveh. They razed the ruins of ancient Nimrud and Hatra.
Thievery for Good
In the nineteenth century, buying works of art in the East was considered good style. In 1801-1812, the special British envoy at Constantinople Lord Elgin took a huge number of sculptures and bas-reliefs out of Greece with the permission of the Ottoman Empire. Then a wave of Egyptomania gripped Europe, and the famous Cleopatra’s Needle appeared in London on the Victoria Embankment, and in St. Petersburg – the no less famous Sphinxes.
Back then, over a century ago, public opinion was mostly on the side of collectors, although there were exceptions: for example, Byron openly called Lord Elgin a thief, a swindler and a vandal that stole the Greek people’s cultural heritage. There was no one to speak out for the Egyptians and the Arabs. It was obvious to any educated gentleman: the best thing that uncultured farmers and shepherds could do for precious antiques was to sell them as soon as possible to European collectors.
In the second half of the twentieth century, everything changed. Middle-eastern countries gained independence, the majority of them gained secular regimes through election or military revolution. These regimes demanded that the cultural heritage taken away in colonial times be returned to them. The process of returning these treasures was slow: Europe and the USA were in no hurry to give their collections back, for which the Soviet press regularly raked them over the coals. Nobody back then would have thought that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, historians and culture experts would bless the western museums for their dawdling.
By Force of Arms
“Cultural treasures must be protected with military might. Culture has the same rights as people, so the military must be involved in the defense of cultural monuments. They must not only be protected from the tides of war – no, the military should protect them in general, not just during conflicts. We have examples from history when people sacrificed their lives to save cultural monuments. We know that today’s battle for Palmyra is a battle to save a cultural heritage.”
That’s a quote from a speech by the general director of the State Hermitage Museum, academic Mikhail Piotrovsky at the conference “Protecting Cultural Heritage” organized by the DOC Research Institute in Berlin.
It’s hard not to agree with Piotrovsky. But it’s often impossible to defend against threats with military power. It’s enough to remember that very same Palmyra, where due to the tides of war, Syrian troops had to leave an already almost liberated city, and the city’s ancient temples again fell into the hands of insurgents. In addition, it’s rarely possible to keep a culturally valuable building undamaged in the heat of battle: when Syrian troops recaptured UNESCO heritage site from insurgents in 2014 – the castle Krak des Chevaliers – the fortress still lost one of its towers in spite of all the precautionary measures that were taken.
But even when relics can be put in a museum, there’s no guarantee that they’ll remain safe and sound. It’s enough to recall the fate of the museums of Baghdad and Cairo: over 15 thousand exhibits were lost from the first when American troops stormed the Iraqi capital – stolen by looters and US troops alike. Only 4 thousand items were returned. The remainder disappeared without a trace. In Cairo during the Arab Spring of 2011, two gilded wooden statues of Tutankhamun and a statue of Nefertiti were looted from a museum.
In Piotrovsky’s opinion, the best option is to distribute cultural monuments among museums to make them less vulnerable to terrorists. “Cultural heritage must be spread throughout the world and then, perhaps, it can be saved,” stated the Hermitage director. “We all remember the recent monstrous examples of destruction against cultural objects in the countries of their origin. We’re seeing countries that gave birth to priceless works of art fall into chaos and disarray. Thank God the artifacts and wall fragments from ancient Babylon are currently kept in Berlin. Otherwise they’d be getting destroyed in modern Babylon.”
It is unlikely, however, that even under the threat of destruction any of the world’s governments will agree to give away items of cultural heritage – tantamount to giving up their sovereignty. In addition, even in countries that are considered peaceful and safe, cultural monuments are sometimes under threat.
In December 1992, 150 thousand Hindus assembled for a rally in the city of Ayodhya, organized by the leaders of the opposition in the Bharatiya Janata Party, to demand the demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque, which was built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple. A few hours of fiery speeches was all it took to turn the demonstration toward the physical: the huge crowd of believers overwhelmed the police barriers and dismantled the mosque stone by stone in mere hours. Muslims took to the streets after the news of the mosque’s destruction, and over the following few days more than two thousand people died in clashes between adherents of Hinduism and Islam.
This story illustrates the chief problem that inevitably arises when we talk about preserving humanity’s shared heritage. The fact that what is sacred to some might be offensive to others. The mosque, built 400 years prior, had no value to Hindus.
Sometimes cultural differences are so obvious that people act against their own interests. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the gigantic Buddha statues in the Bamyan valley after Mullah Omar declared: “There is only one God, and these statues were built for a mistaken belief. They must be destroyed so that they can’t be cult objects now or in the future.” The destruction of the statues caused a wave of indignation all over the world, and when the Americans invaded Afghanistan a year later, the Taliban found no sympathizers.
The problem isn’t only with the IS and the Taliban. Civilized American soldiers that sat through history classes in middle school used the remains of ancient structures as firing ranges when they invaded Iraq. In the ruins of Babylon they built a helicopter pad, discarding any garbage they didn’t need – like stone bas-reliefs and clay tablets of cuneiform writing. Until the representatives of different cultures learn to respect and understand each other, and until that understanding reaches every human being, the destruction of cultural heritage will continue.