Archaeological terrorism, a thing of the past and only briefly revisited in 2001 by the Afghan Taliban when they dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas, is back like a rash. Ancient — and irreplaceable — archaeological remains, along with more recently built shrines and Shia mosques, are being reduced to rubble as the jihadist Islamic State (IS) rampages through Iraq and Syria.
The IS is echoing what the Taliban said after they blew up the 1,700-year-old Buddha statues — we are merely carrying out Islamic religious iconoclasm. However, stamping out religious structures and cultural symbols doesn’t necessarily destroy the underlying civilisation. Ancient cultures are often quite resilient in the face of upstart iconoclasts.
The most spectacular failure of iconoclasm in recent times was televised to a global audience, from Timbuktu, Mali. In 2012, when armed groups, including al Qaeda-linked jihadists, occupied this ancient and vibrant African city, they played out the ultimate jihadi fantasy. After committing numerous human rights abuses, they went after the shrines, destroying 14 of the 16 sacred mausoleums of the “City of 333 Saints”. Then they torched thousands of rare manuscripts about the history of Islam in Africa, because in the jihadi view, everything that needs to be known is in the Koran.
But the Islamists’ paradise — or rather hell — did not last long. Because of the stubborn resistance offered by the local population to the Salafists, and an international military intervention led by the French, the occupiers were driven out. Now, the EU is providing funds for the reconstruction of these shrines.
According to a Brookings Foundation report dated 10 June, the extremists primarily went after Timbuktu’s “culture, notably music, including the world-renowned Festival Au Desert, as well as priceless manuscripts that document Timbuktu’s position as the centre of Islamic civilisation in Africa during the Renaissance period”. This was no accident, it says.
“Culture provides the foundation of identity, a bulwark against fundamentalism and the authoritarianism of the rigid sharia law imposed by the invaders. It is no wonder that extremists try to silence and/or destroy icons of history and culture — from the Buddhas of Bamiyan, to the art galleries in Tunis, to the music, manuscripts and world heritage sites of Timbuktu.”
We only have to look at the destruction of Hindu temples in India by the likes of Mohammed Ghori, Mahmud Ghazni, Aurangzeb and many other rulers of the age of Muslim invasions, beginning from the Arab attacks on Sindh in the seventh century CE.
Besides temple razing, these invaders also indulged in mass slaughters, and imposed jaziya (poll) tax on Hindus. And yet, after more than 1,000 years of Muslim rule in Sindh, there remained a thriving Hindu population well into the 20th century. It was only under a British-midwifed Pakistan that the Hindus had to leave the province, which was the cradle of the ancient Harappan Civilisation.
The temple of Somnath provides a good example of Hindu resilience against repeated cultural genocide. The ancient temple was destroyed several times, most devastatingly in 1024 when Ghazni brought down the temple and its citadel. He broke the temple’s main idol to pieces and the stone fragments were taken to Ghazni, where they were set into the steps of a mosque he built.
The temple was destroyed again in 1296 by Allauddin Khilji, in 1375 and in 1451 by the sultans of Gujarat, and finally by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1665. And yet Somnath was rebuilt each time, mostly notably in 1951, after Sardar Patel gave the go-ahead, despite opposition by both Gandhi and Nehru.
Similarly, across the Indian subcontinent there are thousands of such examples of iconoclasm. Despite these scars, Hindu civilisation healed quickly because its roots were deep. After all the troubles taken by the fundamentalists to destroy Hinduism, we had the Mughal emperor Akbar virtually renouncing Islam and establishing an alternative religion named Din-i-Ilahi; we had the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh translating the Rig Veda into Persian; and we had Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of the kingdom of Awadh composing Radha Kanhaiyya Ka Kissa (Tale of Radha and Krishna). This Hindu-Islam synthesis prompted the 20th century Islamic ideologue Mohammed Iqbal to pen his famous Shikwa, lamenting that Indian Muslims had become idolatrous, and how the ship of Islam that had set sail from Arabia conquering everything in its path, had sunk in the Ganga.
Some ancient cultures were not always lucky. Greece and Rome belong in this category. When the Christian Byzantines gained full control of Greece by the fifth century CE, they outlawed the ancient Greek religion and ceremonies. Then the Christians converted the Parthenon — the 2,500-year-old temple of goddess Athena —into the church of the Virgin Mary and Child, in the process defacing statues, cutting windows through sculptured friezes and destroying structures that had stood for an entire millennium.
In 1801, the British, the champions of colonial loot, descended on Greece. Britain’s envoy in Constantinople, Thomas Bruce (the Earl of Elgin) stripped the temple of its last remaining sculptures, including its famous friezes, and shipped them to England. Worse, to lighten the load during transportation, Elgin ordered the back halves of the sculptures to be sawed off. The ‘Elgin Marbles’ are now on permanent display at the British Museum, despite repeated demands from Greece for their return.
Contrary to the western portrayal of the meeting of Christianity and Hellenism as a peaceful amalgamation, Evaggelos Vallianatos writes in The Passion of the Greeks (2006) that the encounter was bloody and brutal. If Yazidis and Christians are facing the brunt of the is’ iconoclasm and macabre beliefs, back then the ancient Greeks and Romans encountered equally fanatic missionaries.
“The Christians made the whole country a cemetery, which quite unintentionally preserved the aftermath of their plunder and genocide of the Greeks and Hellenic civilisation,” writes Vallianatos. “The products of Christian culture — the Bible, the liturgy, the miracles of Jesus and the saints, the dogmas of sin, paradise and hell, the icons of the religious hierarchy — come from a world that has nothing to do with the Parthenon and the philosophy and piety of the Greeks, who built this greatest masterpiece of Greek and western culture in order to honour the Greek virgin goddess Athena.”
In their review of Vallianatos’ book, professors Apostolos Athanassakis and Phillip Mitsis agree: “Violence, political conspiracy and downright destruction of the great religious centres of antiquity were much more the order of the day.”
What happened to the great Roman Empire? According to Vallianatos, “Constantine inflicted a nearly mortal wound on the civilisation of Rome. He was the first Roman emperor who, by his actions, became no longer the chief magistrate of the Roman people, but a despot armed with troops and his own state religion, Christianity. He wrecked the ancient Roman tradition that the emperor, the princeps, was the legal representative of the senate and the Roman people.”
One of the greatest Greek tragedies was the end of the Olympics. “Here was a millennial tradition of athletic competition for arête (courage, virtue, equality before the law, goodness, manliness, nobility and excellence) started by Herakles, son of Zeus and the Greeks’ greatest hero, and Emperor Theodosios, thinking like a barbarian, brought it to an end,” writes Vallianatos.
The rise of Christianity and the decline of classical Greece and Rome resulted in the dark Middle Ages in Europe. The scientific age of Euclid and Aristotle was replaced by the era of witch-hunts and Inquisitions.
A similar fate awaits West Asia if the IS expands unchecked and is allowed to grow roots. But like France has shown in Mali, if the free world has the cojones to jump in and fight, then ancient cultures may yet be saved.