Are we willing to die to save the past?

Archaeologist Alex Joffe on how Western empowerment of Islamists threatens precious antiquities.

Alex Joffe

Topics World

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Preserving the past has costs. Much of the world shares the belief that the past has intrinsic value, which is encoded into laws and regulations that imperfectly protect, preserve and study historical and archaeological remains.

Contributions, admission fees and taxes pay for the upkeep of monuments from the Parthenon to the Liberty Bell. When highways are constructed they are diverted around historical landmarks, or the landmarks are moved. Archaeological excavations slow construction everywhere. But are we willing to kill or die for the past?

The question is not quite as absurd as it sounds. Syrian rebels and Assad regime loyalists are pillaging archaeological sites. Malian Islamists are systematically demolishing the tombs of Muslim notables in Timbuktu. And there are renewed reports of calls from Egyptian Islamists to demolish the pyramids on religious grounds. The West needs to ponder the question of what can and should be done to defend archaeological and historical sites, if anything.

Unintended consequences abound. The destruction in Timbuktu was the direct result of the poorly thought-out intervention in support of the Libyan rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi. That rebellion and countless weapons have now washed over Africa, sparking among other things the Malian coup that freed Saharan Islamists to wreak havoc on Timbuktu. The Libyan intervention also sparked looting of that country’s archaeological sites and museums, and local Islamists have vented their rage on a Second World War British military cemetery as well as other sites.

The same occurred in Iraq and now Egypt and Syria; with repressive rule removed or attenuated, locals have returned to their traditional vocations of mining archaeological sites for saleable goods. Ideological calls to destroy the past have also increased. The Taliban destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan, and now the demolitions in Timbuktu, suggest these are not idle threats.

But what practically can be done? The international community through UNESCO has issued calls for Malian Islamists to stop their attacks, and for the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria to be preserved, which have, of course, been ignored. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has called the Malian attacks war crimes. The World Archaeological Congress has issued a strongly worded press release.

These accomplish nothing except to salve the wounded consciences of Western academics and bureaucrats. The United Nations Security Council has threatened sanctions against the Malian Islamists but military intervention in Timbuktu – to rescue its people, monuments or its 700,000 medieval manuscripts – still seems unlikely. In Syria, it seems virtually impossible. But military intervention appears the only means of rescue.

Is such intervention desirable? The recently fashionable doctrine ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) has fallen on hard times, thanks to the enormous costs of intervention in a place like Syria. In Libya, a lite version of R2P was possible only with American airpower, and it still failed to secure Gaddafi’s vast supplies of conventional weapons, including portable surface-to-air missiles.

In Libya, as in Iraq, the costs in human lives and the dimming of the political future through empowerment of Islamists have been as predictable as the destruction of archaeological and historical sites. But Western governments and academics remain unwilling to see these as direct consequences of humanitarian (and in the case of Egypt, political) interventions they supported. Ironically, this silence repeats then-US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious observation, upon being informed about the looting in Baghdad: ‘Stuff happens and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.’ In Syria, destruction is a consequence of non-intervention.

Just whose responsibility is it to preserve the past anyway? Archaeologists themselves have always been of two minds. On the one hand, they have argued that the past belongs to all mankind, in the process condemning nationalists who exploit sites, such as the Parthenon, as symbols. On the other hand, out of moralism, anti-imperialist sentiment and to curry favour, they have supported national claims to restore antiquities, such as the Elgin Marbles or Khmer statues from Cambodia, to their countries of origin.

Archaeologists also have an uneven track record of condemning the destruction of antiquities. When the Baghdad Museum was looted during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US was excoriated for permitting, or committing, an unprecedented cultural crime. When Iraq, China or any other country – where archaeologists wish to retain access – destroys sites, floods valleys to create reservoirs or demolishes historic quarters of cities for Olympic villages, complaints are muted, if they are heard at all. Their standing is as compromised as any government.

But is the past worth killing and dying for, especially if these are the only means of saving it? Bamiyan has shown that willingness to destroy antiquities, in the name of ideology or profit, foreshadows a willingness to destroy people for the same reasons. But any intervention in Mali, even on behalf of its people, will be likened to imperialism and inevitably accused of being (another) ‘war against Islam’. Military intervention is obviously inconceivable in a place like Egypt. What leverage remains? Economic sanctions that starve an already desperate population? Political sanctions on Islamist leaders who regard themselves as divinely guided?

The Arab Spring has brought another phase of a twenty-first-century mass archaeological extinction event that is transforming the Old World. But once we go beyond the level of self-satisfying outrage, the choices for action to preserve the past are far from clear. Salvaging fragments in the future may be the only practical and moral options.

Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is currently a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Visit his website here.

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Topics World


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