Palmyra: Is escalating western wars way to stop Isis destroying archaeological sites?

Neil Faulkner, . Posted in News

As archaeology becomes an argument for escalating imperialist war, how should anti-war archaeologists respond, asks Neil Faulkner.


PALMYRA, one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, is now under IS control. A wealthy caravan-city on the ancient Silk Road, Palmyra was, briefly, the capital of an anti-Roman rebel empire during the 3rd century AD. Its exceptionally well-preserved art and architecture stand testimony to a cosmopolitan blending of cultures at this meeting place of ancient peoples.

IS practice is to loot portable antiquities for sale on the international art market, and to destroy standing structures with explosives, bulldozers, and hammers. This has already been the fate of the Assyrian ruins at Nimrud, the Parthian ruins at Hatra, and the Archaeological Museum at Mosul.

The reaction in the heritage community has been predictable. Leading archaeologists, historians, curators, and heritage officials have called for action to save the sites. According to Dan Snow, TV presenter and President of the Council for British Archaeology, ‘London museums lead the world in preserving the past. I think London should be playing a big role in preserving their [the people of the Middle East’s] heritage. There are local people there who want to help and we should facilitate them as much as possible.’

Unsurprisingly, Tory politicians are echoing these sentiments. Boris Johnson was foaming: ‘If Palmyra is taken down that tragic, brutish path, it means we are seeing the development of a grotesque template that could ultimately see the destruction of other historic sites, wherever these cultural vandals get a foothold. We need historians, academics, and cultural and political leaders to come together to find a way to challenge and if necessary take action against this nihilistic thuggery …’

Robert Jenrick, Tory MP for Newark and a former Director of Christies, was more explicit: ‘So what might we do for Palmyra? We could press for an exclusion zone and use UK and allied air-sorties over Iraq and Syria to deter IS advances on historic sites.’

Archaeology, then, is becoming an argument for escalating imperialist war. How should anti-war archaeologists respond?

The roots of rage

The destruction of heritage is not the worst of what has happened to the Middle East over the last 12 years – it pales in significance when set against the killing, maiming, displacement, and impoverishment of millions of people by the cycles of war in motion since 2003.

Yet the root cause is the same. The Anglo-American assault on Iraq in 2003 brought down the Saddam Hussein regime. US capital then plundered Iraq’s economy and impoverished its people. Iraqi society, hollowed-out by imperialist war and corporate exploitation, descended into sectarian anarchy and fragmentation.  

Syria’s tragedy has its immediate roots in the Arab Spring, but its deeper roots in the Western carve-up of the Middle East after the First World War, when the aim was to divide the region into separate states, first under direct colonial rule, then under client regimes, so as to prevent any effective challenge to imperialist domination.

Dictatorship and sectarianism have been recurrent features of the dysfunctional states constructed across the region. So, too, has their conformity with the shifting priorities of international capital. The ‘state-capitalist’ nationalist regimes of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s have gone. Nationalised industries have been sold off, economies opened up to the ‘free market’, and state-funded health, education, welfare, and development programmes cut. Poverty and unemployment have left hundreds of millions across the region stranded.

This is the social space filled by IS. It is an expression of collective rage against a world that has been torn apart by war and neoliberalism. The hollowing out of the state and civil society leaves a vacuum. A small, reactionary, sectarian movement can expand quickly through violence and terror in the void. One measure of this is the relatively small number of IS fighters – perhaps no more than 30,000 on the front-lines, yet enough to overrun half of Iraq and Syria.

IS is devoid of progressive political content or potential. The murder of Shia and other minorities, the rape and bullying of women, and the movement’s highly-publicised cult of violence are evidence enough of that. So, too, is the threat to the archaeological sites.

The destruction of culture

Iconoclasm – the technical term for the deliberate destruction of cultural artefacts with ideological purpose – is not new. The Christians smashed the statues in Roman temples in the 5th century AD. The Catholic churches were ransacked during the Reformation. Cromwell’s soldiers smashed stained-glass windows during the English Revolution. Statues of Lenin were pulled down across Eastern Europe in 1989.

Iconoclasm can be reactionary or progressive. It is invariably reactionary when the targets belong to a cultural past. This is the case with IS, which seeks to erase history, deny other cultures, and foster ignorance, bigotry, and sectarianism.

But IS is not alone in this. Israeli archaeology is wilfully blind to the Islamic past of Palestine, bulldozing later layers to erase the evidence of the last 1400 years, prioritising the excavation of material designed to legitimise the present-day Zionist occupation. At Silwan, for example, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli archaeologists destroyed a medieval cemetery of the Abbasid Caliphate. Their aim is to create a ‘City of David’ archaeological area which will feature a ‘museum of Jewish history’ and a ‘Jewish national park’.   

The American Army has also played a role in destroying the past. For two years it was camped on the site of ancient Babylon. Trenches were dug through the surface, sandbags filled with archaeological material, a 2,600-year-old pavement crushed by military vehicles, and glazed bricks gouged from the famous Ishtar Gate. A British Museum report on the damage was unequivocal: ‘This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain.’

As for the sale of plundered antiquities, IS is exploiting the inflation of the international art market by a generation of trickle-up neoliberal economics which has seen accumulations of wealth at the top soar to unprecedented levels. It is much easier, it seems, to call for military attacks on Syria and Iraq than to suggest shutting down the auction houses in New York, banning the sale of antiquities in London, and confiscating the grotesque fortunes of the global oligarchs who are accumulating in private collections what ought to belong in the public domain.

IS is a mortal threat to the people of the Middle East. It has grown in the shattered social spaces left by the violence and poverty of the neoliberal era. It is a monster created by Western imperialism. It is a form of mass psychotic rage unleashed by a world gone mad. The very last thing the region needs is further escalation in the cycles of bombing, killing, and displacement that have made IS possible.

Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and historian based at Bristol University. He is also the author of A Marxist History of the World and of the Stop the War pamphlet No Glory: the real history of the First World War  

Source: Stop the War Coalition

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