A shrine bulldozed in Iraq
Letting despots and ideologues control artefacts and sites treasured by other religions, as a gesture of goodwill, does not work. Maybe it’s time the civilised world changed its policy, argues Josh Gelertner in National Review:
It’s been a good autumn for human artifacts in the civilized world. It’s
been a very bad autumn for human artifacts in the uncivilized world.
(Oh what a fall was there . . .) As the New York Times reports,
the Islamic State, and friends, “are deliberately wrecking shrines,
statues, mosques, tombs and churches — anything they regard as
idolatry.” Shrines, etc., which range in age from very old to ancient.
the Near East, ancient history is thick on the ground. But wanton
destruction of ancient history hasn’t been confined to Iraq or Syria. In
2001, two 2,500-year-old monumental Buddhas in Afghanistan were blown
to bits by the Taliban. Last year, a 3,000-year-old Philistine harbor
was bulldozed by Hamas to expand a training ground for its al-Qassam
terror brigade. As of last year, according to the U.K. Independent,
“Islam’s most holy relics are being demolished in Mecca,” in order to
transform the “dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming metropolis
of skyscrapers.” This a theme in the wild wild east, and not a new one.
the Arab Legion occupied Jerusalem in 1948, the Great Hurva Synagogue
was mined and destroyed, along with 57 other Jewish shrines and
libraries. An ancient Jewish cemetery was ransacked, paved over, and
turned into a parking lot; its grave-markers were used by Palestinians
to build latrines. Civilized people were shocked this summer when they
heard that mosques in Gaza were being used to store munitions. It may
have been shocking, but it had precedent.
The Parthenon — the
greatest ruin on Athens’s Acropolis — was ruined quite recently (in
Greek terms). When the Ottomans captured Athens in the 15th century, the
intact, 2,000-year old Parthenon was turned into a mosque. The mosque
doubled as a munitions depot. During a war with the Venetian Empire, the
Parthenon-Mosque-arsenal caught fire and exploded.
of one religion usurping another’s holy places isn’t new. The Parthenon
also did service as a church, and the Hagia Sofia mosque-museum, such as
it is, was once the greatest church in Christendom. The Dome of the
Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are built on the ruins of the Jewish Temple,
the holiest site in Judaism. The second holiest site in Judaism, the
Cave of the Patriarchs, is marked with a stone basilica built by ancient
Israel in the time of Jesus. Now it’s a mosque too. Jews are banned
from conducting religious activities at the Cave and the Temple Mount,
although they’re both in Israel. As a gesture of goodwill to the Muslim
world, Israel handed control of both to Jordan’s Waqf religious
Needless to say, no goodwill has been forthcoming.
Recent Muslim construction on, and inside of, the Temple Mount has
destroyed structures that are older than Islam. When Israel dared
include its Cave of the Patriarchs on a list of its heritage sites,
there was international outrage – the incensed U.N. described the Cave
as “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories.” Evidently
the U.N.’s gaze has not fallen on Saudi Arabia, which (according to
Washington’s Gulf Institute) has used the last 20 years to demolish 95
percent of Mecca’s thousand-year-old buildings. For the powers-that-be
in the Near East’s theocratic tyrannies, history — their own, and other
people’s — is a bargaining chip, and nothing more. But to the civilized
world, these chunks of history — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist,
and pagan –are immensely valuable.
Israel lets despots defile its
most cherished treasures because it’s willing to pay a very high price
for peace. Since no peace is forthcoming, it might be time for a policy
change. Since no peace is forthcoming in Islamic State territory either,
it might be time for some new policy there as well. As the Nazis
started to lose the war and withdraw to Germany, we did what we could to
keep them from destroying Europe’s art. Maybe we can contain the
Islamic State, but the territory we contain them on will have its
history erased along with its people. We ought to save the people, and
remember that there’s more history there than anywhere else.