Posts Tagged ‘Current Archaeology’

ISIS’ Destruction of the Cultural Treasures of Iraq

March 16, 2015

One of the most shocking events of ISIS’ occupation of parts of Iraq was their destruction of Assyrian antiquities kept in a local museum a fortnight or so ago. This shocking destruction of priceless cultural treasures, which have immensely enriched our understanding of the history of that ancient country, was broadcast around the world. The smashing of the artefacts is not, of course, as great or as serious an atrocity as the Islamist State’s terrorisation of Iraq’s people, the capricious, brutal murder of their captives or the sale of captured women into sex slavery at their markets. It is nevertheless a truly shocking outrage and an assault on history and culture itself.

ISIS claimed to have smashed the ancient statues and works of art because they claimed they were idols. I think I recognised some of the statues from their photographs in books I’ve got here at home. One statue wasn’t a god, but was the image of one of the Assyrian kings or officials. The Victorian archaeologists, who pioneered the excavation of ancient Assyria and Babylon also encountered problems where the local people mistook some of the massive statues they uncovered for the idols of the ancient giants wiped out by Noah’s flood, or else of Nimrod himself, who is also mentioned in the Qu’ran.

Austin Henry Layard mentions the alarm and excitement that greeted the excavation of one of the great Assyrian winged bulls in his 1867 book, Nineveh and its Remains.

On the morning following these discoveries, I had ridden to the encampment of Sheikh Abd-ur rahman, and was returning to the mound, when I saw two Arabs of his tribe coming towards me and urging their mares to the top of their speed. On reaching me they stopped. ‘Hasten, O Bey’, exclaimed one of them – ‘hasten to the diggers, for the have found Nimrod himself. Wallah! it is wonderful but it is true! we have seen him with our eyes. There is no God but God’; and both joining in this pious exclamation, they galloped off, without further words, in the direction of their tents.

… As soon as the two Arabs I had met had reached their tents, and published the wonders they had seen, every one mounted his mare and rode to the mound to satisfy himself of the truth of these inconceivable reports. When they beheld the head they all cried together, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!’ It was some time before the Sheikh could be prevailed upon to descend into the pit, and convince himself that the image he saw was of stone. ‘This is not the work of men’s hands,’ exclaimed he, ‘but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet, peace be with him! has said, that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah, peace be with him! cursed before the flood,’ In this opinion, the result of a careful examination, all the bystanders occurred.

The news of the discovery of the massive head in Mosul caused some concern amongst the town’s Muslim leaders, who feared that it was indeed the ancient prophet Nimrod. Layard describes how he had to go to the town to talk to the local governor and persuade him that it was not so, and that the remains would be treated with appropriate respect.

As I had expected, the report of the discovery of the gigantic head, carried by the terrified Arab to Mosul, had thrown the town into commotion. He had scarcely checked his speed before reaching the bridge. Entering breathless into the bazaars, he announced to every one he met that Nimrod had appeared. The news soon got to the ears of the Cadi, who called the Mufti and the Ulema [cadi- Islamic judge, ulema – Muslim clergy] together, to consult upon this unexpected occurrence. Their deliberations, ended in a procession to the Governor, and a formal protest, on the part of the Mussulmans of the town, against proceedings so directly contrary to the laws of the Koran. The Cadi had no distinct idea whether the very bones of the mighty hunter had been uncovered, or only him image; nor did Ismail Pasha very clearly remember whether Nimrod was a true-believing prophet, or an infidel. I consequently received a somewhat unintelligible message from his Excellency, to the effect that the remains should be treated with respect, and be by no means further disturbed; that he wished the excavations to be stopped at once, and desired to confer with me on the subject.

I rode to Mosul at once and called upon him accordingly. I had some difficulty in making him understand the nature of my discovery. At last he was persuaded that I had only discovered part of any ancient figure in stone, and that neither the remains of Nimrod nor of any other personage mentioned in the Koran had been disturbed. However, as he requested me to discontinue my operations until the excitement in the town had somewhat subsided, I returned and dismissed the workmen, retaining only two men to dig leisurely along the walls without giving cause for further interference.

Layard himself remarks on just how awesome the statue was, and does not sneer at the local people for their reaction to it.

I was not surprised that the Arabs had been amazed and terrified at this apparition. It required no stretch of imagination to conjure up the most strange fancies. This gigantic head, blanched with age, thus rising from the bowels of the earth, might well have belonged to one of those fearful beings which are described in the traditions of the country as appearing to mortals, slowly ascending from the regions below.

Indeed, Layard states that he himself used to contemplate the sublime and truly awesome power of these statues.

There are a number of complex issues and problems with archaeology in the developing world, including Islamic countries. Much of it is carried out by Western nations, and at first little or nothing was published about the discoveries in the local languages. You can imagine that this would result in a lack of connection between the local peoples and archaeological projects and their findings, if not disaffection and hostility. Edward Said criticised the Western obsession with ancient Egypt for leading to an attitude of complete disinterest with the modern country and Islamic culture. The veteran British Egyptologist, John Romer, echoed these sentiments in his series Great Excavations. Looking around one an ancient Egyptian site, Romer remarked that there had once been an Islamic town, that had been completely cleared away in order to excavate the ancient remains, and casually picked up a piece of 12th century Islamic pottery lying on the ground.

Since the 19th century, much of the archaeological investigations in these countries have been done by the indigenous peoples themselves. In Egypt this was pioneered by Zakaria Goneim. There is the problem that pre-Islamic history and culture in the Gulf Arab states is regarded as the Juhailiyya – the period of pre-Islamic ignorance or darkness. There is a feeling that investigation of the pre-Islamic past is thus somehow contrary Islam. As a result, archaeologists have had to be very careful in the excavation and display of the remains. One archaeologist working in Saudi Arabia writing in Current Archaeology a few years ago, praised the Saudi king for allowing and patronising such excavations, while also discussing the restrictions placed on exhibition of the artefacts uncovered by the need to avoid religious offence. This was especially acute in cases of religious figures, or the nude human form, particularly female. The latter most definitely could not be placed on display.

Some of the secular leaders in the Middle East have also used archaeology to support and bolster the country’s national identity. As many of these countries, like Iraq, are the creation of the Western powers, it is not hard to see how an archaeology that supports this identity could also be rejected and attacked as part of Western imperialism and dominance in the region. And where the country was ruled by a secular dictator, it also isn’t surprising that religious extremists should see the ideological emphasis placed on ancient remains as an attempt to undermine their nation’s Islamic culture.

Even so, it is depressing and shocking that a century after Layard and the other great archaeologists uncovered these awesome and majestic remains, that archaeology and its priceless historical treasures should still be the target for such rage and destruction.