In late February, a shocking video emerged showing Isis extremists demolishing statues and artefacts in Mosul Museum and at the Nergal Gate to the ancient Assyrian city of Ninevah. And in early March, reports from Baghdad told of further iconoclastic crimes in the north of the country, including the obliteration of more Assyrian monuments at Nimrud and the razing of the Parthian ruins of Hatra. Such actions are an attack on the culture and people of Iraq and an affront to our common humanity.
Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, described these acts as an attempt at ‘cultural cleansing’: devastating a people by annihilating that which roots them to the past. As such, it is a horror that reaches beyond the immediate damage to artistic and architectural fabric. But the sadness is also about material things: about the unknown extent of the vandalism, and about irreplaceable losses. As the archaeologist John Curtis writes in this issue, we may have been deprived of unique opportunities to understand early civilisations: Nimrud was, among other things, the only place in which Assyrian carved reliefs could be viewed in their architectural context.
It is a horrible irony that, for many distant viewers, the images from Mosul Museum will have brought the city’s cultural treasures into focus at the point of their erasure. Using modern media to disseminate the video far and wide, the extremists seem not only bent on the damnation of memory but also on stamping its occurrence indelibly in our minds. The ethical dilemmas that Isis videos of executions and other violent acts pose for media organisations remain relevant here.
This tragic situation is also a reminder of just how inaccessible are so many of the great cultural monuments of the Middle East. For my generation at least, Iraq has always been closed; Syria has become so; and travel to parts of Lebanon, Egypt and Israel is strongly discouraged by the Foreign and Common-wealth Office. The common perception in the West is that visiting Iran is imprudent these days – although I have heard this queried, even quite recently, by British archaeologists.
Of course, a longstanding frustration about not being able to travel somewhere is hardly commensurate with the instability, violence or curtailed human rights experienced by so many of the people for whom the region is home. But the fact remains that many of us can only start to learn about the heritage of huge swathes of the Levant and the Middle East through distance and loss. The monuments of Baghdad, Tehran or Isfahan are captured in the vivid descriptions and anecdotal life of Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937). But already by 1980, Bruce Chatwin’s introduction to a new edition of this great work read like an elegy, a lament for a type of cultural awakening that no longer seemed possible.
But one thing we can do, and should feel compelled to, is return to those artefacts housed in museums we can easily visit, and where we can admire their artistry and, so far as possible, seek to learn about the complex cultures that produced them. And not before time: in the English education system that I experienced, Mesopotamian civilisations – including the Assyrian and Babylonian empires – were sidelined by Graeco-Roman history, with some light Egyptian seasoning. Rome stopped with the founding of Byzantium, and we never reached the Persian empire at all.
For many visitors to the British Museum today, the extraordinary Assyrian holdings are most probably looked at, if at all, en route to the Parthenon sculptures in the Duveen Gallery beyond. But in a sense the recent desecration creates, if not an opportunity, then at least an obligation for our own institutions. The British Museum must now promote to the public its Assyrian lamassu, those vast winged gatekeeper figures, and, insofar as such a thing is possible, make seeing them and the friezes from the palaces of Ashurnasirpal II and Sennacherib imperative to any visit.
And let this apply to the Louvre and the Met, to the MFA, the Pergamon Museum and anywhere that holds objects from those cultures that the extremists wish to erase. Let us engage with these pasts where we can, to combat their unforgivable loss.