However much we revile the events at Palmyra, it is not worth going to war over ancient ruins, says Rory Olcayto
Is the destruction of Palmyra by the self-proclaimed Islamic State ‘unique’? Do its actions represent a new level of barbarism hitherto unseen? Should we go to war against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq to save other classical sites from destruction?
No. Nevertheless these are questions worth asking, if only to fully understand the nature of what is happening in the lands now under Islamic State’s control. I raise these points for two other reasons. First, in our Culture essay this week Dan Cruickshank says that risking human lives to save Palmyra from further destruction is the right course of action. Second, last week I was asked by the BBC to speak on Radio 4’s World at One, an offer I rejected on the basis that I was required to say that Islamic State was ‘doing something that no culture in the region has done before’.
This is what happens in war, almost as a matter of course
In truth, the actions of Islamic State, the wilful destruction of cultural assets, are typical – both in the region and elsewhere. For example, in 2001 the Taliban blew up the giant Buddha of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. This is what happens in war, almost as a matter of course. And it has happened before to Palmyra, too: at the end of the 14th century it was comprehensively wrecked by Tamerlane.
There are numerous other similar examples which show this isn’t simply a Middle Eastern – or Muslim – phenomenon. The Parthenon was vandalised by early Christians. England’s cathedrals were hammered by Protestants. More recently Croats destroyed the bridge at Mostar, largely on the basis that it was considered a Muslim edifice. So to describe Islamic State as somehow exceptional would be to misunderstand completely what is happening in Syria. It is, instead, entirely predictable. It does not, as others have said, provide evidence of how empty Islamic State’s thinking is, nor show them to be more ‘evil’ than other aggressors down the ages. And it certainly does not provide an incentive for war, as both Cruickshank, this week in the AJ and Rowan Moore (in The Observer) have written. Such a course of action would play into Islamic State’s hands: it thrives on violence and war. Who knows how long such a conflict would drag on for, and how many innocent lives would be lost?
The destruction of Palmyra followed another even more despicable act, the beheading of Khaled Asaad, the 82-year-old scholar who had worked for more than 50 years there as its chief of antiquities. Islamic State then hung his body from a column in Palmyra’s main square as a final act of humiliation. Reportedly, these sickening acts were committed because Asaad had refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.
Asaad’s bravery was remarkable. Imagine for a moment what he must have endured. Imagine, too, how his family must feel. Cruickshank may have been referring to Asaad when he writes that ‘of course old stones and ancient beauty can be worth dying for’ – he might have been mourning Asaad’s noble sacrifice. Classical sites like Palmyra are a symbol of what we have in common, what we share, a heritage that links all of Europe with the Middle East and North Africa, too, but to go to war over the destruction of ancient ruins is mad. Architecture simply doesn’t matter that much.