The ancient city of Palmyra has been now been captured by Islamic State, which has systematically looted and destroyed the antiquities and heritage of other cities to have fallen under its control. The likelihood that Palmyra will suffer a similar fate to Mosul, Nineveh and Nimrud makes the heart sink.
But much of the international outcry against the threatened destruction of Palmyra has been both strategically foolhardy and emotionally crass.
It is strategically foolhardy for reasons that should be obvious. By investing in it as a priceless treasure, we confirm IS’ belief that it is an idol, and a powerful idol at that. And IS, the destroyer of idols, will place an even higher priority on smashing it to smithereens.
In describing much of the international outcry as emotionally crass, I am not accusing those speaking out against Palmyra’s destruction of valuing antiquities and ruins over human lives. Rather, I think that the campaign on the city’s behalf lacks insight into the ways in which the material historical remains are entangled with the lives of those who live among them.
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Palmyra is an astonishing place. It is not surprising that so many of us wish to lay claim to it, with our souls if not our armies. Having visited it myself years ago, reports of its threatened fall over the past week have left me feeling that it belonged just that little bit more to me than to those commentators who had not been there, touched its stones, breathed its air, felt the force of the blazing sun among its ruined streets. I have been tempted to use the word “grief” to describe my feelings about its current plight. But, however moving I found the experience of visiting Palmyra, that does not make it mine at a level that entitles me to describe myself as bereaved.
It is more than understandable that Syria’s head of antiquities should tell us that “Palmyra belongs to the world”, not just to Syria, and that the world therefore has a stake in protecting it. However, when made by the likes of Boris Johnson, the same claim is redolent of neo-colonialism. Generations of imperial conquerors have looted their way across the globe on the basis that treasures and antiquities belong to the world — by which they mean themselves — rather than by the societies and communities that produced them. It is the reason provided by the British Museum for refusing to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. The Marbles are a part of world civilisation and deserve to be in an international city like London, not a backwater like Athens.
Greece, of course, wishes to take custody of the Marbles, not destroy them. But we ought not to mimic the British Museum and those who stock its hall with treasures by coveting the history of others and believing that the mere act of loving them makes them our own.
I have been tempted to use the word “grief” to describe my feelings at the destruction of Aleppo over the past few years, but conversations with Syrian friends and acquaintances have stopped that word on my tongue. They talk about the destruction of streets and homes and memories and families — their grief for both people and places is holistic and all-encompassing. They are the truly bereaved, a grief eloquently expressed by Amal Hanano’s requiem “The Land of Topless Minarets and Headless Little Girls”:
“The Old City, the Citadel, and the souks were not just a stage for us to perform upon in front of others — they were the heart of every Aleppian. Being from Aleppo is in our blood, and this blood now flows down the cobblestone streets. The broken city is no longer amused at the pastimes of its children.”
Australians who wish to protest against threats to ancient heritage could start by campaigning against the recent changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act that have delisted at least 23 sites as sacred sites. But those of us who are not Aboriginal must recognise that valuing the rock art, that treasuring its thousands of years of history and campaigning for its protection, does not make it “ours”. It does not lie at the centre of our being, in the way that it does for its traditional custodians. We are unworthy lovers if we seek to love without consent.