The human toll of the Islamic State’s rampage through the Middle East is horrifying enough proof that the group must be stopped. Yet while Washington roils with arguments on whether America’s national interests require a more direct U.S. military response, there is another cost of the Islamic State’s victories: the destruction of some of humanity’s most priceless cultural treasures. At some point, the world might ask whether that alone demands a military response.
This week, the Islamic State captured Palmyra, in Syria. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra contains some of the greatest Roman ruins on the planet. Founded three millennia ago, its 2,000-year-old Roman urban center remains a wonder of columns, arches, and open spaces. Remains, that is, for now. Like Mao’s Communists before it, or its spiritual cousin, the Taliban, the Islamic State obliterates not just human beings but the archeological remnants of societies it seeks to remake.
Some may remember the Taliban’s wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, 1,500-year-old massive stone sculptures dynamited in March 2001. That was the first sign that the new wave of jihadis sought to erase the past more thoroughly than any before them.
The Islamic State has continued the tradition. They have destroyed some of the Middle East’s earliest and most priceless relics, including the 3,300-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud with a famous winged bull, and bulldozed the 2,200-year-old city of Hatra. They have taken pickaxes to exhibits stored in Mosul’s main museum, once they got done with blowing up a 1,200-year old-Christian monastery in the same city. If the Islamic State stays true to form, we may very well soon see images of Palmyra’s glorious Roman ruins being pulverized.
These are, of course, ideological acts, not merely acts of war. The Islamic State cannot win its quixotic struggle to turn the clock back to the seventh century, but it can impoverish global culture forever. Whatever the duration of their murderous “state,” they will leave an archeological vacuum behind them. It is a latter-day version of the sack of Rome — an analogy made more apposite by the Islamic State fighters’ having been caught selling some of the very relics they profess to hate and try to destroy. Hypocrisy and barbarism are not mutually exclusive.
Yet not all destruction of humanity’s past comes from warped minds. This month’s earthquake in Nepal also obliterated as much as half of the country’s historic Buddhist sites, including three World Heritage locations. Unlike the dead ruins in the Syrian and Iraqi desert, Nepal’s Buddhist sites were vibrantly alive with worshipers, monks, and tourists. Like many structures toppled in Asia’s earthquakes or charred by flames, they will be rebuilt. However, they will never have the same intangible, almost psychic quality conveyed by the knowledge that hands have been touching this piece of wood or that stone wall for a thousand years.
We live in a world of constant flux, never more so than when our lives are so dominated by ethereal digital images. We connect fleetingly with ever changing pixels, and chart our own lives by the poses we strike in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Pyramids.
There is a grounding effect that comes from seeing the enduring work of our ancestors’ hands.
Archeological remains are more important than ever, in helping root us to time and place. They offer a permanence and solidity that is too often dismissed in the race to experience the new or throw out the old. There is a grounding effect that comes from seeing the enduring work of our ancestors’ hands, in understanding that to which they held fast for centuries. When those objects are destroyed, the thread of our shared history becomes ever more tenuous.
There is little we can do to save our precious artifacts from Mother Nature’s wrath. But perhaps the Islamic State’s deliberate destruction will cause us to rethink the cost of ignoring its acts. Is it enough to make us send young Americans into combat? Probably not, and maybe it should not even be considered. But we should not dismiss what we are losing forever. We may one day regret not having done more to stop them from destroying our collective past.