Cultural barbarians for the ages: ISIL, Taliban, Chairman Mao

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The modern day barbarians have been routed from the ancient city of Palmyra, but the destruction left in the wake of the nearly year long Islamic State occupation has been near catastrophic. After five years of conflict, war torn Syria sees the fruits of limited cease fires allowing observers to gaze upon a near apocalyptic humanitarian and physical landscape.

That’s why the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra is key; signaling a significant setback for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL) and hopefully now a turning point from wanton destruction to the eventual restoration and preservation of Syria itself.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO) stated clearly, “Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences.”

ISIL destroyed the Baal Shamin temple in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra on Aug. 25, 2015. / AFP
ISIL destroyed the Baal Shamin temple in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra on Aug. 25, 2015. / AFP

Yet UNESCO’s Director Irina Bukova warned, “The deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime, and UNESCO will do everything in its power to document the damage so that these crimes do not go unpunished.”

After ISIL captured Palmyra, it turned to destroying archaeological sites such as two 2,000 year old temples, the Arch, and turning the Roman amphitheater into an execution ground. ISIL claims such pre-Islamic structures are idolatrous and should be smashed and sacked.

Following the occupation, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the Syrian antiquities director, advised 80 percent of the Unesco World Heritage site nonetheless remains intact.

Beyond its hateful political ideology, ISIL has spread a noxious anti-cultural logic that it must destroy the legacy of pre-Islamic civilization. Thus when ISIL seized Mosul in Iraq, it trashed the famed Museum and later sent its demolition teams to blast the storied ruins of Iraqi civilization. And the same in Syria. Blasting, bulldozing and looting art treasures from the past and in some cases allowing more portable objects to enter the global antiquities black markets.

Such damage is not unique. In Afghanistan in the Spring of 2001, the Taliban’s Islamic extremists targeted age-old Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. The world watched in horror but did nothing as the Taliban thugs blasted statues dating from the 7th century AD into oblivion.

Such cultural barbarism is not unique to the Middle East. During China’s so-called “Cultural Revolution” between 1966-1976, Red Guards, the self appointed watchdogs of the communist new order, burned books, Buddhist sutras and trashed religious Temples all in the name of Chairman Mao. In the Spring of 1966, the mindless terror which led to opposing the “Four Olds” of China’s civilization was unleashed by the paramilitary Red Guards.

Chinese devotees of Communist leader Mao Zedong burn books in 1966, during the country’s Cultural Revolution. / Zhou Thong / Newscom
Chinese devotees of Communist leader Mao Zedong burn books in 1966, during the country’s Cultural Revolution. / Zhou Thong / Newscom

The Washington D.C. based “Antiquities Coalition” created a map of Culture Under Threat to highlight the threat to sites such as St. Elijah’s Monastery in Iraq, Palymra and the Mosul Museum. The map lists 700 heritage sites throughout the 22 states of the Arab League, 230 of the sites which have since been destroyed.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, offered interesting views on the recapture of Palmyra by the Syrian army backed by the Russians. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson called Bashir Assad a “vile tyrant” but added “the victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments.” Johnson called for the top notch expertise of British archeologists to help restore this ancient city known as “the Bride of the Desert.”

Beyond ISIL’s cultural barbarism we see the humanitarian disaster unfolding inside Syria.

Addressing the Security Council, Stephen O’Brien the UN’s Humanitarian Chief spoke of the slightly improved situation in light of the ceasefire. Yet, “Many of the 4.6 million people in need in besieged and hard to reach areas still remain outside our reach to to insecurity and obstructions.” Essentially, the UN relief has reached only about a third of the nearly five million people internally displaced inside Syria.

Treating Syria’s humanitarian symptoms remain admirable, but the political Problem must be solved.

Though some quarters may question if Palmyra’s liberation from Islamic State by the military forces of the Syrian dictator Bashir Assad should be celebrated, the facts favor this positive development. The Assad’s at their worst never ruined or wrecked ancient Roman and Greek treasures scattered throughout the country. On the other hand, Islamic State policy is to deliberately desecrate, destroy and loot pre-Islamic treasures. Moreover, a century from now who will remember this evil ruler, but all will still cherish millennia of civilization which stand as silent testament to Syria’s ancient heritage.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).