Why is the destruction of ancient sites so abhorrent?by AC Grayling / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
That mighty sculptor Time has razed most of the past into oblivion. We need no Ozymandias to remind us that the treasures of history have, like the people who built and cherished them, either left nothing or just poignancy behind, their ruins half obscured by desert or the entangling encroachments of jungle, and sometimes just poking fragmentedly up between unsympathetic modern buildings. We regret but do not feel outrage at the crushing effect of time’s hammers. When the destroyer is human, however, different feelings arise.
When the Islamic State group (IS) came within striking distance of the majestic ruins of Palmyra in the Syrian desert, there was alarm at the thought of yet more destruction of valued antiquities. The barbarians at the gates of that city had already smashed what they found offensive to their beliefs elsewhere, though they are canny enough to sell some of the antiquities to fund their operations. People remember the Taliban, pumped up on ignorance—and its first-born child, prejudice—destroying the statues of Bamiyan. The thought of IS’s vandals doing the same to Palmyra’s beautiful fluted columns, erect after 2,000 years in their sun-painted symmetries, chills the blood.
Why? There are those who say we should be concerned only about the people that members of IS murder and rape, the refugees fleeing their crude acts of terrorisation, the prisoners they massacre or behead on video. They object to the callousness of those who shut their eyes to the suffering of real people only to cry out in alarm at the threat to insensate brick and mortar.
The human victims of atrocity—who would dream of saying otherwise?—should certainly rouse our pity and woe. They have first call on our concern. The second call should come from animals and the natural environment, despoiled and polluted by war. But concern for these does not preclude concern for the past’s treasures, which serve to teach and provoke us, give us models and admonitions and enlarge our vision of humanity. If we care about the fate and welfare of human beings, then we should care about what enhances their humanity too: their history and its riches.
No matter how often one walks in the Roman Forum or on the Palatine, on the Acropolis or through the agora in…