The Scene of the Theatre, Palmyra. © Zeledi

Grieving for buildings

Why is the destruction of ancient sites so abhorrent?
June 17, 2015

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 Athens, the significance of the remains there is palpable and insistent. They are an education in stone. On them we hang our sense of the past as a route to the present, full of instruction for the latter if we are attentive. We care also about beauty, and in the classical forms we find the mind and sensibility of the past embodied. Their preservation is a matter of importance to our present and future, and although their preservation does not trump concerns about people, the latter does not render the former pointless or wrong.

The hellholes of Iraq and Syria have already seen massive obliterations and dismemberments of antiquities that are the inheritance not merely of the denizens of those regions, but of humanity. Aleppo, Damascus itself, the priceless layers of the past that this tiny, religion-haemorrhaging region sits upon, lie on the territories that humanity settled, and crossed on its waves of emigration from Africa. Much of the story of our kind is scattered in those sands.

To take these things and destroy them because of the malice of religion, on the basis of some narrow and deeply ungenerous view, is disgusting. An IS iconoclast with his hammer, at work on defacing what was created by far better, more intelligent and more imaginative people than he, is a sorry object of contemplation. Part of the reason why we get upset at the thought of places like Palmyra being subject to the prejudices of thugs is what it says about human possibility at its lowest end, and about the vulnerability of finer things to the crudity and roughness that lies at the opposite end of the scale from them.

There was once less scruple about privileging things over people, which perhaps is why some of those things—the ruins of Palmyra included—remain to us. There was also once far less scruple about preserving the past, which is why so little of it remains. We would not revert to either weighting of the scales. The lesson has been learned that good things from the past matter to us and our sense of ourselves now: concern for human welfare includes concern for history, culture and art. The barbarians destroy these things because they are threatened by them: they impugn the supposed value of their own outlook. And that is yet another good reason for caring about their safety.