The Demise and Afterlife of Monuments in the Middle East

Nonument! Symposium Ljubljana

Pamela Karimi

Note for the readers: The following text was presented by Professor Pamela Karimi at the 2018 Nonument! symposium at the City Museum of Ljubljana. The text is an abbreviated version of the co-authored prelude to a dossier of original essays which examined the demolition of monuments in the Middle East from the Napoléonic era to the present. The complete dossier can be found on the Aggregate website.

Destruction of architecture and art objects is an ancient practice. From Troy and Tenochtitlan to Dresden and Munich and on to Bamiyan and Palmyra today, the obliteration of historic cities and heritage sites has taken place throughout history and across cultures. In the West, such events as the Protestant Reformation led to the destruction of many churches and religious furnishings. Later, massive aerial bombing was the major cause of cultural heritage destruction. During WWII, aerial attacks destroyed a substantial portion of Europe’s historically significant buildings. The Nazis targeted Warsaw’s buildings and monuments for the sake of removing the cultural and historical identity of the Polish people. But only a handful of the twentieth century military conflicts sought the destruction of significant buildings for the sake of destroying them alone. In contrast, the militant group ISIS has aimed to erase certain buildings and artifacts based on their specific meaning according to their own obscurantist interpretation. In other words, for ISIS, the ravaging of irreplaceable antiquities in Syria and Iraq is dictated by an understanding of their deviant referential significance much like the relentless slaughter of “undesirable” people is doctrinally justified.

The temple of Bel in Palmyra before it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Photo: Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

This determined and extremely myopic orthodoxy has attracted the attention of the world. It also has earned the modern Middle East a hot spot in the mainstream media as the place where a twisted ideology is supposedly driving the dreadful and deliberate demolition of historic monuments. Additionally, many commentators use these destructions as another example of the incongruity between “our” values and “theirs,” and they conclude that the war in the Middle East is a war between the international community trying to defend universal values and a threatening “Islamic world” intent on destroying them.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant compels his readers to rethink the “thingness of things,” by differentiating between das Ding fur uns versus das Ding an sich (the thing for us versus the thing in itself). It is, indeed, our treatment of objects that assigns them certain functions and meanings. In other words, if historic relics are neglected and uncared for, this is so because of the ways in which people perceptually constitute them as objects of contempt. It is within this Western frame of mind that conventional media reports often align the destruction of monuments with the culture and beliefs of the people in the Middle East. The media determines who the people of the region are “by how they act on art, attributes their behavior to a cultural trait (or rather, deficiency), and condemns an entire populace accordingly.” Modern acts of demolition are often presented as stemming from an impulse to return to the example of the Prophet—a belief that is often ascribed to the Salafi ideology (which includes the much less prevalent and militant Jihadism).

Not all destructions stem from ignorance, ideological stances, or a shortage of resources, financial or otherwise. In truth, many progressive and modernist views have negatively affected the cultural heritage of the Middle East.

However, a deeper look into each act of deliberate destructions indicates that they are much more complex than a pure imitation of the Prophet or other precedents of supposed paradigmatic iconoclasm. Consider, for example, the case of the 1700-year-old rock-cut Buddhas in Bamiyan, which fell to Taliban dynamite in 2001. A Taliban spokesman communicated with a few New York reporters, confirming that the demolition of the Bamiyan was in fact a delayed response to the notorious 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in India by Hindu fundamentalists. So, whether it is ISIS, Mullah Omar, or a conservative from the Hindu Nationalist government, the motives behind such obliterations are wide ranging and must be contextualized in light of historically and geographically specific episodes of resentment.

Similarly there is nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks on pagan statues or antiquities sites, just as there are long histories of vandalism and iconoclasm in the Arab and Muslim worlds, there are even older ones in the West, as the origins of the term iconoclasm should remind us. In fact, if we go by historical evidence, the Islamic lands seem more tolerant of other cultures’ remains than many Christian territories. As historian of Islamic Art Oleg Grabar asserts, however ironic it might sound to some, the medieval Muslim world would have actually served as a haven for incarnation iconodules, or those who supported icons and their veneration, such as St. John of Damascus. He adds that particularly within the widely practiced traditions of aniconism, images in Islamic lands were not immoral per se, but simply unrelated to divine manifestation.

ISIS also destroyed many Muslim shrines and mosques, mostly Shiite. On the photo is the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, destroyed in 2017 during the Battle of Mosul. Photo: Faisal Jeber / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

In light of such a layered history, it is no surprise then that many scholars attribute contemporary iconoclastic attitudes to history cleansing, rather than to the revival of early traditions of the Prophet. Indeed, with nearly 5,000 years of recorded history, including the first major literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC), the Middle East is where the world’s first cities emerged and where organized governmental entities were first introduced. The region that ISIS controls or threatens, known as Bilad-al-Sham or the Levant (modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories) and Northern Iraq (Ancient Mesopotamia), is thus particularly significant because it has layered material evidence, from Islamic and non-Islamic traditions. Zainab Bahrani, a scholar of the ancient Near East, writes, “ISIS isn’t just focused on the pre-Islamic past; they’ve also destroyed so many Muslim shrines and mosques… we focus more on their destruction of pre-Islamic sites here in the States and in Western Europe, but they’ve actually destroyed a lot of Islamic and Christian and Yazidi and Sufi temples.” In his book, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, journalist Robert Bevan writes of similar deliberate methods of eradication of the past—or what he calls cultural genocide —in the contexts of post-Ottoman Greece, Palestine after 1948, and in today’s Saudi Arabia.

Whether fake or not, the images of ISIS members burning books or smashing ancient statues with power drills have been extremely powerful. The IS militants seem to be fully aware of the strong impact of photographs and video footage, and when they fall short, they forge scenes of violence.

Demolitions, however, have occurred in many different forms such as damages that take place slowly due to lack of attention from government officials or from heritage and preservation organizations. After several violent conflicts, many of which involved Muslim-Christian rivalries, the Armenian city of Ani—situated in the Turkish province of Kars near the border with Armenia—became a ghost town in the 18th century. Later, after the Armenian genocide of 1915, most of the city’s remaining treasures were looted or destroyed. Since then the city has been neglected and received little attention from conservationists. Similar fates befell the historical Armenian city of Van and thousands of other Christian religious sites across Turkey. Other notable examples in this vein are Jewish quarters across the Islamic world. For example, the Jewish neighborhood of Yazd in Iran, which was once home to a vibrant Jewish community that migrated to Israel and America after the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948, has been neglected for many years, resulting in a nearly destroyed quarter. Having been emptied of their inhabitants, the homes have lost their primary protectors and their endowers of meaning, and have thus deteriorated. In the meantime, neither the Iranian government nor private organizations have come to their rescue. It seems that the new national narrative of Iran wants to refashion the history of the country so as to remove some episodes from public memory. Indeed, removed from public memory through physical obliteration, these neighborhoods recede to become relics of the past, in the words of the French historian Pierre Nora, “Without an intent to remember, lieux de mémoire would be[come] lieux d’histoire.” One can think of similar struggle over public memory at a famous and highly charged Islamic site in Europe: the former Great Mosque of Cordoba (Mosque-Cathedral). The Church’s attempts to rewrite the building’s history and to omit the word mezquita from its official name are seen by some as an attack on the community’s memory— akin to the moment in the 16th century, according to architectural historian Michele Lamprakos when a portion of the mosque was demolished to build the cathedral. The current conflict is—like most heritage conflicts—“as much about the present as it is about the past. Indeed, the two are inextricably intertwined.”

The ancient Armenian City of Ani (now part of Modern-day Turkey) seen from Armenia. Ani became a ghost town in 18th century after several violent conflicts. Photo: haigoes / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Lack of support for preserving certain monuments and historic sites may be associated with the desire to discourage “the intent to remember” through preservation. Still, in many instances, the motive is simply a lack of funding in private organizations and/or the absence of pressure groups that would lobby the government to allocate appropriate funds for these projects. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, funding for preservation of Iraqi historic sites has been sporadic. Some provinces have not been included in the exploration conducted by the Iraq’s General Authority for Antiquities and Heritage. Additionally, adequate security strategies to prevent certain sites from being looted are absent.

Yet, not all destructions stem from ignorance, ideological stances, or a shortage of resources, financial or otherwise. In truth, many progressive and modernist views have negatively affected the cultural heritage of the Middle East. Colonial urban renewal—for example, the destruction of Algiers’ historic core in the early years of French occupation—counts as destruction, as do the urban renewal schemes of the 1950s and 1960s that were carried out by newly independent governments with the help of European architects and planners. Indeed, the creation of many nation-states coincided with a simultaneous celebration of some monuments and a deliberate obliteration of others. When Reza Pahlavi became Shah of Iran in 1925, he destroyed many iconic monuments built by the previous Qajar dynasty. Likewise, during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Reza Shah’s own tomb tower was the first monument to be brought down by a group of hardcore revolutionaries guided by the notorious Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Khalkhali, the hardline cleric and judge of the revolutionary courts.

Such destructions are not exclusive to local regime changes, internal uprisings, and civil wars. Indeed, the modern history of the Middle East has seen multiple instances of erasure by external forces, including those of Western and colonial powers. Many statuary, paintings, and relics that form the core of the ancient Middle Eastern collection at the Louvre Museum in Paris were looted from Egypt during the Napoleonic invasion of 1798. In fact, “[Napoléon] was the first conqueror to ‘legalize’ looting.”

Other examples include historic sites that were damaged in wars waged by Western powers. Consider how the ruins of the Sasanian Palace of Ctesiphon in northern Iraq became the site of a major battle of World War I. Similarly, after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, many archeological sites were damaged and their treasures looted. The United States and its allies overlooked the warnings of organizations and scholars concerning the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Even worse, a military base was constructed on the site of ancient Babylon. Coalition forces destroyed or seriously damaged many historic urban areas and buildings, while thieves ruined thousands of unprotected archeological sites. In addition to acts of war and invasion, Western institutions have played a major role in silencing and marginalizing certain aspects of the region’s past.

US Military sits outside of Saddam Hussein’s former palace at Camp Babylon and overlook the ancient ruins of Babylon, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Photo: Public Domain

Highlighting that destruction of buildings are like killing actual people, ISIS uses sensational images of ruined ancient buildings just as they employ pictures of brutally killed victims. The blowing up of the Temple of Baalshamin, a monument that for almost 2,000 years had stood amid the ruins of Palmyra, was probably one of their most effective images. In a widely circulated snapshot from the first few seconds of explosion, we see a cloud of debris. In front of a temple being turned into dust and smoke stand the remains of another ancient building, accentuating the horror and a feeling of being harmed. Such images are not just documentary photographs; they also generate particular emotions toward these sites. They actually evoke a particular response in us, or a punctum (to borrow from Roland Barthes), calling to mind something conceivably similar to our own experience of violence.

These experiences are accentuated by using digitally reproduced images in these acts of destruction. In fact, sometimes what matters it seems is the image and the image alone… Consider, for instance, that while the Temple of Baalshamin was actually destroyed, not all of ISIS’s images of destruction appear to be genuine. Several of the ancient museum artifacts destroyed in front of the camera at the Mosul Museum were actually replicas brought from a nearby market. Indeed, for some time we saw constantly replicas and less-important materials that were destroyed in front of the camera, while others were taken to the illegal and tremendously profitable market of ancient artifacts. Historian Charles Tripp writes: “at Mosul library a pile of unremarkable printed books were burned in front of the library, whilst those valuable were taken out the back door. The whole operation was justified with reference to the heretical contents of the books, but it was the market value that was of interest to ISIS.” Whether fake or not, the images of ISIS members burning books or smashing ancient statues with power drills have been extremely powerful. The Islamic State militants seem to be fully aware of the strong impact of photographs and video footage, and when they fall short, they forge scenes of violence. Consider, also, this horrifying 2015 propaganda video that showed Manhattan streetscapes in panic on the cusp of an imaginary attack by a suicide bomber.

Rather than being a fake replica, digital visualization assures the continued life of a building. Just as axonometric projections allowed many designers to foresee the shape of a building in ways that suited their needs, photography and digital-reproduction bring out the allegorical potential of lost objects and buildings.

Using technology and images to communicate its point, the militant group arguably betrays its own “iconoclastic” ideology. In “War of Images, or the Bamiyan Paradox,” the cultural critic Jean-Michel Frodon contends that the Taliban betrayed themselves, because in destroying the rock-cut Buddhas, they too “did politics with images.” As Frodon suggests, progress toward immateriality actually implies prior engagement with the realm of matter, disclosing an inherent contradiction. So, if ISIS finds representations of the destroyed artifacts and architecture to be effective, so too will be their images from the time when they were intact. In this vein, erasure and smashing do not necessarily put an end to the life of a historic monument.

Indeed, after being destroyed, many monuments and artifacts take on another life through their representations. Disappearance no longer proves synonymous with forgetting or loss, but rather forms a condition in which there is a possibility for a specific mode of production. The loss of an original historic artifact is devastating, but the possibility of the mechanical and virtual reproduction of images and objects leaves room for optimism.

So, rather than being a fake replica, digital visualization assures the continued life of a building, Consider, for example, the Syrian government’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums that have been working since 2015 in partnership with a Paris-based architectural firm to produce “before” and “after” digital representations in astonishingly hyperrealistic, brick-by-brick and stone-by-stone detail. Just as axonometric projections allowed many designers—from 18th century Jesuit strategists to early-20th-century Russian constructivists—to foresee the shape of a building in ways that suited their needs, photography and digital-reproduction bring out the allegorical potential of lost objects and buildings. However, no matter how realistic, images are devoid of the object’s materiality and its original use value.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology distributes 3D cameras to volunteers who photograph endangered sites and makes 3D models out of them. Photo: IDA’s Million Image Database

So, when it comes to the reproduction of lost artifacts, three-dimensional (3D) printing technology, rather than two-dimensional images, should be credited for opening up more interesting possibilities. Recently, a group of archeologists has been challenging or resisting ISIS by reproducing replicas through 3D printing. To assure the accuracy of the 3D models, the Institute for Digital Archaeology—a collaboration among the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and the Museum of the Future—has begun distributing 3D cameras to volunteers in the region with the goal of gathering images of threatened monuments in case they are lost or damaged. So far, they have created a 3D model of the temple of triumph which was assembled in Trafalgar Square as an act of defiance against ISIS. Not only is the object reproduced, but also a new use-value is assigned to it. Some might argue that the 3D printed arch is predominantly theatrics or even a ploy to raise funds. Others express concern that too much attention to Palmyra’s ruins might eclipse the suffering of the Syrian people. Soon after the unveiling of the 3D printed arch in Trafalgar Square, Joseph Willits of the Council for Arab-British Understanding communicated his unease in these words: “While the digitally created replica of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph looked glorious in the London sunshine, I cannot help but feel this project plays a role in cementing the idea that Syria’s monuments and heritage are far more important than its people.”

It is also important to acknowledge that certain destroyed or threatened sites, monuments, and artifacts receive more attention than others due to the interest of the tourist industry and museums in the West today. Thus, while many ancient and pre-Islamic artifacts and monuments of the Middle East are listed as world heritage sites, others, equally important but less touristically desirable, are not, and hence they do not receive much global attention. Moreover, while the digital industry turns its full attention to the harm done to the world heritage sites such as Palmyra, it remains oblivious to the demolished spaces within which people carry out their everyday existence and the things they hold dear. Architectural historian, Ezra Akcan asks: “Isn’t it a contradiction to mourn the destruction of monuments of cultural heritage but not the destruction of Palestinian villages?” she goes on to say: “the ways the state apparatus exerts itself on dead bodies by making some death ungrievable might not be too different from the ways the cultural and educational institutions exert themselves on architecture by making some buildings unmemorable.” To concur with cultural historian Laura Jane Smith, the “authorized heritage discourses,” force us to pay attention to “aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites, places and/or landscapes that current generations ‘must’ care for, protect and revere so that they might be passed to nebulous future generations.” Not only are the built environments of ordinary individuals frequently overlooked, but so too are their efforts in protecting their own cultural heritage found in these environments.

IDA’s 3D rendering of al-Fahidi, the oldest building in Dubai. You can see both anaglyphs with 3D glasses. Photo: IDA’s Million Image Project

These concerns must not be taken lightly. However, the act of reproducing the original is a positive aftereffect in and of itself. Moreover, in keeping with media historian Laura Marks’ provocative claims in this fine book, the process of additive manufacturing is consistent with the central logic of art-making within the Islamic world, in which “a point can unfold to reveal an entire universe.” Indeed, just as in additive manufacturing successive layers of material are formed under computer control to generate an object, in Islamic art, too, consecutive identical patterns of geometric and abstract shapes create complex muqarnas vaults and elaborate surfaces. Thus, even if for the sake of its symbolic value, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is an apt method of reproducing lost objects and buildings from the Middle East. This phenomenon has also captured the imagination of artists in and from the Middle East, including Iran-born American artist Morehshin Allahyari who reconstructs selected artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS. In her series Material Speculation, she reconstructs selected artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Each item contains a flash drive and a memory card within the printed object. According to Allahyari, “Like time capsules, each object is sealed and kept for future generations (with instructions on how to open the artifacts to access the memory drives without destroying the objects themselves).” The information in these flash drives includes images, maps, PDF files, and videos documented in advance of the time of destruction. It is debatable whether these objects can substitute for the lost ones. Regardless, the flash drive containing the memory of the object hints at further possibilities in light of forward-thinking technology. However, current cutting-edge thinking in science suggests that the fundamental nature of the spatial three dimensions of the universe may in fact be nothing more than the projection of a deeper, more fundamental two-dimensional surface. We may therefore construct our entire reality at every second via projections of this “holographic universe,” just as we may now interpret the world mediated through digital data conveyed to us from all points on the globe in real time. In this era of dematerialization, it is worth contemplating the role of the virtual pathways that have already begun to mediate between us and our material world.

Pamela Karimi is a Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of Domesticity and Consumer Culture in Iran: Interior Revolutions of the Modern Era. She co-edited Images of the Child and Childhood in Modern Muslim Contexts, Reinventing the American Post-Industrial City and The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in the Middle East: From Napoleon to ISIS. Co-founder of Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, Karimi currently serves on the board of the Association of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey.