Sunday, 24 May 2015

Destruction of physical heritage

Boyd Tonkin's piece in Saturday's Indy puts the trail of destruction wrought by ISIS/DAESH in perspective, both in time and place. He points out the desecration of ancient sites in Mecca by the very people who inherited the duty of preserving the holy places for their fellow-religionists, all in the pursuit of non-oil revenue. One can add another case of "friendly fire": the damage done to ancient ruins in Iraq by US forces.

The commanding officer in the latter case may have had little respect for Mesopotamian remains, but one wonders what would have been his reaction if an outside agency had requisitioned the Williamsburg estate, much younger and arguably less distinguished architecturally than Babylon or Palmyra, and treated it with the same disregard.

The composer Richard Strauss, who regarded himself as one of the guardians of German culture, wept over the bombing of Dresden. But there is no evidence of similar concern over the destruction of Coventry, Rotterdam or Warsaw by the Nazi regime to which he was in hock, nor even to the lives lost in any of those cities.

Clearly, we are dealing with symbols here. The Saudis are showing contempt for anything (apart from the black stone itself) that predates the emergence of their ruling sect. The puritan iconoclasts of the reigns of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI, and later of Oliver Cromwell, whose depredations Tonkin equates to those of DAESH, were showing their hatred of popery.  But, as Tonkin also points out, much that was destroyed was beautiful in its own right, appealing to something in all of us, whether believers or not. Post-Enlightenment, he posits a growing belief in "common human patrimony". People are more important than things, but take away their cultural heritage and you degrade people.

A last word from Boyd Tonkin:

A visitor to Palmyra who has just posted pictures on the BBC website writes that he found something 'slightly disquieting about feeling so strongly about the destruction of such astonishing cultural artefacts given the likely human toll'. Only a marble-hearted aesthete would not share that twinge. Yet Heinrich Heine wrote the first, and last, word about such pangs of conscience: 'Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.' Many people know Heine’s line, which now graces a plaque on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazis stoked their literary bonfire in May 1933. Fewer know its original context. It comes from his 1821 tragedy Almansor, and refers to burnings of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition.

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