An article in the New York Times came to my attention recently. It noted that the looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is rampant again. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, many sites known to contain priceless artifacts are being looted by thieves and opportunists who see profit, rather than cultural treasure buried in the sands surrounding Bagdad. Ironically, former officials and employees of the Iraqi, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, may be the very ones taking advantage of the vacuum in enforcement left by the coalition withdrawal, since they are most familiar with where opportunity lies, so to speak. The newly-installed government was to have a staff of 5000 protecting the artifacts of their national heritage, but, unfortunately, there are currently only 106 on the job; barely enough to guard the Ottoman-era mansion in their capital city, let alone keeping a watchful eye over a country the size of California.
Most of you recall the looting of Iraqi National Museum in the days following the American invasion in 2003, when thousands of objects, including many recognized world-wide for their beauty and historical relevance, disappeared into the alleyways and backrooms of collectors and black market traders. Closing the barn door after the horse had run out, American authorities explained this atrocity as an oversight, based on the other priorities that occupied their attention at the time. That may be a rational assessment, but it nevertheless, reflected poor planning, operational control and a misread on the deeply enduring cultural significance of this country, in spite of the corruption that had persisted there for generations.
The destruction and desecration of treasured artifacts is not new. In fact, it has a long and illustrious history. Invading countries destroy and pillage one another’s precious possessions for two reasons: subjugation and profit. Biblical records report the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple in Judea in 422 B.C. , before the Babylonians marched the Jews off to several hundred years of bondage in a foreign land. The Second Temple was subsequently destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. to drive home the point that they were in control of the Holy Land (the remaining foundation of that structure is now the Wailing Wall, a centerpiece of the Jewish faith). But, from those early incidents, including the burning of libraries by Alexander the Great, to the pillaging of treasures by the troops on behalf of the royal sponsors of crusading Soldiers of the Cross during the medieval Holy Wars, to the bombing of churches and museums by both sides in the 20th century’s two world wars, or the razing of historic properties to make way for condominiums, destruction of historically-relevant symbols of our past has been a form of mind control that rivals any action a terrorist might dare in the heart of a large city today.
Theft of fine art continues to make headlines, even today. The removal of art and artifacts from their indigenous surroundings, or from the museums and homes that display them, is more a matter of greed and ego, than of spite and revenge. With international data banks and global alert systems now in place, it would seem impossible that any notable work of art or object could successfully find a market. Many of these works, though, find their way into the very private collections of wealthy, but obsessive megalomaniacs, or lie rolled up in foreign vault for decades, until finally discovered and being returned to their rightful owners. It is common knowledge that if certain desirable Chinese Eastern Zhou or Tang artifacts, removed and packed up from freshly raided tombs in the countryside, can make their way to Shanghai or Hong Kong, they are safe from the intervention of local and regional authorities and can be expediently dispatched by the container-load to Western markets. While Chinese nationals on that side of the Pacific and Native American activists here have both effectively curtailed certain kinds of vandalism and abuse of grave sites and other symbolically-rich cultural materials, and ultimately repatriated these objects, it is only a fairly recent phenomenon.
Through Western eyes, the destruction of Afghanistan’s, 1500-year old, 30-story tall carving of two Buddhas in the region of Bamiyan, north of Kabul, by the Taliban in 2001 was considered a travesty. The rationale of the ruling mulahs: that there were no Buddhists left in the country and, in the eyes of the Islamic faith, any representation of the human form was considered idolatrous. The world stood by helpless as these cliff-side figures were first fired at with artillery shells and eventually dynamited into oblivion. In this case, should we respect the cultural values of the Afghanis or consider it an abuse of cultural stewardship?
And this was only one example of the obliteration of treasures which, by virtue of their longevity and high public profile, truly belong to the world. Such destruction (while more public than most) occurs somewhere in the world every day. In the name of corporate development, urban expansion, demands for water and oil and a seemingly insatiable desire to acquire-for-acquisition’s-sake, the jewels of our historical and cultural crowns are being traded away to the highest bidder or are falling prey to political and theological ambitions.
We must find the means to value and protect the legacy of our past…those ‘things’ that have been handed down, entrusted to us for safe-keeping. These are not primitive objects or crude renderings of faces long departed. Often elegantly and skillfully rendered, these pieces serve as a collective consciousness for civilization as a whole. Whether we parse the globe ethnically, socially, by religious or political preference, by gender, geographical latitude, heritage or family history, careful examination of the relics and artifacts of our past reveals a common theme: humanity is bound together by a slender thread of shared and remarkably similar emotions and memories. We must never relinquish these bonds to our history, even under the greatest objections; and with the knowledge that, once we turn our attention away from our heritage, it will imperil us all in ways we cannot possibly foresee.
By Richard Friswell, Publisher and Executive Editor www.artesmagazine.com