I am taking this wording directly out of the mouth of Slovenian philosopher Salvoj Zizek, from his book of the same title. I find this phrase particularly fitting to the situation that is currently occurring with regards to Palmyra and the way in which the UK government’s response has been awkward and ridiculous. I am talking mainly about the ‘reconstruction’ of an archway of Palmyra that was first displayed in the British museum and then at Trafalgar square. The monument’s creation comes after Boris Johnson’s original comments of ‘sending British archaeologists to…rebuild Palmyra’, an unarchaeological endeavour indeed.
I am personally not going to claim that I alone stand as a single voice in questioning the point of this monument or the charge that we must rebuild Palmyra but I add my voice to others who are bewildered that this may be what the public thinks archaeologists do. Perhaps the narrative of conservation of the past has turned into recreation of the past, that heritage cannot be heritage if it is destroyed. This perspective presents turning a blind eye to the fact that heritage is constantly decaying and in many ways it is being slowly perpetually being destroyed; the destruction may be physical but it relies heavily on which piece of heritage are focused on and which are ignored. I would like to add to this, the destruction of intangible heritage such as language or memory that is also slowly decaying in a different manner but all with the same outcome.
To believe that Daesh’s modern day action is some new form of destruction to heritage is to ignore history entirely; in fact there is much discussion about how artifacts and heritage was treated in the past by Western archaeologists in the middle east. The frame of reference that the restoration of Palmyra has is one from the West, that as a polar opposite to Daesh’s destruction, the cultural high road is to reconstruct. The director of the Oxford’s Institute for Digital archaeology (IDA) has the stance that heritage “erased in this fashion…must promptly…and…thoughtfully restored”; although I agree that heritage is important there is another side to the destruction that Daesh is doing. I wish to draw upon work done by Ömür Harmanşah, who’s paper on the topic of ISIS destruction and it’s use of visual and communicative media to disseminate that destruction highlights that this behavious is calculated for maximum effect in the modern news cycle. The actions may be branded as ‘barbaric’ and ‘backwards’ but this fails to understand the effectivnes of the narrative of cultural destruction
In fact our sudden shock and disapproval of this destruction of cultural heritage simply throws the spotlight on us for not caring about Palmyra or similar sites in the middle east before. I would argue that the only time in which we as a society would feel some connection to middle eastern archaeology is when the British Museum is asked to repatriate items to the people and places from which they were first taken (and in this case, taking the BM’s side). I think the recent rhetoric from individuals like Boris Johnson with regards to Palmyra demonstrate that archaeologists and those in the heritage industry have been wholly unsuccessful in effectively communicating what heritage is and why we should care about it.
The destruction of cultural heritage was first displayed as a tragedy of world significance, that ‘world heritage’ was being ‘erased’ by ISIS and that the only way to fight back was to restore Palmyra and Nimrud to their form ruined glory. The transformation into a farce comes when we consider that this restoration is one from destruction to slightly less destruction, all for the sake that ISIS has done this damage. Will we ever consider restoring monuments destroyed or damaged by excavations by colonial archaeologists pursing treasures in the 19th and 20th Century? I don’t think so, primarily because we have already placed that behaviour in the past and we are totally over it now and don’t benefit in any way from the collecting and stealing from other cultures in the past.
Destruction comes in many forms and despite my contention that what Daesh is doing is not new, I do disapprove of their actions (in the current climate I believe I have to make this clear). However I fear that this solution to the behaviour of Daesh, that reconstruction follows destruction automatically, fails to communicate what heritage is. Heritage isn’t just a pretty face, not just something to look at, it contains cultural value; and even though we may not like it, Daesh’s destruction is now part of Palmyra’s ongoing heritage. By restoring Palmyra we are covering up the cracks that make it the interesting and history-filled site it is today; many experts have argued that restoring the site in this way will create a “Disneyland” of archaeology, a ‘pristine’ archaeological site with fake monument replicas replacing ‘real heritage’ (a discussion for another time).
I write this while in Aleppo fighting still rages on; Syria is a war torn country and it’s future matters to us as humans in the global world. At the same time as recognizing that the destruction of cultural heritage is horrible let us also remember those dying day by day by gunfire and bombs. We will raise statues in Trafalgar square to those dead for thousands of years but we have no such courtesy to those recently deceased. Perhaps this is where introspection by all of us is needed, that our focus on bricks and mortar over flesh and blood in some ways makes us worse than destroyers of history because we are ignoring the everyday history playing out in front of us in this bloody conflict.