Of bombs and bulldozers

Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Ghadames, Tadrart Acacus — are among the archaeological sites now being bulldozed or similarly molested by the Daesh, in Libya. While the destruction of populated Aleppo in Syria is closer to the front-page news, I saw mention of these Libyan places in a media “Style” section this morning.

From an economic perspective, I suppose, it is not much of a story: Libya has no tourist industry left to lose. Neither, for that matter, has any other North African or Middle Eastern country, except Israel and the disneylands of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, patiently awaiting their turn. As an opponent, generally, of the whole tourist trade, which everywhere overwrites the genuine with the virtual, one might think I would be more enthusiastic. But no, I should like to see the genuine preserved, including the peace of genuine pilgrims and travellers.

As I have written before, there are innumerable monuments, scattered across the old middle of the world, some of them extremely large; and the Daesh are inefficient. Those possessed by devils — so often misdiagnosed as “mentally ill” — usually are. (“Get away from me Satan” were apparently the last words of that murdered priest in France.)

By their end, the present generation of Muslim terrorists will probably have scratched only the surface of the world’s archaeological heritage, most of which anyway lies buried still. They can hardly compete with the ravages of time. And thanks to the assiduous work of European and American imperialists, we do retain records of what we found, and thus the materials to continue reconstructing the ancient world in our imaginations.

Why would the Daesh, under attack from armed enemies in so many locations, bother with such an expensive and time-consuming task? It takes much tireless work under the blazing sun to pulverize acres of stone, even with the help of modern, capitalist-supplied explosives and earth-moving machinery. Granting that, from their point of view, these wonders of the ancient world are idolatrous; granting even the traditional Islamic practice of destroying evidence of pre-Islamic culture (V.S. Naipaul is good on this politically-incorrect point) — why couldn’t they wait until they had consolidated their victory? For then they could go about the task with more income and leisure.

I don’t think they expect to win, in the shorter term. They embrace suicide, not only on the small tactical scale, but on the larger strategic. They are thinking ahead to what may be a more distant apocalyptic future, when in their view Islam will finally prevail. The struggle involves the gradual elimination of everything non-Islamic from the planet. As well, given iconoclast ideals, this triumph must eventually consume the most beautiful monuments of Islam itself.

The modern history of Arabia will help us understand. The fanatic Wahabi sheikhs, whom the British left in place to protect their oil interests, did not only scour the desert landscape of the remains of Ottoman rule. They also destroyed the legitimate archaeological evidence of early Islam, in Mecca and Medina, while building then constantly rebuilding their own ever glitzier “theme parks” over the top. The stuff they replaced was too piddling and small; they wanted the grandiose to impress the crowds of humanity on Hajj. Historical veracity never appealed to them: that is a distinctly Western conception. The heritage of oriental despotism is different in kind. In today’s Saudi Arabia, almost nothing visible survives that predates the 1960s; soon little will be older than the present young century. The Kabbah stone itself, at the centre of Mecca, has been successively enlarged, so that possibly nothing remains of the original.

The giant Buddhas, carved from the cliffs of Bamiyan, were demolished by the Taliban because they were so big, and also because the Taliban realized it might be their last chance. These extraordinary works of monastic enterprise had stood for centuries in their remote valley, as evidence of Afghanistan’s Buddhist past; but also of the failure of past Muslim rulers to be sufficiently thorough. They were one “scandal” — from the Wahabi point of view — that could be corrected for the rest of time.

In Afghanistan, as in Libya — indeed across North Africa and through most of the Middle East — there was a history of high civilization, through millennia before the Islamic conquests. There is hardly a place across the vast region that was not more civilized, two thousand years ago. In Egypt, for instance, the Islamists often declare their intention to blow up the Pyramids, as a grand symbolic act. With that goes the larger ambition of deleting all evidence of ancient Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, and Coptic habitation. To the Islamist mind, all of it constitutes an insult to Islam.

Bamiyan, and the World Trade Centre, were hit for the same reason. They were not only “icons” in themselves, but evidence of civilizational superiority. By surviving, they provided a counter-weight to the blather of fanatical imams. We have in them the mindset that could conceive a Thousand Year Reich; a Qin Shi Huang or Tamerlane or Mao — dreaming a gigantism to crush all evidence of what had gone before — but weirdly displaced to a fanciful seventh century, to add another layer of madness.

And therefore they propose and enact an evil that must not only be defeated, but be seen to be defeated, and utterly wiped away. I have no patience for the dribbling “containment” strategies, now argued within the retreating West. Within days of 9/11, Bush took back the word “crusade.” He should instead have repeated it, to meet the propaganda of Islamism head on.

Now, here is the paradox. The Daesh work constantly from UNESCO lists, to choose their targets. They are looking for the most famous, the most widely known; for the biggest theatrical effects. (Through history, iconoclasts have always been theatrical.) In a larger view, we may see that the very success of the mass-market tourist trade creates the conditions for the destruction of the goods which it appropriates.

This is the story of post-modern “fame” — that directly or indirectly, we contribute to the destruction of whatever we purport to love.