Tuesday, December 15, 2015

How to Protect Idols

If my Facebook feed is any clue, most Westerners think that ISIS shouldn’t have destroyed the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. The temple ought to have stayed up, we think, because it’s part of humanity’s patrimony, which no ignorant thug has the right to insult much less destroy.

But in the first place, it's clear that ISIS had far more reverence for the temple than us. They understood that it was a temple of a god; and that since idolatry is evil it had to be destroyed. This opinion is far ruddier—and understands more of the spirit the temple was built in—than our own stuffy antiquarianism. For us the temple was a pile of broken columns, useful merely because old things are titillating.


You say that ISIS had no right to destroy the temple, because it belonged to humanity, not to them. Well, who is humanity made of? It is made of you and me, plus Javanese miners, and Greek monks, and San hunters.  Only some of this huge herd gives a damn about an old temple in Palmyra. The people who do care are either professors, or wide-eyed Facebooking idealists, or gunslinging Islamist iconoclasts. Shall we have a pageant to decide which of these groups is most representative of “humanity”?

You also say that we, not the terrorists, are the rightful stewards of Near-Eastern civilization. After all, we study the cuneiform languages, we do careful archaeology, and we have a sense of the region’s history. But for all we know, the ancient Palmyrenes themselves would have preferred ISIS to us. They might have recognized more of themselves in men who still live with holy terror, and who still have a sense of the awesome grandeur of heaven. (But the Palmyrenes are all dead, I guess, and it’s pointless to speculate about the opinions of that impossibly ancient people.)

In short, there’s really no argument to make for us having the Temple of Bel and not ISIS. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not drawing a moral equivalence here, just a logical one. I am not one of the relativists who throws up his hands and says that we’re just as much in the wrong as ISIS because we bear a legacy of colonialism or something. No: I think that it is vulgar and hideous to destroy antiquities, and noble to preserve them.

But I am sure that ISIS will never see it that way, because there is no convincing a man who lives by religion religious fanaticism. And I don’t think the Palmyrenes would have seen it that way either: they meant their temple for Bel, not us. We cannot produce a will to prove that the temple ought to belong to educated professors, not evil thugs. And there is no god of history who wants the treasures of Syria to be preserved. There are only men and women who will preserve them if they have the power.

If they have the power: in the end, there is something that antiquarians can do about the destruction of antiquities. They do not need to convince devout Islamists that history must be preserved. It is only necessary to overpower the barbarians by force. You need not demonstrate rationally, for example, that the Buddhas of Bamiyan must be left standing; you’ve just got to make sure that an iconoclastic Islamist regime never takes control of Afghanistan. Or, if there’s something you really want to keep safe, you can nick it. The British and French did just that in the nineteenth century, hauling the treasures of Greece and the Middle East home to the Louvre and the British Museum.

These would be sitting placidly in Bloomsbury if they hadn’t been so damn hard to move.
So no, we humanists don’t have more of a claim to Palmyra than ISIS. That’s because ISIS rules over Palmyra. But only for now—by the grace of God they will be destroyed, and the past of the Middle East will be safe from people who want to obliterate it.

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