It’s true that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but what happens when that very own history is destroyed in front of our very own eyes? As has happened so many times in our history, we are facing the loss of more of our cultural heritage at the hand of barbaric warfare, indifferent to human life or human culture.
The latest challenge to our shared cultural canon comes from the earliest site of human civilization: the lands of the Tigris and Euphrates, of the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Once known by the name Mesopotamia, we are now aware of its new name, Iraq. The importance of such a historical site is quite obvious; this site was where the first recoded human civilization arose. The first epic/myth/story we know of, The Epic of Gilgamesh, comes to us from that far away land in a far away time. And yet a decade ago, forces fought carelessly, forever losing artifacts of our cultural DNA. And when it finally seemed that we were on the track to restore and save what had seemed lost, came another tribulation to our human story.
As reported only a few days ago, ISIS has occupied both Nineveh and Mosul. Nineveh has its importance for being the home of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, whose army was destroyed by the Angel of the Lord, as the Bible says, and his ‘Palace Without Rival.’ Mosul is home to thousands of Islamic, Christian, and pagan sculptures and manuscripts that could vanish any moment, whether by destruction or sale. One of the most painful situations is that the Mosul Museum, which has been closed since the US invasion in 2003 and was about to open again after a long restoration project, has been overrun by the ISIS forces, who are threatening to destroy many of these priceless objects (Dickey).
Only a short while ago, a similar situation was seen in Syria, where due to the bellicose actions of both sides, The Ancient City of Aleppo, renowned for being part of various civilizations throughout history and displaying different types of architecture, is now being threatened after the Syrian conflict (“Ancient City of Aleppo”), with the Great Mosque of Aleppo having been completely obliterated by now (Fawcett). These, unfortunately, are maybe the only recent examples that stand out in our head.
After all, it has been a common trend for the conquerors or the fighters to take down that which has been carefully built and cared for. From the Library of Alexandria’s destruction by both the decree of Coptic Pope Theophilus and the Muslim conquest of Egypt (“Destruction of the Library of Alexandria”), to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus’ dismantling to build a crusader’s castle (“Mausoleum at Halicarnassus”), the destruction or cultural and historical monuments like this transcend time, race, religion. It doesn’t even have to pertain to monuments made by man; in 1944, the only existing skeleton of a Spinosaurus was destroyed when Munich’s Bavarian State Collection of Archaeology was hit by an Allied bomb raid. Even today, no other Spinosaurus skeleton as complete as that one’s has been found (“Spinosaurus”).
Personally, however, the most painful example of this ignorance for the treasures around us came from Afghanistan, in the midst of the Hazarajat region. Built along the Silk Route in the 6th century BCE, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were two statues of standing Buddhas carved into a cliff side. Though the paint and jewels that adorned them in the past faded away, their impressiveness and grandeur still could not be understated. Unfortunately, in March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the sculptures. The painful image of smoke and flames emerging from the now empty cavern is more than heartbreaking (“Buddhas of Bamiyan”). It shows that because of someone’s religious beliefs, political ideas, or even offensive stereotypes and preconceived notions, they will disregard the history and importance of these monuments and these artifacts, destroying them as if it were child’s play.
We have a chance once again to save the structures of Mosul and Nineveh. We have a chance to soon rebuild the Mosque in Aleppo and the Buddhas of Bamiyan. These parts of our cultural DNA define us all, and so, unless we want to forget history forever, we must attempt to save them to the best of our abilities.