Conservative Muslims often lament about the unspeakable destruction and atrocities wrecked by the barbarian hordes of the Mongol warrior Helugu Khan on the Islamic Caliphate. The siege of Baghdad by Helugu led to the destruction of the Grand Library of the city, which arguably kept the most important and valuable knowledge at the time. Apart from slaughtering hundreds of thousands, he went on to invade Syria and cause great cultural damage.
It is only ironic that the political institution that represented civilization then, and suffered at the hands of cultural terrorism, is now at war with civilization itself. Critics may not even consider the Islamic State as a valid Caliphate, and surely you can hardly establish equivalence between the cultured Abbasids and the morally crude ISIS. Yet, this is what the forces claiming to establish a true Islamic State have become. It would not be incorrect to say that surviving centuries of hardship and chaos, the manifold cultural heritage of Mesopotamia and Syria had remained pretty much intact.
Until the modern Syrian civil war, a destructive and unproductive campaign backed by the most civilized nations of the modern age.
From destruction of Nimrod to the fall of Palmyra, Islamic State has been deliberately waging war against the cultural heritage of the land.
The most recent painful occurrence has been the brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad, Syrian archeologist and the Head of Antiquities for the ancient ruins of Palmyra, who had served for over 40 years. It is reported that he refused to guide the ISIS warriors to a hidden treasure, on which they beheaded him. A local archeology pioneer leading discovery of several precious artifacts, Khaled Al-Asaad insisted on staying in Palmyra, despite ISIS entering the city, and was blamed to be a supporter of the Assad regime on capture.
It is simply a sad state of affairs that the ISIS has become a largely acceptable face of the Sunni resistance in Iraq and Syria to the central pro-Shia regimes. It is disappointing what the ground forces have come down to in the region, and how their strategy is making it hard to counter them with every passing day.
When you secure sites such as the ancient city of Palmyra, it becomes almost impossible for a liberating force to retake it without damaging the irreplaceable structures. We witnessed that when the Syrian opposition took over the ancient district of Aleppo, which was largely destroyed by shelling from Assad’s forces. Recently, ISIS has even threatened to blow up the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. While the very idea sounds insane due to the sheer size of the Pyramids, it offers some insight into the minds of the Islamic State. It shows you what they are thinking about the ancient heritage of the region.
The objective of ISIS is clear. To wipe out the ancient history of the Middle East to bring it in accordance with their faith. They do not want to see images carved on walls in the form of bas relief and mosaic art and will have them removed. They do not want to see the images of false gods anywhere on the land that falls under their domain. In the manner of the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddha statues, they would rather blow up these irreplaceable and precious artifacts and buildings.
This is why the entire ISIS campaign has been such a massive loss for civilization and humanity in general. Most of the damage that they are doing, which only compounds the misery of the human tragedy of their atrocities.
We probably cannot help undo the damage done by ISIS, because we were too busy standing by and witnessing the destruction of civilization, and were content by simply reporting the disaster. But this aspect of the war that ISIS is waging on humanity is a race against the clock as well. We only have so much time to prevent them from doing further damage.
Heroes such as Khaled Al-Assad have fallen protecting the ancient heritage of Syria, and of human civilization, but is anyone else willing to offer the sacrifice?
I still recall the horrifying images of the looting at the National Museum when Baghdad fell to the United States troops in 2003. People were running around with artifacts, almost on the watch of the guards from the US Marines, who preferred safeguarding the oil ministry building instead. Already warned about the significance of the museum, it would hardly be an exaggeration to blame the US administration and military commanders of the time for the loss.
The same apathetic indifference of the leaders and the largest military force of the civilized world, deflecting the obvious solutions with direction-less intellectual political analysis, is staggering to those who mourn the loss of a civilization at the hands of Islamic State.
Now that the National Museum of Baghdad has been opened again with some recovered artifacts, the risk from the threat of ISIS has never been greater. UNESCO had actually called for an emergency meeting to discuss how to protect it, and the United Nations called for stopping ISIS from taking Palmyra. But who is listening anyway?
While the world stands by silently and watches one of the most barbaric militant groups in history blast the greatest artifacts of human civilization to dust, you can only wonder about the possible solution.
Unless there is a sizeable allied ground force in Iraq and Syria, which can effectively counter the influence and advance of ISIS, we will never be able to save the heritage of mankind from complete annihilation. But would they be careful enough to leave the delicate heritage sites untouched?
Whether it is just the US troops, or ideally a UN international peacekeeping coalition led by it, we need to make a decision fast.
The clock is ticking.
The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.
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