Amid the hysteria and tumult of the Trump inauguration, some of you may have missed the latest event in the Islamic State’s far too enduring campaign of wanton destruction against everything that makes human culture a worthwhile project (author’s note: I will henceforth refer to them by their appropriate name of Islamic State rather than pervert the name of a beautiful ancient Egyptian goddess). Having retaken the territory after an earlier desecration in 2015, IS destroyed the Tetrapylon structure at the site of the Roman theatre of Palmyra in Syria, one of the most beautiful structures of classical antiquity. It seems they were intent on finishing what they started in 2015 when they tore through Palmyra in a frenzy of destruction, levelling the 2000-year-old Temple of Bel and many other historical artefacts. A spray-painted scrawl of Jihadist graffiti can be seen peppering the rubble, laying desecration on demolition.
Around the time of their initial 2015 incursion I wrote a piece about their attacks on the ancient Assyrian monuments in Iraq, traces of one of the earliest civilisations known. This is a common feature of fanatical regimes throughout history and it represents something far more destructive than just the levelling of brick and mortar. In the last piece I wrote I paraphrased Christopher Hitchens in a debate with Simon Jenkins on the merits of interventionist foreign policy (the broader discussion of which is a topic for another day) where he gave the example of the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan and the portent their destruction represented (in that they weren’t the only twin structures that the Taliban, an unrecognised government by most of the international community, and their Al Qaeda guests were eying nefariously). To give the quote in full:
“UNESCO had for a long time declared that property to be common property – common property of humanity, the common cultural holding of our luckless species. What would have been wrong with dropping in a small force to say on the day that dawned when these structures were to be shelled “no you don’t, we’re standing between you and them, you don’t have the right to do this and by the way we know what you’re up to”? I submit that that would have been an admirable thing in every respect. It would have incrementally at least, but in the sense of principle as well, beefed up the fragile sense, the one which we’re all so aware of not having now, of an international community that knows what it’s talking about and doesn’t, in the old phrase, stand idly by.”
Jenkins responded with a frankly weasely and smarmy remark about how he didn’t consider it to be the duty of national militaries to protect ancient monuments, deftly missing the significance of what Hitchens was putting forward.
While my agreement with Hitchens on this point and my views on the repellent significance of such acts, remain unchanged, my perspective on why they strike at our better nature so deeply despite the lack of actual human casualties, has evolved somewhat.
The ravages of time – the one thing no ideology, supreme leader, or fanatical cult can truly tame.
Extremist cults of the likes of IS have a very troublesome relationship with the concept of time. Transience, the passing of the ages is so essential to the maintenance of our individual humanity. It acts as a momento mori bulwark against collectivist ideologies into which people are so often duped by their baser impulses into subsuming their individuality, pouring the significance of their lives into the bottomless drain of fanatical belief systems.
Tyranny and fanaticism by their very nature deny the passage of time in one of two ways: they are either temporally chaotic – in their attempt to create a closed system (as with the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero or North Korea’s timeless lockbox of a country) or eschatological (as with the millenarian preoccupations of classical communism or fascism). Systems that try and build themselves into an eternal edifice are challenged by the graveyard of dead Gods and ruined civilisations. Take the hermetic nightmare of North Korea. Kim Jong Un is not the president – upon his death Kim Il Sung, Un’s grandfather, was made President for Eternity and the government has since sealed the country off from any outside influence that might remind its unfortunate people that the state which claims eternal reign over them is as mortal and feeble as they are. Total domination of individual lives is not sufficient (and in many cases not possible) without a facade of impermeability to the ravages of time – the one thing no ideology, supreme leader, or fanatical cult can truly tame.
For those of us who value the nobility of individual human life and find the passage of time and our limited place in the universe edifying and affirming, the crumbling vestiges of our past leave us with a warm glow and a renewed sense of the urgency of the now – the beauty and poignancy of our short lives. This is the tragedy of losing sites like Palmyra and the reason why maniacal millenarian brutes like the Islamic State find them so threatening. IS seem incapable of creating anything beautiful, only destroying it and deep down, despite (and hopefully because of) the fervour and savagery of their beliefs, the one thing they do have in common with their ancient betters is the fact that their ashen bones will sink into the sands where their squalid desert fiefdoms briefly stood and all their talk of eternity and paradise will have come to naught. But unlike the architects of Palmyra, they will have left nothing of lasting significance behind. Despite the loss of these artefacts, the common heritage of all civilised people, we can take comfort in that fact and what a beautiful thing it is to embrace impermanence rather than hide in delusion.
In the words of Omar Kayyam:
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon Turns Ashes-or it prospers; and anon, Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face Lighting a little Hour or two-is gone.