Our art is our humanity

This too is horrible – IS smashes ancient statues in Mosul.

The Islamic State (IS) group has released a video appearing to show the destruction of statues in Iraq.

Statues are smashed using sledgehammers and drills in what seems to be a museum in the city of Mosul.

Statues are also shown being destroyed at an archaeological site known as the Nergal Gate.

It’s the same thing the Spanish colonizers did to Inca and Aztec and Mayan and other artifacts. It’s appalling.

In the video released via IS social media sites, black-clad men push over statues, smash them with sledgehammers and use a pneumatic drill to destroy the rubble.

Ihsan Fethi, an Iraqi professor of architecture based in Amman, Jordan, told Agence France-Presse the destruction was “a terrible loss and an unbelievable act of cultural terrorism”.

Amir al-Jumaili, a professor at the Archaeology College in Mosul, told Associated Press: “I’m totally shocked. It’s a catastrophe. With the destruction of these artefacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul’s civilisation.”

I have to tell you, it’s painful to watch this – one push and an ancient statue is destroyed.


  1. iknklast says

    It’s the same thing the Spanish colonizers did to Inca and Aztec and Mayan and other artifacts.

    And for the same reason – the religion of the smashers was “offended” by the statues. Christian missionaries had the same motif as the Islamists – smash up and destroy things that look at the world differently than the narrow viewpoint of your own religious view.

  2. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Every instance of this makes my gut lurch. It’s so *horrible*. It’s so *evil*. Our world cultural heritage MATTERS.

  3. says

    iknlast, yup, exactly.

    I hate religion. I meant to make an effort to stop saying things like that after the horrors in Chapel Hill, but…I can’t. Not altogether. I hate religion.

  4. says

    These people hate Islam (in the broad sense) and Muslims, as much as they hate the West, and us “kaffirs”. Imagine the Protestant Dominionists taking over Europe and dynamiting the cathedrals of Chartres and Salisbury, and burning original manuscripts of Bach’s church music, or The Divine Comedy. This is like that. Narrow, stupid, violent people who despise everything not themselves.

  5. says

    For some reason, I found this much more viscerally distressing than the news about the beheadings – though that may be simply because I’ve seen this video and not the others: I wouldn’t want to put my hypothesis to the test.

    I’ve one minor quibble, though: whatever the Conquistadors destroyed, they did at least have a culture of their own; they weren’t iconoclasts, so much as willing to replace one set of icons with another. The richness of Latin American art is the legacy. A nasty birth, maybe – but a birth nonetheless.

    These guys are different. They are iconoclasts in the full sense. They aren’t aiming to correct or refine culture: they’re aiming to eliminate it. There will never be an ISIS school of art. They aren’t depriving the future of this culture, and in passing bequeathing it another (which is what normally happens). They’re aiming to deprive the future of any culture.

    It’s horrible.

  6. says

    Enzyme…Hmm. That seems an odd way to put it. There could perfectly well have been a rich Latin American art that still included the Mayan codices and all the rest of it. The murder wasn’t necessary for the birth. In fact my guess is that Latin American art post-Columbus would be even richer, with more roots to nourish it.

  7. says

    I can’t help speculating that there is a political, as much as a theological motive, behind this. Fundamentalisms of all stripes (back to the eponymous Protestant kind) strive to present themselves as the bearers of the Original Authentic Tradition (which, BTW, is largely retrospectively constructed, at least as much as it is recovered), uncorrupted by later heresies and apostasies. To accomplish this, they have to distort or ignore a lot of intervening history. Thus, to old-school Baptists, Presbyterians, et al, Catholicism is a third-century heresy that managed to take over Christianity and hold on until after the Reformation, textual criticism is the Devil’s work, etc.

    It seems like IS is pursuing the same strategy by the much more direct route of simply erasing that history. In their Perfect Caliphate there will be no moderate, intellectualized or artistic Islam to provide an alternative to the approved version — the artifacts thereof will simply be gone.

  8. says

    I am speechless at how horrible these ISIS people are going out of their way to be. Their apparent view of how people should live is miserable. They are putting all the death-worship, nihilism, and bad taste of religion on display. What is their idea of a good life, a wasted desert devoid of any pleasure? And they mistake that for purpose.

  9. RJW says

    Does anyone want to argue for the return of cultural artefacts to their ‘rightful’ owners in the Near East or North Africa? It’s probably only a matter of time before the relics of Roman civilisation in Libya are bulldozed by Islamic fanatics, what’s next, the Cairo museum?

    @7 Enzyme,

    When the Conquistadores destroyed the books of the only only literate culture in Mesoamerica, the Maya, they destroyed the knowledge accumulated by a 2000 year old civilisation, not only art.

  10. says

    Ophelian/ RJW –
    Yeah. It’s hard not to sound like I’m all “Yay! Conquistadors!”… which I’m not. So the phrasing I used may not have been the best possible.

    I’ll try again. The Conquistadors may have destroyed a culture, and are blameable for that. But they didn’t destroy, and didn’t set out to destroy, culture tout court – which is closer to what I think that ISIS are about.

    Oh, OK: I don’t know entirely what I think, or whether it’s true. But I have this gut feeling that there’s something qualitatively different about ISIS from the destruction of Meso-American culture. ISIS is closer to… I was going to say Savonarola, but I don’t think that that’s quite right. The Khmer Rouge is probably the best parallel, I guess.

  11. John Morales says

    For such as me, art is nice (sometimes), but I can certainly live without it — so I can’t say that this aspect of the destruction of things bothers me as such. What bothers me somewhat the loss of information about the past.

    Enzyme @7:

    They’re aiming to deprive the future of any culture.

    Were that even true, it would still be a futile endeavour; culture is an intrinsic attribute of any grouping of people.

  12. RJW says

    @12 Enzyme

    “The Conquistadors may have destroyed a culture, and are blameable for that. But they didn’t destroy, and didn’t set out to destroy, culture tout court – which is closer to what I think that ISIS are about.”

    In the sociological sense ISIS has a culture and so did the Khmer Rouge, they’re no different from the Catholic Church of the Conquistadors in that they reject totally other cultures and regard them as worthless. If the members of ISIS ever manage to establish their repugnant “Caliphate” I’m sure they will impose their culture on the unfortunate inhabitants of the region, they’re not nihilists.

  13. says

    @14: I think the Conquistadors were more about plunder and territory than ideology. Catholicism more or less came along for the ride (not that Church and State didn’t find each other useful in many ways). The point being is that it left space available for things that weren’t Catholicism per se. My impression of KR and IS are that they were/are *all* about the ideology; there is no State distinct from the “Church”; their *only* goal is to establish the totalizing culture of their theology by wiping out all trace of any other way of thinking.

  14. says

    There was a lot of Catholo-imperialism involved too though. They wanted loot and power, sure, but it was all mixed up with the goddy stuff.

    Montaigne is one near-contemporary who has a lot to say about that. Las Casas of course is another.

  15. RJW says

    @16 Eamon Knight,

    “Catholicism more or less came along for the ride (not that Church and State didn’t find each other useful”

    I don’t agree that there’s much difference, Church and State were so intertwined, it’s doubtful if they could be separated in the modern sense, remember the title for the Spanish king was “His Most Catholic Majesty” and the clergy served as very useful cadres for the conquest of the Americas. There is also the treaty of Tordesillas when the Pope divided the New World and any undiscovered lands between between Spain and Portugal, that’s his imprimatur for further conquest and slaughter. The clergy were as culpable as the Conquistadors. There were dissenters of course, however in general, the Church was an accomplice in genocide and cultural annihilation.

  16. says

    @18: I in on way let the Church off the hook, and I think you’ve misconstrued what I was arguing. However, Ophelia thinks I’m wrong on that point anyways, so I’ll defer to her (as she no doubt knows a good deal more than I do on the subject).

  17. lorn says

    They are not the first, and likely not the last to practice iconoclasm. They are just the most recent, and one in a long line of hateful, petty, fascists who confuse destroying an art object with making it to the big time as an upstart ideology.

  18. Medievalist says

    This is simply horrible and heartbreaking but, sadly, not surprising.

    When looking for parallels in Christianity, it makes sense to go back to earlier times in history, way before the Conquistadors; there is ample evidence of the systematic destruction of statues and other kinds of (non-Christian religious) art in Late Antiquity. Eberhard Sauer’s “The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World” offers case studies of several archaeological sites (mostly in Europe and Egypt) and compares what happened there to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues.

  19. Decker says

    It’s the same thing the Spanish colonizers did to Inca and Aztec and Mayan and other artifacts. It’s appalling.

    That’s somewhat inaccurate for a number of reasons.

    Mayan culture had ceased to exist in the late 800s more than 6 centuries before Cortés. The Mayans were concentrated much further south than the Aztecs and by the time the Spanish arrived their cities were covered with jungle and The Aztecs, at best, were only dimly aware they’d ever existed. Most Mayan cities were only rediscovered in the 19th and early 20 centuries.

    No doubt the Conquistadors did destroy or deface images of Aztec deities, but as for wholesale cultural destruction…they had neither the time, the energy, nor the means to engage in that. Throughout the 16th and 17 centuries Aztec temples were progressively cannibalized and the blocks of stone used to construct churches and whatnot. So in some sense those Aztec temples are still around. Likewise, in early medieval Italy people cannibalized Roman ruins and used those stones to construct new buildings. The Roman Colosseum was one of their favourite “quarries”. Recycling is different than outright destruction.

    Isis are different in that they’re destroying artifacts produced by peoples and cultures that ceased to exist thousands of years ago. Their destruction is wanton and criminal. It’s not as though the Sumerians and Babylonians, unlike the the Aztecs at the time of the Conquistadors, are still around and available for conversion. As number 7 says above; there will never be an ISIS school of art. There’s no recycling with this, only an artistic cul de sac

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