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“The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts,” in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in the Middle East: From Napoleon to ISIS. Aggregate Architectural Collaborative [http://we-aggregate.org/piece/the-demise-and-afterlife-of-artifacts] (Fall 201

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“The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts,” in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in the Middle East: From Napoleon to ISIS. Aggregate Architectural Collaborative [http://we-aggregate.org/piece/the-demise-and-afterlife-of-artifacts] (Fall 2016).
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  AGGREGATE MATTER  The Demise andAfterlife of Artifacts AUTHORS  Pamela Karimi Nasser Rabbat  Fig. 7. Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation: ISIS (2015).Middle image is a 3D-printed Lamasu with a ash drive; theside details showcase ash drives and memory cards insideother 3D-printed objects. Image courtesy of the artist. The Motives behind the Destruction of CulturalHeritage in the Middle East Destruction of architecture and art objects is an ancientpractice. From Troy and Tenochtitlan to Dresden andMunich and on to Bamiyan and Palmyra today, theobliteration of historic cities and heritage sites has takenplace throughout history and across cultures. In the West,such events as the Protestant Reformation led to the The history of the MiddleEast is replete withinstances of co-existencebetween ethnic andreligious communities aswell as examples ofcontinued endorsementand support for ancient fiiew full image + Pamela Karimi and Nasser Rabbat, "The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts," Aggregate, December 12, 2016.1  destruction of many churches and religious furnishings.Later, massive aerial bombing was the major cause of cultural heritage destruction. During WWII, aerial attacksdestroyed a substantial portion of Europe’s historicallysignificant buildings and museums. In Germany alone, notonly major architectural monuments, but also entire cities,most famously Dresden after its firebombing in February of 1945, were obliterated. A comparison of Nazi pre-WWIIaerial photographs of Germany’s old inner cities withphotographs from the 1960s and 1970s reveals the fate of these cities: from splendid baroque and gothic urban fabricto ruins and ultimately to the postwar utilitarianarchitecture.The Nazis targeted Warsaw’s buildings and monuments forthe sake of removing the cultural and historical identity of the Polish people. However, only a handful of the twentiethcentury military conflicts sought the destruction of significant buildings for the sake of destroying them alone.In most cases, the main objective was to kill those whooccupied the particular target site or building or to eliminatethe function to which the building was put to use, such asmanufacturing or storage of strategic material. Sometimes,the destruction of certain monuments, such as nationalmemorials and government headquarters, was meant toweaken the morale of the “enemy,” but that was theexception rather than the general aim of bombing. Incontrast, the militant group known as the Islamic State inIraq and Syria (ISIS) today aims to erase certain buildingsand artifacts based on their specific meaning according to themilitants’ own obscurantist interpretation. In other words,for ISIS, the ravaging of irreplaceable antiquities in Syria and Iraq is dictated by an understanding of their deviantreferential significance much like the relentless slaughter of “undesirable” people (such as those deemed unbelievers,members of ethnic minorities, and homosexuals) isdoctrinally justified.This determined and extremely myopic orthodoxy hasattracted the attention of the world. It also has earned themodern Middle East a hot spot in the mainstream media asthe place where a twisted ideology is supposedly driving thedreadful and deliberate demolition of historic monuments. Additionally, many commentators use these destructions asanother example of the incongruity between “our” valuesand “theirs,” and they conclude that the war in the MiddleEast is a war between the international community trying todefend universal values and a threatening “Islamic world”intent on destroying them. monuments from Antiquityto the Islamic periods. PROJECT  The Destruction ofCultural Heritage: FromNapoléon to ISIS 12345 Pamela Karimi and Nasser Rabbat, "The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts," Aggregate, December 12, 2016.2  In his Critique of Pure Reason , Immanuel Kant compels hisreaders to rethink the “thingness of things,” bydifferentiating between das Ding fur uns  versus das Ding an sich  ( the thing for us  versus the thing in itself  ). It is, indeed,our treatment of objects that assigns them certain functionsand meanings. In other words, if historic relics are neglectedand uncared for, this is so because of the ways in whichpeople perceptually constitute them as objects of contempt.It is within this Western frame of mind that conventionalmedia reports often align the destruction of monuments withthe culture and beliefs of the people in the Middle East. As Kirsten Scheid  shows in her essay, the media determineswho the people of the region are “by how they act on art,attributes their behavior to a cultural trait (or rather,deficiency), and condemns an entire populace accordingly.”Indeed, time and again, media outlets have reported that theurge to destroy has spread throughout the region, becoming a sort of plague. Although not considered a serious threat,scores of news articles reflect on some independent Muslimclerics supporting or calling for the destruction of historicmonuments. For instance, in 2012,  FrontPage Magazine reported that Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sunni Sheikhs,” Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, called on Egypt’s first Islamist president,Muhammed Morsi, to destroy the Pyramids and therebyaccomplish what was “neglected” in early Islam. In additionto these recent calls, there have been many historic instancesof active iconoclasm in the Middle East. The foremost is theone ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad himself, whoreportedly ordered the idols in the ancient Kaaba smashed,which has helped attributing the deliberate destructions thatfollowed in Islamic history to a widespread and religiouslysanctioned iconoclastic urge. Thus, modern acts of demolition are often presented as stemming from an impulseto return to the example of the Prophet—a belief that isoften ascribed to the Salafi ideology (which includes themuch less prevalent and militant Jihadism).However, a deeper look into each act of deliberatedestructions indicates that they are much more complexthan a pure imitation of the Prophet or other precedents of supposed paradigmatic iconoclasm. Consider, for example,the case of the 1700-year-old rock-cut Buddhas in Bamiyan,which fell to Taliban dynamite in 2001 (Fig. 1). In responseto the heritage experts’ plea regarding the purchase of theBuddhas and their transportation to Western museums,Mullah Omar, the erstwhile head of the Taliban regime,responded: “Do you prefer to be a breaker of idols or a sellerof idols?” While resonating with the Prophet’s story, in Afghan public imagination, this question is instead famously 678910 Pamela Karimi and Nasser Rabbat, "The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts," Aggregate, December 12, 2016.3  attributed to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni of the GhaznavidDynasty (977–1186), who faced a similar offer from Indianswishing to protect their “idols” at the cusp of the firstMuslim invasion of northern India. Islamic Art historianFinbarr Barry Flood remarks: “Although iconoclasm is oftenstigmatized as an act stemming from ignorance, this was a gesture that was particularly well informed about its ownhistorical precedents.” He goes on to shed light on an evenmore significant cause, elucidating how iconoclasm wasabove all rooted in contemporary conflicts between Hindusand Muslims in India. Affected by Mullah Omar’s verdictand mindful of the historical significance of the destructionof Hindu icons in India by Muslims, one conservative Indianofficial lauded that India “has been cautioning the worldagainst this regression into medieval barbarism.”Subsequently, a Taliban spokesman communicated with a few New York reporters, confirming that the demolition of the Bamiyan was in fact a delayed response to the notorious1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in India by Hindufundamentalists. So, whether it is ISIS, Mullah Omar, or a conservative from the Hindu Nationalist government, themotives behind such obliterations are wide ranging and mustbe contextualized in light of historically and geographicallyspecific episodes of resentment. Fig. 1. Taller Buddha in 1963 and in 2008 after destruction.Available at flikimedia  . Echoing Flood’s sentiments, historian Elliott Colla maintains that most of the responses to ISIS’s destructionsfail to adequately contextualize them. “There is nothing uniquely ‘Islamic’ about the ISIS attacks on pagan statues orantiquities sites,” he writes. “Just as there are long histories 11121314 Pamela Karimi and Nasser Rabbat, "The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts," Aggregate, December 12, 2016.4  of vandalism and iconoclasm in the Arab and Muslim worlds,there are even older ones in the West, as the srcins of theterm iconoclasm  should remind us.” In fact, if we go byhistorical evidence, the Islamic lands seem more tolerant of other cultures’ remains than many Christian territories. Ashistorian of Islamic Art Oleg Grabar asserts, however ironicit might sound to some, the medieval Muslim world wouldhave actually served as a haven for incarnation iconodules,or those who supported icons and their veneration, such asSt. John of Damascus. He adds that particularly within thewidely practiced traditions of aniconism, images in Islamiclands were not immoral per se, but simply unrelated todivine manifestation.In light of such a layered history, it is no surprise then thatmany scholars attribute contemporary iconoclastic attitudesto history cleansing , rather than to the revival of earlytraditions of the Prophet. Indeed, with nearly 5,000 years of recorded history, including the first major literary work, The Epic of Gilgamesh  (c. 2100 BC), the Middle East is where theworld’s first cities emerged and where organizedgovernmental entities were first introduced. The regionthat ISIS controls or threatens, known as Bilad-al-Sham orthe Levant (modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, andthe Palestinian Territories) and Northern Iraq (AncientMesopotamia), is thus particularly significant because it haslayered material evidence, from Islamic and non-Islamictraditions. Zainab Bahrani, a scholar of the ancient NearEast, writes, “ISIS isn’t just focused on the pre-Islamic past;they’ve also destroyed so many Muslim shrines andmosques… we focus more on their destruction of pre-Islamicsites here in the States and in Western Europe, but they’veactually destroyed a lot of Islamic and Christian and Yazidiand Sufi temples.”In his book, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War , journalist Robert Bevan writes of similar deliberate methodsof eradication of the past—or what he calls  cultural genocide —in the contexts of post-Ottoman Greece, Palestine after1948, and in today’s Saudi Arabia.Demolitions, however, have occurred in many differentforms such as damages that take place slowly due to lack of attention from government officials or from heritage andpreservation organizations. After several violent conflicts,many of which involved Muslim-Christian rivalries, the Armenian city of Ani—situated in the Turkish province of Kars near the border with Armenia—became a ghost town inthe 18th century. Later, after the Armenian genocide of 1915, most of the city’s remaining treasures were looted or 1516171819 Pamela Karimi and Nasser Rabbat, "The Demise and Afterlife of Artifacts," Aggregate, December 12, 2016.5
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