Preserve history, then manipulate it

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Sunday, August 24, 2003 at 11:24PM :

Charles Paul Freund

The Daily Star, 8/22/03

Earlier this month, just as the American authorities in Iraq were finally releasing photographs of 30 major treasures missing from Iraq’s National Museum, a different controversy erupted in New York over the looted history of the Middle East. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a major exhibit, Art of the First Cities, containing artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. Many had a shadowy provenance and had probably been looted years before. With the thefts in Iraq still fresh in everyone’s mind, questions naturally arose: Didn’t handsome museum displays of such artifacts encourage plundering? Weren’t such exhibits ultimately immoral?
Western curators have long justified their holdings ­ Nineveh’s winged bulls, Babylon’s Gate of Ishtar, the Parthenon marbles, etc. ­ on such grounds as superior preservation and security. But listen to this defense offered by David Owen, an archaeologist who oversees a large Mesopotamian collection at Cornell University: “The fault (of looting) is not ours,” Owen recently told a New York newspaper; “These (Middle Eastern) countries are in their infancy when it comes to teaching people to respect their past.”
That’s a large accusation. It implies that the value of “the past” is a known and agreed-upon constant, and that Middle Easterners have been ignorant of it. In fact, the peoples of the Middle East have always protected the past that they deemed important, though it is also true that the region has not always agreed with the West on which aspects of antiquity deserved respect. But then, the West has repeatedly changed its own views on precisely the same issue.
For centuries, it is true, the artifacts of Middle Eastern antiquity had minimal value to the people who lived among them. Large pieces might be re-used for building; small items for decoration, but these materials were seldom associated with the concept of “history.” Thus, the bricks of Babylon were gradually carried away, statuary and reliefs were destroyed upon discovery, and ancient tells were ignored.
On the other hand, such sites as Nebi Yunis, which were believed to have Koranic associations, were jealously protected from excavation (and often remain so). That is of course an issue of sacred Islamic history, though Islam has not been the only factor at work. Western scholars of the 19th century were as shocked to learn that the region’s Christian monasteries were burning their ancient manuscripts ­ to gain shelf space ­ as they were to learn that magnificent Assyrian artworks had been intentionally smashed.
“The past” has long been expansively defined in the West, but many of the same issues of “respect” have arisen. The Catholic Church used ancient, pagan Rome as a quarry until it lost temporal power in the 1870s. A mountain of statuary was burned for lime and everything not associated with the Christianizing Emperor Constantine was in jeopardy. Italy’s Fascists, on the other hand, valued ancient Rome for its imperial past, but sought to destroy the city’s medieval and Renaissance remains because, in Mussolini’s words, they were so much “picturesque filth.”
Britons, in the meantime, had been dismantling Hadrian’s Wall to build their barns, while Americans plowed through the ancient mounds of the prairies, and left trinket hunters to destroy the remains of the cliff-dwelling Anasazi Indians. The destruction and looting of the unvalued past is a long, unhappy tale.
Until fairly recently, the West had no respect for the Middle East’s past, either, and was interested less in history than in museum pieces. Indeed, evidence of Iraq’s ancient history was often destroyed in the frenzied search for big statues, many of which went to adorn private homes. So, too, in Egypt, where Westerners once explored the Great Pyramid using dynamite, and established a consumer market in mummies. So, too, throughout the region. Westerners did show a historical interest in Biblical sites, but, like Iraq’s Nebi Yunis, that was a matter of sacred history.
In fact, antiquity has been increasingly celebrated in the modern Middle East, though often for political reasons. Different politics, to paraphrase historian Bernard Lewis, require different pasts. Witness the Baathist reconstruction of Babylon, the various nationalist exploitations of Egypt’s pharaohs, Lebanon’s Phoenicians, Syria’s Aramaeans and Jordan’s Nabateans. Nor is politicized history unknown in the West, where the issue involves cultural power, so that “mainstream” history has been under sustained assault from numerous aggrieved groups.
It is obviously sensible to encourage people to “respect their past.” But we can’t reach a consensus on its value before we decide on what that past is.

Charles Paul Freund, a senior editor at Reason magazine in the US, writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR

-- Tiglath
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