Warrior archaeologists and the selective destruction of history

Warrior archaeologists and the selective destruction of history
Comment: The past is a powerful political tool. Its selective interpretation and destruction should be condemned, whether it is by the Islamic State group or Israel, says Karl Sabbagh.
5 min read
29 May, 2015
Israel has stressed the Jewish elements in its history at the expense of others [Getty]
The intersection of religion and archaeology are in the news at the moment. The capture of Palmyra by the Islamic State group is generating fear that, as happened in Nimrud in Iraq, the fanaticism of the IS will lead to the destruction of artefacts considered "graven images".

Some commentators wonder why threats to inanimate stones seem to generate more outrage in the West than the deaths and injuries caused by the IS' brutal treatment of non-Muslims. Of course, this isn't an "either / or" situation.

Rowan Williams talked about history being "a place where you look for your title deeds".

I am appalled by damage and destruction of unique cultural and historical centres, but I also despair of the ability - not confined to IS - of all human beings to contemplate the destruction of other human beings in the name of religion, politics, or nationalism.

Destroying a piece of the cultural history of humanity

What is different about the destruction of Nimrud, or the Bamiyan buddhas by the Taliban, for that matter, is that the value to all mankind of such works - if you have to make such a comparative calculation - is of a different order from the value of any individual human life.

Not more valuable, just valuable in a different way, because to see and touch and be in the presence of great art or of the evidence of previous human communities seems to fulfil a basic human need.

Indeed, even people who are not religious flock to be in the presence of something which these days with modern technology, they could know everything about by sitting at home in front of a high definition TV screen.

Two weeks ago, in a lecture in London the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talked about history being "a place where you look for your title deeds".

Perhaps militant Muslims do not like to be reminded they are only one of a never-ending succession of people who believe that they have the right to a land or to a belief system, rights which would exclude outsiders.

Williams' talk was titled "Warrior archaeologists", and in addition to talking about abuses of history and archaeology by the IS, he criticised the way Israeli archaeologists ignore and even destroy historical evidence of non-Hebrew culture, demography or religion in Palestine.

He pointed out that as well as supplying "title deeds", history can be a threat - "You discover evidence of a family history you'd rather suppress... You'll be tempted to confine those stories to the bonfire... History is potentially the enemy of that simple story of legitimacy and rightness, which will tell me all I need to know, and 'please don't try and confuse me with facts'."

One current example of many, in which facts are not allowed to get in the way of a "simple story" is the "City of David" theme park project in Jerusalem, much of which is being constructed on confiscated Palestinian land.

In excavating the site in the Silwan neighbourhood, Israeli archaeologists have destroyed relics that date back to the Jebusite Canaanite era in the second millennium BC, in their desperate attempt to favour one set of "title deeds" over competing claims that are equally valid. The excavations have also destroyed several ancient Islamic sites, including a cemetery dating back to the Abbasid caliphate.

Reinforcing the Israeli narrative

None of this is new. It began decades before the IS even existed. In 1967, Israel razed the 800-year-old Mughrabi Quarter of Jerusalem, displacing 650 Palestinians and destroying numerous mosques, homes, and holy sites, to build a plaza in front of the Western Wall.

In 1967 Israel razed the 800-year-old Mughrabi Quarter of Jerusalem to build a plaza in front of the Western Wall.

Such vandalism in support of Judaism was legitimised by the original "warrior archaeologist", General Moshe Dayan, who conducted many illegal excavations seeking "evidence" for Jewish figures, such as Abraham, David and Moses, for whose existence there is no historical proof. After his death, his collection of looted artefacts was sold to the Israel Museum for $1m.

In any other country, taking artefacts from archaeological sites without paying attention to the rules of excavation, where every disturbed element has to be carefully recorded and preserved, would be called looting.

Eitan Klein, Israel's deputy director of the Unit to Prevent Antiquities Theft, recently criticised the activities of some excavators at Israeli archaeological sites.

"These are people who understand archaeology, know how to act in the field and know how to read the signs and clues indicating where antiquities are likely to be found," he said. "Each gang consists of five to ten people who are trying to find as many antiquities as possible in as little time as possible, without giving any thought as to how to preserve the existing site."

He was actually talking about professional thieves, but this sounds like a good description of Israeli "warrior archaeologists", as they quietly go about their business of destroying anything that conflicts with the Biblical stories they cling to as title deeds to the land they occupy.

Nimrud and Palmyra; Silwan and the Mughrabi Quarter - is there any difference between the ideologies of the fundamentalist "warrior archaeologists" who have vandalised these places?

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.