Sunday, 8 March 2015

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

Last week's destruction of Nimrud by Daesh-IS is nothing less than a calamity.

Nimrud is a very ancient Assyrian site. The city was founded in the 2nd millennium BC, and became the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire in the 9th century under its legendary king Ashurnasirpal II. His palace was one of the most magnificent buildings of its age. You can see for yourself by going to the marvellous Assyrian Galleries in the British Museum (or by visiting the website Two whole rooms are dedicated to Nimrud including the famous palace reliefs. They show in amazing detail the kind of activities that kings liked to engage in such as battles, lion-hunts, chariot rides and sacrifices. From Nimrud king Tiglath-Pileser III launched his campaign to overrun the kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold; his cohorts were gleaming with silver and gold wrote Byron. It was the end for Israel. Twenty years later, when the capital had been moved to Nineveh, the Assyrians attacked again, this time the southern kingdom of Judah. The palace reliefs showing the siege of Lachish are among the Museum’s most precious treasures.

One of the Nimrud sculptures in the galleries is a statue of a winged lion. It was one of a pair that stood at the entrance to Ashurnasirpal’s throne-room. Because the king was seen as a divine figure, this room was the most sacred space in the palace complex. The carved lamassu, as they were called, had a ritual, protective function. The lion’s strength and the eagle’s wings together symbolised keeping chaos at bay. By defending the space against the demonic, they kept it as a ritually safe place where the gods could do business with the king and through him with the people whose sacred representative he was.

Some sculptures from that era survived in situ at Nimrud until last week. They must have been a magnificent sight. Not now. Even its famous winged lions and bulls have not been able to protect it against the power of the bulldozer. IS has said that it has levelled it. We needn’t doubt that they have razed its walls and buildings, ground its peerless sculptures and decorations into dust. They claim that these relics of an ancient civilisation are idolatrous. They are an affront to Islam with its prohibition of images; whatever is pre-Islamic must be destroyed. They glory in the iconoclastic project of erasing every survival, every trace, every memory of what is seen as subverting the purity of monotheism. It is an act of cultural cleansing. It's a crime against humanity. And it's heart breaking.  

How do you measure the value of heritage as against the value of human life? 

I've learned a little about the human and spiritual significance of heritage, having lived and worked in the Durham World Heritage Site these past 12 years. It has raised for me the sharp question about whether we shouldn't have an uneasy conscience about investing too much in ancient stones. We no doubt regret the loss of Nimrud, but shouldn’t we care more about the human beings and communities of Iraq and Syria who have been treated so cruelly? Isn’t the life of even one man or woman or child worth more than all the treasures of antiquity?

As soon as I pose the question that way, I see that it’s based on a false premise. It's not either-or: each is part of the other. The callous treatment of Iraq and Syria’s heritage is just another aspect of a regime that is callous in every other respect. Nothing is sacred to it except its own corrupted version of faith, its concept of a hideous deity whose pleasure is to exact vengeance. The destruction of heritage with all that it symbolises of human life, culture and achievement is just another expression of this murderous world-view. It is hardly the first time. Iconoclasts have flourished in many periods of history. In the 20th century, precisely this was true of Nazi Germany with its hatred of all that was not Aryan. The book-burnings, the re-writing of history, the suppression of ‘decadent’ art and culture were part and parcel of the terror, the deportations and the extermination camps. Where life is cheap, so are civilisation and heritage. These too become the objects of wrath and revenge. There is nothing new under the sun.

We have wept for many months for the victims of this tragedy that is being played out in the lands of the ancient near east. We would not have believed the cruelty inflicted on so many innocent victims if we had not seen it on our screens with our own eyes. The world seems powerless to stop it. ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair!’ And desperate is what it seems, when the lone and level sands stretch far away over the bodies of murdered victims and the vanishing human traces of millennia. But Ozymandias himself had become a mere memory in Shelley’s sonnet, his impotent toppled colossus a symbol of how all principalities and powers fall in time. There is a reign we look for that will be the judgment of all the cruelties and corruptions of human systems. Only this kingdom lasts for ever.

Meanwhile, we can still visit the Assyrian Galleries in London and wonder at the treasures from Nimrud. But for me, it will be with a deeper sense of the tears in things. The Assyrian empire was itself a theatre of cruelty: the atrocities of Ashurnasirpal were legendary. These ancient artefacts already speak of terror from the past. Now they speak of a terror of today that is the daily experience of ordinary people in Iraq and Syria. The palace reliefs, sculptures and winged lions mustn’t leave us untouched. They should evoke our lament and compassion, return us to the work of prayer and action on behalf of people we must go on holding in our hearts.

Valuing heritage must always mean reverencing human life, showing our solidarity with all of humanity past and present, especially the suffering peoples of all ages. If we don't cherish the memory of the past and try to understand it, perhaps there's something missing from our care for the victims of the present. Good remembering is a symbol of our capacity to be humane. It should excite our social conscience because at heart it is always about people. Those who despise it show us what their values really are.

At least no one can destroy the Epic of Gilgamesh.

1 comment:

  1. Thank goodness that many of the treasures of Nimrud are indeed safe and sound in the British Museum. Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie must be weeping in their graves at such mindless destruction.