It’s all about the money

8 April 2015

I’ve just read an article in The Guardian about the destruction of ancient artefacts and buildings in the Nineveh region of Iraq by Isis
(see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/07/islamic-state-isis-crimes-against-culture-iraq-syria).
The historian in me is outraged that any group of people feels it is entitled to destroy the historical heritage of any part of the world, but particularly this part of the world, which is viewed by many scholars as the cradle of the written word.

Isis’s justification is that “The prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca” in the seventh century. Supposedly motivated by this, they have destroyed much of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra and have targeted churches, mosques, museums and libraries all over the region. The Mosul museum, which had been rebuilt and was due to open as a sign that Iraq had recovered from the US-led war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, has been sacked. We should not forget that that war also resulted in huge losses for the region, not only in terms of human life, but also due to the pillaging of large numbers of artefacts by both Iraqi civilians and US soldiers.

Some commentators have suggested that Isis is not so much motivated by the reason outlined above but by the prices ancient artefacts fetch on the international market. They are short of money and this is a good way to raise more and has the added advantage that the images of the destruction are a powerful recruiting tool. So there we have it – it’s all about the money.

It leaves one wondering about the power of the market and the exhortations of those politicians who claim “leave it to the market, the market will decide”. And also about those collectors who will buy an artefact on the black market, knowing that it forms part of the heritage of communities who have been dispossessed by war and violence. Can they sleep easily at night? I hope not.

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