ISIS’s assault on heritage leaves reader stunned and sick

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 28, 2015

“We cannot know where we are going if we don’t know where we are coming from.” —Dr. Kathleen Adamson

Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Palmyra – the litany of antiquity obliterated by barbarity gets longer by the day. Bludgeoned, blown up, bulldozed and burned – the lament for a legacy lost begs for tears, so evil is ISIS’s assault on the cradle of western civilization.

3,000-year-old Nimrud, built on the banks of the Tigris River. Bulldozed.

The walls of ancient Nineveh, capital of Assyria around whose moral repentance the biblical story of Jonah is based, blown up in ISIS’s unrepentant savagery.

The great libraries of Mosul, burned, their wisdom reduced to smoke and ashes.

And just last week, 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site Palmyra, crossroads of Roman, Greco-Persian and Babylonian heritage, fallen, with a frighteningly uncertain future.

Our coffee companion Dr. Kathleen Adamson has been my special window on this unfolding tragedy. I featured her joyful tribute to her police-officer father in last week’s column.

This week’s contribution from Kathleen is anything but joyful. All too well she knows the cost to humanity of what is being lost in the Middle East.

A lifelong student – and university teacher – of Assyriology (the study of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the Ancient Near East), she lived in that region for five years in the mid-1970s. For part of that time she was based in Baghdad serving as secretary/treasurer with the British School of Archaeology. In fact, for a while her office was only a few doors from Saddam’s palace. “I had him for a neighbour,” she says.

But reflecting now on ISIS’s destruction of the work that she and her mentors and colleagues did, she is devasted. “The ISIS gang, despite how bad Saddam was in many ways, makes him look like a choir boy,” she says. “At least he tried to save and enhance his nation’s heritage and there was a form (albeit scary) of stability. Now you have the destruction, subjection, and perversion of an entire culture. It is all so pointless and irretrievable.”

Here’s Kathleen’s account in her own words:

Priceless treasures which belong to mankind from the dawn of civilization are either smashed or sold abroad to finance ISIS. Statuary, the world famous Warka Vase, with one of the earliest depictions of temple worship in the world (Inanna/Istar), is just one of the casualties. Exquisite cylinder and stamp seals which fit into your pocket are so saleable abroad, as are tablets containing the world’s earliest histories, pharmacologies, botany, astronomy and religious texts. Breathtaking jewelry from Ur and other sites, musical instruments – so many are damaged or gone.

If Isis would slit the throats of innocent men, women and children, why would they have any qualms about destroying religious art?

I had visited the sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, and Arbela which were under the jurisdiction and saving ministrations at that time of my friend, the director, Dr. Hazim Abdul Hamid, who subsequently passed away. To see all his labours annihilated in this way, of the work he so loved and the country of which he was so proud, is heartbreaking.

It makes me feel ill to see the pictures in the Iraq Museum where I spent many months, with broken artefacts littering the floor, and to learn what has befallen that magnificent Hatra, which I visited on a boiling hot day and stood in the cool breezes of that mighty arch created by master architects who built the biggest freestanding arch of antiquity until the Romans, is beyond comprehension.

Once heritage is gone (or is allowed to go), it’s gone. Apart from reiterating the obvious, the deeper significance is not just the loss of something interesting, though we need that more and more in our conforming society, but the loss is forever.

It also means a loss of incomes, jobs, international contacts, even a loss of societal direction, as we cannot know where we are going if we don’t know where we are coming from. The loss of anything magnificent, beautiful or creative or inspirational impoverishes us all far more than we know. We need to keep as much of our world heritage as possible so we don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel and we don’t have to keep going round in circles. 

We cannot afford to find out the hard way what happens when you allow cultural destruction, because you cannot get it back or re-create it. Our ancient cultures, and the light by which western civilization is guided, will be extinguished forever.

Bad as all this material destruction is, it pales in significance in another way – in the human tragedy. I shudder to think what has happened to my friends and their families out there. I cannot begin to say how I really feel about this, I’m so distraught, furious, stunned and sick. It is all so pointless and irretrievable.

—Kathleen Adamson, PhD, Assyriologist


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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