On October 21, 1798, soldiers under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte stormed the historic Al-Azhar Mosque and seminary in Cairo as part of an effort to crush a popular uprising against the French military occupation of Egypt. In a bid to break the will of the local populace, French troops made a point of ostentatiously desecrating what, to Egyptians, was a sacrosanct structure built in the 10th century. The French bombarded the mosque with cannon fire and, upon capturing it, used its sacred precincts to quarter themselves, stable their horses and drink alcohol. As Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, an Egyptian scholar who lived through the occupation, recorded in his book on the period:
The [French] opened fire with cannons and bombs on the houses and quarters, aiming specially at the mosque, firing at it with those bombs. … [T]hey trod in the mosque with their shoes, carrying swords and rifles. Then they scattered in its courtyard and its main praying area and tied their horses to the prayer niche. They ravaged the students’ quarters and ponds, smashing the lamps and chandeliers and breaking up the bookcases of the students and the scribes.
They plundered whatever they found … treated the books and Qur’anic volumes as trash, throwing them on the ground, stamping on them with their feet and shoes. Furthermore they soiled the mosque, blowing their spit in it, and urinating and defecating in it. They guzzled wine and smashed the bottles in the central court and other parts. And whoever they happened to meet in the mosque they stripped. They chanced upon someone in one of the student residences and slaughtered him.
The uprising was quelled after several days of bloodletting, during which thousands of Egyptians were killed by the occupying forces. Afterward, Napoleon ordered the decapitation of the suspected leaders of the revolt, and their heads displayed publicly on pikes as a warning to the local population.
I was reminded of this history while reading more recent news of desecration of historical sites by another group of zealots attempting to violently cow local populations while exporting its revolution across the world: the militants of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.”
The latest target of this group was the ancient temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, Syria. Built in 17AD and later expanded during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the temple had long been an emblem of Syrian national identity. Its towering pillars had borne witness to the rise and fall of innumerable dynasties over the centuries, but it could not survive even a year under the rule of IS, which destroyed it at the end of August in a depraved act of historical vandalism. In a propaganda video documenting the destruction, militants can be seen affixing explosives to its huge columns before detonating them and reducing the structure to rubble, an act that the United Nations has correctly labeled a war crime.
This monstrously stupid deed, which IS proudly broadcast to the world, is only the latest in a line of atrocities committed by the group against architectural symbols of Syrian and Iraqi civilization. But while the group may be unique in the lengths to which it goes in publicizing its crimes against history, its behavior echoes that of modern imperialists and colonialists more than the Islamic empires that it claims continuity with.
Since its inception, IS has waged a concerted campaign to destroy historical sites in territories under its control, including ancient churches, mosques, shrines and other buildings long revered by local residents. Claiming in its characteristically atavistic style that destruction of these sites is both justified and necessitated by Islamic law, IS suggests this destruction is the natural and inevitable conclusion of Islamic beliefs, and represents a return to the more authentic version of the religion that was practiced during the time of the caliphates.
This claim, however, flies in the face of hundreds of years of history. As noted by Caner Dagli, assistant professor in religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, Islamic empires have traditionally not only extended protections to the properties of Christians, Jews and other protected peoples, but also seldom attempted to destroy symbols of the ancient civilizations they replaced. “Regarding those structures that were not part of a living community, people were basically indifferent,” Dagli notes. “If anything, the Quran promoted historical awareness of ancient peoples as a way of remembering the ephemerality of the world and our reliance upon God.” Indeed, as many historians have noted, historical sites presently being destroyed in Syria and Iraq were left largely untouched over a millennium of Muslim stewardship, encompassing the reign of the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates.
There is a more prosaic reason to explain Islamic State’s war on history. Despite the group’s rhetoric, its members, many of whom are from abroad, behave much more like modern, secular fanatics and imperialists than the ancient dynasties they hysterically insist they are heirs to.
In his 2006 book, The Destruction of Memory, Robert Bevan describes the destruction of cultural artifacts and historical sites as “the rewriting of history in the interests of a victor reinforcing his conquests,” citing the campaigns of ethnic and cultural cleansing conducted by Nazi Germany, Bosnian Serb militias during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and secular Young Turk ideologues during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In all these campaigns, the destruction of architectural heritage played a prominent role, as Bevan writes, as they were conflicts in which “the erasure of the memories, history and identity attached to architecture and place – enhanced forgetting – [was] the goal itself.”
Wanton destruction of history has long been an integral part of colonial and imperial projects as a means of demoralizing local populations. In 1860, toward the end of the Second “Opium War,” British and French troops invaded Beijing and commenced an orgy of looting and vandalism that reached its apex with the burning of the famed Summer Palace, an act that British officer Charles George Gordon memorably recalled by saying, “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt.” In 1885, British troops occupying Afghanistan performed a repeat of this ignominious episode, destroying Herat’s famous Gawharshad Musalla complex, constructed in the 15th century during the Timurid Dynasty, while lamely informing outraged locals that its minarets would have blocked visibility in case of a hypothetical Russian invasion. Years later, coming across the ruins, British author Robert Byron recalled with horror the role his countrymen had played in this episode, writing in his seminal book, The Road to Oxiana, that “the most glorious productions of Mohammedan architecture in the fifteenth century, having survived the barbarism of four centuries, now razed to the ground.”
Today, the goal of IS in destroying history is to break down the preexisting cultural cohesion existing in the lands under its control. Syria and Iraq’s ancient historical sites offer a shared history that supersedes the exclusionary, supremacist identity politics upon which the group’s leaders are attempting to build their new state. The razing of such sites, as well as the destruction and confiscation of religious property owned by Christians and other minority groups, serves the dual purposes of humiliating and alienating these communities from their own land, as well as undermining competing forms of national identity that preexisted Islamic State’s modern, theocratic project.
Despite its pretensions to the contrary, Islamic State, many of whose cadres hail from Western countries, is more an heir to brutal imperialists and revolutionaries of modern times than the Islamic caliphates, which were largely content to leave ancient sites in peace while extending legal protections to minority groups.
As IS continues its campaign of destruction and theft against minority communities as well as Iraq and Syria’s ancient heritage, it would do well to remember the words of the Prophet Muhammad, who in a letter to the Christians of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai (which they still possess today), “No one is allowed to plunder or destroy or spoil any of churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam. And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger.”