Almost four years ago I wrote about how the monuments and artifacts of ancient Egypt were possibly in peril from militant Islam – those grim and sternly bearded fanatics devoted to the principal that nothing rightfully exists before or outside of Islam. It was being suggested then that the Pyramids be covered up – certainly a considerable chore, but their fellow coreligionists energetically set about destroying the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas based on the same argument. So, one might have had good cause four years ago to worry about the relics of pre-Islamic Egypt – temples, monuments, ruined cities and tombs. How many thousands of years’ worth of relics, ornaments and paintings might be at risk? Fortunately for Egypt, it seems that soberer heads have prevailed for now: after all, someday they might want the tourists to come back again.
It is written in Psalms, “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.” We die, kingdoms and empires pass in time, but the earth endures as well as those monuments and ruins left behind. Fragments of the past, of our mutual human history usually aren’t as thick on the ground as they are in Egypt, the Middle East, Greece and Italy; if not the cradle of Western civilization, then at the very least the kindergarten playground. So the rest of us have always felt a rather proprietary interest in those relics and places. These were places written of in the Bible, in the Greek and Roman classics, in a thousand epics, poems and legends – Jerusalem, Babylon, Ur of the Chaldees, Ninevah and Tyre, Athens and Sparta … and in travel accounts like Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, and for me – Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels.
I don’t think many people over a certain age know of syndicated travel writer, adventurer and all-round eccentric Richard Halliburton, whose brilliant heyday was in the mad-and-booming 1920s and the escape-and adventure-starved 1930s. He vanished in mid-Pacific in 1939 in a calculated attempt – in the interests of another series of columns and a book – to cross that ocean in a replica Chinese junk. One of the relics of his evanescent popularity was a copy of the complete Book of Marvels, which belonged to Mom as a teenager, and which I read … or rather, ate up, omnivorously. The original copy (no dusk-jacket, worn green cloth covers, with Mom’s bookplate glued into the front endsheet) might be on my shelves somewhere; if not, it was one of those burned in the 2003 fire which pretty well cleansed this family of all but a few especially precious and portable relics. I am pretty certain that this is where I first read of legendary Palmyra, and Zenobia – the beautiful warrior queen of a desert kingdom, who led a heroic rebellion against Rome with all the usual dramatic success of rebellions against Rome when it was at its imperial height.
A beautiful city, by all accounts – adorned with all the art and architecture that a wealthy small kingdom at the trading crossroads of the known world, later added onto with whatever Imperial Rome could add and which enthusiasts of the last two centuries could excavate, restore and reconstruct – a wondrous ancient city by all accounts. Reviewing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, to pre-Islamic relics all across the Middle East and most recently at the site of ancient Hatra and Nimrud, one simply can’t avoid knowing what is in store for Palmyra. And this hurts on such a deep level – that these marvelous buildings, frescoes, statues and all could have endured for so many years will be smashed by barbarians in a few hours or days – and furthermore, barbarians who could not, on the best day they ever had, build something as beautiful and enduring. But then, destruction is always easier than creation.
Likely it won’t end with Palmyra, either. In a recently released publication intended as a sort of Rough Guide to the brand-new caliphate, the author ended with this bit of chest-beating bravado (emphasis added by bolding) : “When we descend on the streets of London, Paris and Washington the taste will be far bitterer, because not only will we spill your blood, but we will also demolish your statues, erase your history and, most painfully, convert your children who will then go on to champion our name and curse their forefathers.”
How will Italians handle such a threat to their Coliseum in Rome, or Greeks to the Athenian Acropolis, and English to say – the Tower of London? I’d like to think they would not be entirely supine when it happens locally, especially since Greeks still bitterly despise Turks for the Muslim Turkish occupation. Interesting times, indeed; discuss.
(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com)