The destruction of the past. The fury of ISIS against the artworks

(In collaboration with Termometro Politico)

Hammers, Kalashnikov rifles and bulldozers have been used to destroy archaeological sites of inestimable value. Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin would probably say to ISIS militants: “Beauty will save the world”. This famous quote, directed to describe the research on the Absolute, is not banal and is a starting point for many philosophical and aesthetic reflections. Beauty, a projection of completeness and perfection, can be reached by going through the art. This dimension consecrates and seems to give a divine aura to any art products.

There is a strong emotion looking at a picture you would like to stay in, or astonishment at sunset light passing through the arches of an ancient amphitheater, or wonder at a magnificent sculpture. These feelings are well known by anyone who is able to be moved by the beauty of the past, which is never too far from the present. However, given the recent events, the spontaneity of those feelings does not belong to the ISIS terrorists.

The walls of Nineveh, the ancient artefacts at Mosul Museum, the archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra have been destroyed over the last few months. These acts mean “obscuring the past” and focusing on the birth of a new Muslim population, which is far from the modern Arab States. This barbarity started with the assault on the Mosul Museum and Library, during which – as many videos released by ISIS show – some men push over and behead statues and smash bas-reliefs with drills. Mosaics, inscriptions and decorative inlays of the walls of Nineveh (the ancient capital city of the Assyrian Empire during the reign of Sennacherib), built in 4700 BC, have been destroyed. The archaeologists, who started digging out in Nimrud (the Assyrian capital during the reign of Ashurbanipal II) in 1980s, would not be happy knowing that the destructive fury of Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s followers did not spare the ziggurats, the temple of Nabu and the Assyrian royal tombs. The same for the temples of Hatra.

In these Arabic areas, rich in rare archaeological beauties, it would seem that Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, left the ground and fell to Hell, provoking destruction and inactivity, lack of hope and sorrow. Many people are waiting and hoping that the divine power, which gives life, comes back. In addition, there is a compelling reason: self-financing by trading artworks on a fast-growing black market. However, this is not the only explanation. Even “the anarchy of the war” could not be enough to justify the violence and the absurdity of those acts. Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist writer, states “the culture, in all its expressions, is the best antidote to demonization of others, a demonization that is often the result of ignorance. ISIS cutthroats, and anyone who supports them, have a sex phobic and suffocating idea of society.

Therefore, they destroy museums, places of cultural interest and let the girls drop out of school. A civilized society is a mortal threat to them”. Therefore, there is an ongoing “cultural cleaning” in order to create a new Iraqi identity, a foundation of a new future, without any comparison with the past. However, the destructive fury of ISIS has an intrinsic contradiction: destroying an icon to create a new strongest one. An icon of people who devastate and become idols as well, by broadcasting videos and publicizing demonstrations of omnipotence, and who are able to blackmail the whole world. The core of those horrors is also in the last released video: it shows twenty-five Syrian soldiers executed by teenage militants, some of them aged between 13 and 14, in the Roman amphitheater of Palmyra. The dichotomy between the architectural beauties and the horror of death is even clearer: the golden surface of the Roman amphitheater contrasts with the black flag of ISIS. The lack of destruction of civilization is substituted for the brutal and cruel murder of human lives.

“The destruction of the statues at Mosul Museum is a crime against humanity and imposes an International Court, as Nuremberg was, in order to prosecute those criminals who committed it”. These words by the Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi seem a little hasty but, if the United Nations took them into consideration, they would have a noticeable effect on local populations, which will be motivated to protect an economic and artistic heritage. However, all the judged men would probably be quite similar to the arendtian persecutor Adolf Eichmann: passionate lovers of a bureaucratic language, simple executors of orders from their caliph and unable to distinguish between good and evil. The magnificence of the human intellect would be defeated by a contemporary conformism, expressed in ancient barbarities.

Thinking and discussing with ourselves are the only ways to avoid the “banality of evil”.


Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Management (LUISS Guido Carli)

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