While the Islamic State has wiped off a few thousand years of cultural, artistic and religious history with impunity from the regions of Iraq and Syria this is not the first time art and culture has been plundered and pillaged. Almost every conquest and invasion around the world over the past thousand years or so has been a giant graveyard of cultural heritage. While the plunder and pillage is often associated with monetary gains, however, the actual reasons are far deeper than the ones that meets the naked eye. There is something about the art and the culture that makes its destruction vital in the eyes of the powerful invaders. What it could be?
A Multaka in Berlin
In Arabic Multaka signify the meeting point. Broadly, it means a place where artistic, cultural, and historical experiences are presented, shared, discussed, and absorbed. Germany, in a bid to seamlessly integrate the war displaced refugees from Iraq and Syria into their society spearheaded an initiative known as Multaka. The initiative trains refugees with adequate background and experience to become guides in some of the German museums in their native language. Interestingly, the initiative also highlights the similarities between the German, Iraqi, and Syrian cultures.
Although in the nascent stage, the initiative has succeeded in attracting over 3,000 Middle Eastern refugees as visitors who in their native language learned a great deal about Germany’s tumultuous past and the turbulence in the Middle East. It may be too early to talk about its success, however, as a matter of fact, Multaka is giving a chance to these refugees to help them connect with their adopted home and fellow citizens through a sense of shared culture and historical linkages. This is the remarkable essence of art and culture. It’s a unique and impeccable quality to enthrall, marvel, educate, and importantly, unite people. It serves as a meeting point for cultures and historical identities no matter how diverse and distinct they may seem and eventually transpiring into a zone of peaceful coexistence.
The Missing Monuments Men of the Middle East
During the WWII hugely concerned by the inexorable plundering of the European art and cultural artifact by the Nazis, the Allied forces created a formidable team Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA). The MFAA consisted of 350 men and women from 13 nations with 60 monuments officers – museum directors, artists, archivist, curators, and educators to save as much of the culture of Europe they could during the combat. The team between 1943 and 1951 the MFAA along with the Monuments Men secured and repatriated around 2.5 million cultural objects!
This transatlantic cooperation though sounds more like a work of fiction, indeed, operated as a formidable unit in reality to save the artistic, cultural, and historical soul of Europe. Sadly, nothing of this sort has happened in the Middle Eastern countries to preserve the artistic, cultural, and historical soul of the Middle East. While certain museum teams like the Syria’s antiquities agency has done a remarkable job of anticipating the dangers and safeguarding their cultural objects the rest of the country have failed, brilliantly. Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of Antiquities and Museums during one of the interviews, said “in 2012, a year after the civil war erupted, all 34 museums were closed and emptied of their contents, their collections packed up and moved into secure locations for safekeeping. “We did not want to see them ransacked like Baghdad’s museums in 2003,”. Like 2003 Iraq again failed to safeguard its wealth of cultural objects this time in other ancient centers like Mosul, Nineveh and Nimruz.
What could possibly explain the lack of coordination between the Middle Eastern countries in collaborating to preserve not just the Pre-Islamic but the Islamic but non-Salafi cultural objects? While the Islamic countries in the Caucasian and Central Asian region has been proudly exhibiting their Pre-Islamic credentials with the existing Islamic ones why has Middle East failed, abysmally on that front? While the Afghans, Azeri and Iranians proudly celebrate Zoroastrian festivals like Nowruz not a single Middle Eastern state celebrate the Assyrian or the Akkadian events and history.
A Deafening Silence
The ongoing cultural destruction of the Middle East’s Pre-Islamic soul may have been silently admired by the Salafi and Wahhabi sympathizers in the region. After all these Pre-Islamic cultural objects spoke a certain language of possibilities. Possibility of reconnecting with the old belief and faith of the land. The possibility of understanding the people from different races, ethnicity, and religions. Possibility of seeing a connect, that degree of oneness, a sense of shared history and culture.
Just like the older invasions the wars in the Middle East are about establishing a new order of law. For it to function successfully, it is hugely important for the current invaders (IS and other rebel groups) to destroy the existing cultural and historical remnants that may impede their respective capability to impose the new set of cultural values and system. A set of values that would find no resemblance with any other value system other than the one spelled out by them.