Blowing up Buddhas: Heritage and Faith in Times of Conflict

As the political situation in the Middle East becomes increasingly unstable, cultural heritage is directly in the firing line. This post explores how faith has helped create, destroy, and, on occasion, come to save heritage sites in troubled Iraq and Libya.

In 2001, Afghanistan was the venue for arguably the greatest act of heritage crime and iconoclasm ever recorded. In the Bamiyan Valley, two colossal Buddha statues, which had graced the world with their presence for roughly seventeen hundred years, were systematically destroyed by the then ruling Taliban. Following attempts to raze the icons, which stood at fifty-five meters and thirty-eight meters high, with tank shelling and anti-aircraft fire, the giant figures were filled with explosives and obliterated. All that remains of these remarkable cultural contributions are the rock-cut niches in which they stood. Shortly after the violent act, UNESCO placed the Bamiyan Valley on the World Heritage and Sites in Danger Lists – what was left of it, at least.

Born in a climate of religious fervor, the Bamiyan Buddhas were removed from the world in a similar climate. Taliban doctrine had made all non-Islamic iconography a major public enemy. The then Minister for Information and (with no sense of irony) Culture, Mullah Qudratullah Jamal, was repeatedly quoted saying that the statues, being “un-Islamic,” would be destroyed by any means necessary. This proved to be no understatement. It is important as well to remember that this assault on the cultural heritage of Afghanistan was not isolated to the Bamiyan Buddhas, but to all Buddhist icons throughout the country, regardless of scale.

In my last post, “Faith and Stonehenge,” ideas of reburial of archaeological materials, namely human remains, were considered. On that occasion, the challenges of reconciling faith and belief with scientific value were addressed, where minority religious groups have argued vociferously but with little success, for the reburial, or repatriation of perceived ancestral remains. For Afghanistan in 2001, the ruling Taliban were the de-facto majority and faced no tangible resistance in their efforts to destroy cultural heritage. This is not to draw any comparison between the military Taliban and the generally peaceful contemporary Druidic community. However, what both examples indicate is that attitudes toward cultural heritage, when faith is considered, are far from being consistently in favor of preservation. Indeed, quite the opposite trend can, on occasion, be seen.

Thirteen years after the devastation at Bamiyan, cultural heritage remains in an increasingly perilous state. Where the Taliban had been the greatest direct threat to eastern heritage sites, now stands ISIL. The “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” has wasted little time in developing their own anti-icon based “policy,” which clearly echoes those sentiments displayed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

There is little debate that the physical sites targeted by ISIL are generally religious in orientation. This past July in Iraq, ISIL turned their attention to the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, or Jonah. The Mosque, located on one of the more prominent mounds in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, opposite to modern day Mosul, was the reported burial place of the Prophet and is revered by Christians and Muslims alike. Local reports indicated that ISIL forces removed worshippers from the site, prohibiting access for local residents within five hundred meters of the complex, before completely destroying the site with explosives. While the Mosque has been among the most prominent sites to be destroyed in Iraq, it is only one of at least thirty such religious/heritage sites to have either been significantly damaged or destroyed within the last year.

Yet, in the face of such widespread destruction, there have been the odd occasions where people have protected religious heritage sites with their lives. Mosul has lost many significant sites, but the well known “crooked” minaret, near a Yazidi shrine in the city, remains standing. This is despite having been directly threatened by ISIL. In the same month, which saw the destruction of the aforementioned mosque, ISIL were reported to have approached the minaret, ready to reduce the site with explosives. Seeing the twelfth-century site being threatened, locals rushed into the adjacent courtyard. Linking arms and sitting on the ground, residents of Mosul laid down a challenge to ISIL militia: destroy the minaret, and you’ll have to kill us in the process. It was a remarkable demonstration of bravery and resilience, ultimately in the protection of a religious heritage site. While extreme interpretations of religious belief have been presented as a justification for the eradication of such sites, there are those whose belief drives them to protect the very same heritage sites, at the risk of their own lives.

Of course, over time, the picture becomes more complex, and ultimately religion and faith might well be seen as a front for equally damaging, but more secular activities, in the form of looting. In Libya, following successive years of military turmoil, heritage sites are now in a tremendously vulnerable state. With law enforcement infrastructure in a weakened state, armed raids are being launched against religious heritage sites with alarming regularity. Last month, the famous Karamanli Mosque, regarded as one of the finest such examples in Tripoli, was stormed by gunmen and looted. Decorative tiles were damaged, while an entire floor was ripped out from the eighteenth-century site. Such targeted damage is frequently done “to order,” supplying the illicit international trade in antiquities. It has already been revealed that ISIL, from one site in Syria alone, have looted their way to a sum of roughly thirty-six million dollars through the trade in antiquities.

In times of conflict, cultural heritage is frequently found in the firing line. Low on the list of priorities when it comes to saving lives, what for many are idealized tourist attractions, quickly become idolatry targets for destruction, or cash cows, ripe for looting in exchange for additional arms. While the destruction at Bamiyan feels like a very distant memory, the nature of loss is all too familiar. As tensions continue to escalate, from Syria into Iraq, and all the way across to Libya, it is reasonable to assume that the religious heritage of states in the Middle East and surrounding regions will continue to be at tremendous risk. Whether there is anything that can be done about these risks or not is dubious, but so long as there are people like the residents of Mosul, willing to risk their lives in the protection of their local cultural heritage, there is at least some sense of hope.

Discussion and Comments

  1. Great and heartbreaking article.

  2. Many thanks Jess, this is indeed a tremendously distressing time for anyone with an interest in cultural heritage in this part of the world.