Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dura-Europos update

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Saving Syria: ISIS seeks to control the country’s future by destroying its Christian past. (America Magazine). Excerpt:
At first glance, the looting of small artifacts might seem to run counter to ISIS’s tendency toward destruction. This seeming contradiction invites us to reflect on their cynical and shortsighted strategy for dealing with the cultural patrimony of Syria. On the one hand, ISIS has been intentionally destroying monumental forms of cultural property that are not seen to fit within their very constricted notion of Syrian culture. They are trying to control the future narrative of Syrian culture by eliminating the diversity of its past.

Dura-Europos had been a perfect signal of such diversity, with religious structures dedicated to gods that were Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Parthian, Palmyrene and Judean in origin. The Roman era of the city also showed extensive linguistic diversity. Although the Greek language retained its cultural dominance and Latin became an administrative language, the remains exhibited Hebrew, various forms of Aramaic (including Palmyrene, Syriac and Hatrian, from eastern Mesopotamia), northern Arabic and Iranian (including Parthian and Middle Persian). In terms of religion, language and culture, Dura-Europos was thus exactly the kind of tolerant crossroads that is unwelcome under ISIS’s ideologically strict regime. If large monuments had remained, they almost certainly would have been destroyed.

On the other hand, ISIS has not been destroying the small artifacts discovered amid Dura’s innumerable looting pits. Rather, they seem to be organizing the monetization of portable cultural property—pottery, statuettes, reliefs, coins. In other words, an image of a Greek god on a monument needs to be destroyed with a hammer and broadcast around the world by video. But if an image of a god is found on a small statuette, ISIS regards it not as an idol but as currency. And quite a currency it has become: Western intelligence experts have estimated that antiquities are the second-largest source of revenue (after oil) for the regime.

Such inconsistency with regard to cultural property shows that ISIS is likely not concerned about the long-term benefits of Syria’s rich and diverse heritage. Yes, portable objects can bring short-term financial support, but sending them all abroad means most are never coming back. And though broadcasting the destruction of monuments and buildings may bring a short-term boost in recruitment to their ideology, it undermines one of the best sources of long-term revenue for Syria, which is tourism to its many famous sites.
HT AJR. Background on the assault of ISIS on the past and its caretakers is here with many links. And background on Dura-Europos, including its sad fate under ISIS, is here, again with many links.