Commentary - Stephennie Mulder on Palmyra and Syria's Cultural Heritage

Yael Rice's picture

[With Stephennie Mulder's permission, I am sharing below some comments on Palmyra and Syria's cultural heritage that she recently posted on Facebook. You may view the original post, along with the images, here.  For more updates and comments from Profesor Mulder, please consider following her on Twitter.  - Yael Rice, H-Islamart Editor]

Some thoughts about Palmyra, partly in response to many Syrian friends who have been rightly criticizing the outcry over ancient stones while untold millions of people are suffering. I just finished an interview with Al Jazeera English and they did a very nicely balanced report. It discussed the 140,000 people, including many refugees, living in the nearby modern town of Tadmur, the atrocities of the Syrian Army, both human and cultural (we should not forget the Syrian Army has been filmed looting the site already last year, see the photo below), and the infamous prison there, where Assad has tortured political prisoners for decades. All of this context for the discussion of the archaeological site is what is needed.

Clearly, we must have have concern for people first, but culture is also an essential part of us as people, as human beings. It seems so hard to imagine now, but someday this war will end, and a people without history, with nothing left of their past, will be a people doubly traumatized. ISIS knows this, and that is one reason they're targeting such sites - just as happened in the war in the former Yugoslavia with the destruction of the Mostar bridge - which, after the war, became a reminder of the city's integrated Christian and Muslim past. Its rebuilding became a powerful symbol of the ongoing significance of its value to actual people. Stones do matter, and they matter to people, because they tell us who we are. I also think that sometimes culture galvanizes outside concern not because people are callous and don't care about human life, but because sometimes the death of so many innocent people, so unbearable and unspeakable, is so awful to contemplate that people simply can't bear it. Most people simply feel helpless in the face of death on this scale, and turn away in despair. Having concern for culture then becomes a way to express concern that seems concrete, in some sense. I don't think this is right, nor am I defending it, I'm just trying to explain the phenomenon in less cynical terms. I also tried to make the point in the interview that the safety of the people in Tadmur should be our first concern, and the heroic efforts of Syrian heritage workers who are valiantly trying to save these sites is also an important part of the story.

A last thought - to return to the question of why I think it is problematic to speak about cultural heritage and people as though they are separate and unconnected. And that is that in fact, people *do* die because ISIS is destroying culture. Every day. Why? Because ISIS's sale of antiquities looted from sites like Palmyra funds their reign of terror, and because, as Elyse [Semerdjian] pointed out so eloquently, destruction of cultural heritage is a primary tool of genocide. So each one of these sites and the looting that will take place there can, quite literally, be cataloged in human lives. If ever there was a reason to fight to ‪#‎SavePalmyra‬, that is it. We cannot disentangle human lives from the culture humans have made and cherish. Does that mean we should save an ancient temple before we save a Syrian child? Of course not. But it also means we can't think of them as separate and unconnected, and that the fight to save one should also be seen as the fight to save the other.

Stephennie Mulder, Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture, University of Texas at Austin
Twitter: @stephenniem


Professor Mulder's comments are absolutely right - there is no dichotomy between human beings and human culture. I heard these arguments rehearsed in essence when I was working at the Bodleian Library, which possesses a book (nothing especially rare) which was saved when it was thrown out of a window during the Great Fire of London. A discussion arose: if you had a choice, which would you save, a baby or a book? The baby, obviously. But what if it were a very rare book? Well, still the baby. What if it were the only known copy of Shakespeare's works? Well, ... still the baby. But what about a science thesis which contained vital research for the elimination of cancer? ... the choices got more and more difficult, but in the end it came down to one thing- that the oppositions were completely unreal, and the more 'difficult' the decision seemed, the more unreal the situation in which such a choice would occur.

And in the case of Syria, what choice is there between people who burn and behead and those who, for all their faults, oppose such obscenity? Is anyone really saying that the two are comparable in their lack of respect for human life because the second group also want to preserve human culture?