Thursday, March 12, 2015

Islamic State puts me in mind of Bamiyan

Hatra, a fortified city that withstood attack by the Romans
Today two linked stories in the media. The Guardian reports Iraq’s director of antiquities confirming that Islamic State militants (don't like the word but more of that another day) have ransacked the ancient city of Dur-Sharrukin near Mosul. This is the group’s latest assault on the country’s 3,000 year heritage, the report following hard on the heels of news of destroyed ruins at the ancient city of Hatra.  (I'm not clear if the destruction includes the city walls in the image above.  The story was on the BBC website a few days ago.)

Bamiyan Buddhas. Left, after 1,500 years. Right, after 1,500 years and 25 days
The other linked story I came across today is also from the BBC who have interviewed an Afghani bicycle repair mechanic in Bamiyan, one Mirza Hussain. In March 2001 as a prisoner of the Taliban he was forced to carry explosives to blow the Bamiyan Buddhas up.  "I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it," he says. "But I could not resist, I didn't have a choice because they would have killed me."  He recalls two to three explosions every day to destroy the Buddha, and drilling holes into the statue to plant the dynamite without proper tools.  He remembers the whole process took 25 days, and that the Taliban brought nine cows to slaughter as a sacrifice.

I've blogged about the Bamiyan Buddhas before, in 2011. At that time I was exercised by the debate whether they should be left as rubble; a debate that so far as I know continues.  But now the Buddha destruction has a more urgent relevance.  The annihilation of these ancient sandstone carvings, once the world's tallest Buddhas, in an act of destruction that shocked the world, doubtless inspired the recent vandalism of Iraqi heritage sites by Islamic State fighters.   And it's set me thinking about iconoclasm generally. 
Islamic State, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, says shrines and statues are "false idols" that have to be smashed.  Carved to the glory of God, and in an act of performance art, smashed to the glory of God.  It could be argued, though not by me, that one act is as valid as the other.   More about this when my thoughts are in order.   

Mirza Hussain today, from the BBC website
As a postscript we should note that according to Newsweek, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, residents hiding in the mountains at the time, heard explosions for three or four days.  Fifty cows were sacrificed at the site for Taliban dignitaries flown in by helicopter for the celebration. Mirza Hussain says 25 days and mentions only 9 cows. The sort of conflict of evidence that journalists and historians have to grapple with daily.