Before his execution in 2015, Al-Asaad had dedicated his life to studying the Syrian site of Palmyra, which resulted in his moniker of ‘Mr Palmyra’. Considered one of the jewels of the Middle East, Palmyra was a city that acted as the crossroads for cultures like China, Greece and Persia in the first and second century AD. His expertise made him not only a valuable resource in studying the past, but also a target. The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group detained him in May 2015, interrogating him for information on the city’s golden treasures. When Al-Asaad refused, he was beheaded in the town of Tadmur, near Palmyra, on charges of supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Asaad and protecting the “idols” of Palmyra.
This is not the first time terrorists have targeted archaeological sites and associated scholars, and it certainly will not be the last. Why is this the case?
Political extremists have at the core of their ‘ideology’ (if one can call political extremism that) the notion that theirs is the only legitimate point of view and others should be erased. Extremists do not just want to erase the idea itself, they also erase any evidence of it ever existing thus resulting in the deliberate destruction of material culture ranging from books to whole buildings and cities. The IS are no exception to this since they only recognise one religion, Islam, and dedicate themselves to destroying anything that is not Islamic. Sites targeted and destroyed by IS include the Christian Mar Elian monastery and even buildings within Palmyra itself like the Temple of Baal Shamin. Not all artefacts are destroyed, it must be noted. Sometimes, artefacts are spared or ripped from their context and sold online, thus financing the IS and in a cruel irony financing the further destruction of our past.
All the above examples were just the atrocities committed by the IS; others have contributed to the destruction of history like the Taliban when they used dynamite to destroy the 6th century ‘idolatrous’ Bamiyan Buddhas. Terrorist groups are certainly not the only groups known for destroying history. Regimes like the Khmer Rouge erased the history they disagreed with, acting as a contrast to regimes like Mussolini’s which emphasised their past to justify their jingoism and expansionism. It is important to highlight the latter example since history is not always the victim, sometimes it is the unknowing perpetrator.
If the price for protecting our history is so high, or if history can be complicit in terror, then why pay it?
Our history is more than just a guide that is supposedly meant to keep us from repeating past mistakes. Why else would people give their lives to protect it? It illustrates where we came from and what humanity was capable of in the past. It allows people to explore their roots and identity, even help them achieve legal recognition and own ancestral land like the Saramaka descendants of ‘Maroons’ (runaway slaves) managed to achieve using archaeology in Suriname, South America. It has inspired entertainment ranging from more traditionalist dramas like Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ based on the Sutton Hoo excavations to revisionist musicals like ‘Six’, which shift the locus of the narrative from Henry VIII (normally the centrepiece of any Tudor representation in the media) to his wives.
History is not a resource that runs out either, it is constantly being ‘reinvented’ as our interpretations change or new evidence has come to light. Recently, a media frenzy arose over Stonehenge’s origins in Wales; it has been previously established the stone is Welsh in origin, but a new study (Pearson, M. P. et al., “The Original Stonehenge? A Dismantled Stone Circle in the Preseli Hills of West Wales.” Antiquity 95, no. 379 (2021): 85–103) suggests Stonehenge was assembled in Wales first for several hundred years before being moved to Salisbury. To call history the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ would not be wholly accurate, but the sentiment is accurate in that we are constantly surprised by history as our techniques to study it change or new perspectives are provided.
Just as our history can be used, it can be misused. That does not mean we should stop recording our history. We know the devastating capabilities of nuclear power through deliberate and accidental incidents, but have we stopped using it? Only by protecting history and making education of it more widespread can we help prevent the misuse of history. The espousing of rhetoric based on twisted facts can be halted if the audience already know the past and can perceive the bias of the orator. Such a task is not easy though, considering the bias in the education system towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects giving the impression that the humanities matter less.
It might seem like a herculean task to fully protect our history. History can never be truly destroyed, however, even if we fail to protect it. It has become a common misconception that our history is found in books or as ‘treasure’ or as momentous cities. That is simply not the case. Our history includes the flint your neighbour found in their back garden. Our history includes the outlines in crops or soil representing a town of long ago. Our history is quite literally all around us in the form of listed buildings and landscapes. Artefacts and sites are simply a small part of this. Any loss of our past, either accidental or deliberate, is a cause for sorrow but we must remember all is not lost and that our history is more tangible than we think: we just need to know where to look.