Sunday 5 July 2015

"The colonial powers should have plundered more antiquities"

In an article that will no doubt be being extensively referenced by the antiquities dealers' trollbots, Israeli author and journalist Benny Ziffer controversially argues that "Entrusting the treasures of Middle Eastern civilization to the Arab people is turning out to have been a criminal mistake" ("The colonial powers should have plundered more antiquities" Haaretz Jul. 5, 2015). Ziffer is the author of 'Not recognizing the Armenian genocide is a triumph for common sense' and this text is of the same rank. His piece is presented as reflections on the recent death of collector Shlomo Moussaieff. Ziffer reckons that "all those self-righteous types who demand the return of the Parthenon sculptures from the British Museum to Greece, and of the Luxor Obelisk from the Place de la Concorde to Egypt" are "eating their hats".
Today everyone with eyes in his head sees – across the whole region that’s considered the cradle of world civilization, namely the Fertile Crescent, from Iraq to Syria – that it’s unfortunate that more wasn’t stolen. In short, that the colonial powers did not plunder additional antiquities and bring them to Europe.
But isn't Greece, from which the knocked-off Parthenon Marbles were taken, part of Europe?  Anyway, while Europe is relatively stable at the moment, so were Tunesia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria until a few years ago. The fate of those countries show how easily that can change. Europe cannot be assumed to be a safe haven for ever. We should also look carefully at what has just happened in Crimea (antiquities involved there too) and especially the collapse of security in the Donbass region. Artefacts from Tel Halaf in Berlin's Pergamon Museum were nearly lost to a 1943 bombing raid (Stephen Evans, 'Berlin's Pergamon Museum exhibits Tell Halaf statues', BBC News 29 January 2011). No doubt many antiques and antiquities were lost in the Jugoslavian war (that "Kaloterna collection" which has never been seen by anyone maybe). Mr Ziffer does not see it that way:  
Entrusting the treasures of Middle Eastern civilization to the Arab people is turning out to have been a criminal mistake. It worked for a few years, by dint of force. Now, with the removal of the tyrants who concentrated the powers of the state in their hands, including the preservation of antiquities, we are witnessing the daily savaging of world heritage sites. These acts appear to be carried out by Islamic State, or ISIS – but they are not the only perpetrators. In the civil war raging in Syria, none of the warring parties spared the Old City of Aleppo, which, according to reports, was completely destroyed. What was Aleppo’s sin? And what was the sin of other sites, such as Palmyra, also in Syria, or the palaces of the Assyrian kings in Iraq?
First of all, the monuments and objects survived among the "Arab peoples" for millennia. The question is whether it is the removal of the regimes that created (by force certainly) stability, or the inability of those who brought down those regimes to replace it with anything else which is to blame. Or maybe we are seeing (or failing to see) other processes at work? Is the problem as the Jewish writer suggests "the Arab people? (Have not the Israelis not destroyed anything at all in their near vicinity in the past few years?) Once again however we see the notion dear to antiquities dealers and collectors that the destruction of sites 'justifies' the appropriations of portable objects. This is skewed logic. European museums are full of big sculptures from Nimrud, that does not in any way compensate for the loss of the remains of the site they came from - parts of which were excavatred in the nineteenth century by the methods of the time. Ziffer continues:
It seems to me that their [sites'] malicious or incidental destruction shows utter contempt for what’s known as world civilization. It’s the same contempt that occasionally rears its head in different parts of the world, such as in China during the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and so forth. And worst of all is the fact that these acts of destruction get a wink of approval from people in the West, who look on in amazement at the barbarism. They supposedly understand the volcanic rage and tacitly agree that this is the price to be paid for shedding years of colonial oppression. This forgiving attitude vis-a-vis barbarism is the most depressing outcome of the present situation.
I do not know whether in Israel they are "winking with approval" about the destruction of ANYTHING by the warring parties in Syria and Iraq. Certainly over here, it is only antiquities dealers that present it fatalistically as an inevitable feature of the situation in those oh-so-very-Oriental areas, justifying them making off with ("saving for the rest of humanity") whatever can be carried away. Basically it is knowledge that in various foreign circles these monuments are seen as 'our culture' is precisely the reason ISIL is targeting some of them - it is our valuing of them as such which is the reason why they are now in danger. 

Of course iconoclasm and wiping-the-cultural-slate clean are well-known phenomena throughout human history. In ancient Egypt, rulers scraped out the inscriptions of previous ones, and replaced them with their own, the Post-Amarna iconoclasm is a well-known example, but there are others. In Byzantium there was image smashing in the eighth and ninth centuries. In Reformation Europe, the survival of Medieval art was threatened by several waves of iconoclasm, stripping religious buildings of almost all of their fittings and decoration. That was not so many generations ago at the beginning of Modern times.

In Central Europe just a few decades ago, territorial shifts led to the wholescale removal of monuments, replacement of commemorative street names, destruction of prominent cultural landmarks (the whole of Warsaw in 1944 for example - but only after the earlier stage of blowing up historical buildings, burning entire libraries and emptying the miuseums by the Nazis). Then the Red Army came through the eastern, northern and western regions of what is now Poland and flattened almost every single historic town centre with any buildings that looked 'German' (Gothic onwards), just to root out any latent Germaness. The idea of 'a nation without a culture ceases to be a nation' [I forget the exact quote] is an European invention (ascribed to Hitler, but its roots go back earlier to the partitions of the 18th century). In occupied Cyprus, during the Kosovo war we saw the same. We Europeans are no better than the people the Jewish writer criticises.
Also depressing and worrying is the dogmatism that prevents the West from grasping that we must welcome the fact that the museums in its capitals are filled with objects that were stolen from the Middle East. And, as in the case of raising children, in which the good parent is the one who cultivates the child and not necessarily the person who gave birth to him biologically – so too in the field known as the “antiquities theft.” Those who appreciate and love the objects that constitute the world cultural heritage deserve to be called their parent, not those in whose country the objects happen to be found.
So, like the forced relocation of Aborigine children in Australia, North America or Nazi Germany he means?  Because these artefacts have been taken by force, whether direct or 'soft power'. "Must" we welcome the retaining of these objects in our museums? Human remains too? That merely implies that we are the ones that can be properly trusted with their care, while the brown-skinned Orientals cannot. That is an incredibly arrogant attitude - especially when there are good grounds to believe that a lot of the instability of the Middle East and the manner in which it is manifested is to some degree (or perhaps to a large degree) the fault of the rich countries around. Zimmer concludes his text by offering a prayer:
for the souls of the colonialists who unfortunately did not steal more and plunder more and empty out the Middle East of its treasures, because the people who are considered the lawful inheritors of those treasures are not worthy of being their owners.

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