It should come as no surprise that a group like ISIL would seek to efface any traces of pre-Islamic history from areas under its control. Indeed, they have done precisely that, destroying large parts of a museum in Mosul and bulldozing excavated parts of the ancient city of Nimrud (though it should be noted that the extent of the damage has yet to be fully ascertained). Every time I hear of another piece of history being destroyed, I feel a profound sense of loss, something that strikes me deeper than just the thought that these traces of antiquity (for which I have a particular fondness) are being forever eradicated.
I want to state up front that I am fully cognizant of the fact that there is a great deal more than just objects being lost. The horrendous losses of life that have swept through so many portions of Western Asia are truly some of the most ghastly of the 21st Century, and I do not want to in any way dismiss the importance of human life. At the same time, however, I also think it is necessary to think about why it is that we respond with such heightened emotions and such profound feelings of loss when we see objects of historical importance (however nebulously defined that is) subjected to the chisel and the bulldozer.
I think there is something paradoxically vibrant, vital even, about the objects that so frequently appear in the news media, their pitted surfaces being brought to ruin by the vengeful sledgehammers of those determined to eradicate the traces of a past that proves troublesome and resistant to newer narratives of national and religious identification. These objects carry with them the sedimented meanings and experiences of civilizations that have long since ceased to exist. At the same time as they possess vitality, however, they also inhabit a space of abjection, cast off and out of the teleological march of history. They also seemingly provide us access to an intimate and intricate skein of human lives that goes beyond the individual located in a specific, bounded location in a particular temporal and spatial location. Though they may be in ruins, they still remind us of our past, that we belong somewhere in history.
The sight, or really even the description, of this destruction elicits a deep, guttural, visceral reaction in most of us, and for a variety of reasons. As Lana Asfour and Michael Scott put it at Al-Jazeera English, “ We were shocked by the wanton destruction of artefacts because material culture is not only about people but also about identity. It connects us to the past and embodies and represents our collective experiences and achievements.” It is precisely this sense of collectivity that, I think, helps to explain my own response when I see these signs of destruction. These scenes, with their sharp juxtaposition of the technologies of modernity with the seemingly archaic ruins of antiquity, threaten our collective sense of being embodied in a particular temporal location, of being a part of something greater than ourselves.
Just as importantly, however, the sight of destruction serves as a potent reminder of the fallibility and ephemerality of even the greatest of imperial and cultural ambitions. Of course, the ruins themselves already have within them those layers of meaning and those cautionary notes of imperial hubris and ephemerality, but seeing those destroyed, I think, brings out intense feelings of the sublime. When I see a city like Nimrud subjected to demolishment, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of the sublime, as the scale of what is being destroyed goes beyond my (or, I would argue, any individual’s) ability to come to terms with it. In other words, what is being destroyed is not just the ruins of an ancient city, but also everything that city has come to represent, the layers upon layers of meaning and significance it has attained throughout the millennia of its ruinous existence.
Finally, and I must admit to this being a bit more speculative, the destruction of these objects also pose a powerful threat to our sense of time, of being individuals situated in a discrete historical moment. In other words, seeing objects and ancient ruins destroyed detaches us from our sense of being located in time. We take great comfort in the idea that we have deep histories. Ancient cities, even those that exist only in ruins, are a claim that we as a species have roots that we can point to in order to justify our existence. Such a feeling becomes particularly acute for those in the U.S., for whom the ancient world has often held out the promise of a richer history than we (falsely) believe we possess. It is that feeling of temporal dislocation and pastlessness, I think that more than anything helps to explain my own profound feelings of loss and melancholia at these spectacles of sublime destruction.