This week we saw the horrifying images of the Notre Dame Cathedral in France engulfed by fire. The flames pulled down the church’s towering spire. The inferno burst through iconic stained-glass windows and charred the 800-year-old stone façade.
Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages and is distinguished for its size, antiquity, and architectural interest. The Cathedral is said to have had a crown of thorns that, according to Christian tradition, graced the head of a crucified Christ, and the tunic worn by Louis IX when he presented the relic to Notre Dame around 1238. As history has it, it is said that Notre Dame always rises. Over the last 100 or so years the Cathedral had endured vandalism, revolutions and two world wars. It is a testament of that endurance and history that saw the pouring of donations from across the globe towards the restoration of the historic cathedral. While this can be seen as an act of human generosity, it is equally duplicitous. Here is why?
Culture thrives in time of peace. When people are busy fighting, they destroy their culture and themselves with it.
In the past, warring tribes destroyed indigenous cultures and imposed theirs on that of their subjects. We have the Spanish conquistadors as recent example. To hell with the Incas and Aztecs and their temples, they said. Just make them Catholics and then kill them if they prove to be pains in the neck. At least that way they were sure to go to heaven. Here lie the Incas and their tradition, must have written the Spaniards on the tombs of those civilizations, they will live in peace and so shall we.
Poor people have difficulty preserving their cultural heritage. When you are colonized you should better kiss goodbye to your customs and traditions. Unless, of course, you have the strength to fight back and salvage some of them.
The Italians had taken a lot of cultural artifacts from our country as they left. Or maybe they stole them while they were here. As a vanquished people what was there for Eritreans to do except to look on helplessly.
But it was not always that the vanquisher destroyed a national heritage all by itself. Sometimes, the natives are to blame for their contributions based on ignorance and fanaticism.
Take Da’esh, for example. These people don’t like artifacts. The destruction of ancient Iraqi and Sayrian artifacts – a tactic employed in cultural genocide – is part of the Islamic State militants’ efforts to reform the region into a single, homogenous Muslim caliphate under its control. Palmyra, Marelian Monastry, Apamea, Dura-Europos, Mari, Hatra, Mosul Museum and Libraries, and many others have been destroyed by Da’esh. It says the historical objects and sites it destroyed were heresy to its ideology. In Palmyra, for example, the group blew up two historic tombs, one of a Shiite saint and another of a Sufi scholar, because they consider them to be forms of idolatry. To think that they have lived in peace with these so called idols for the last 1400 years, one wonders how fickle the human mind is! So what do they do next? They demolish the idols and repent for not having done it earlier. When Dae’sh destroyed these artifacts into oblivion, the world did not donate any money towards their restoration.
It is said a Swiss archaeologist once transferred a lot of ‘Pagan’ images from Afghanistan to his country. That’s one way to save a cultural heritage. Historical monuments and stone carvings do not belong to one particular race of people, they belong to all humanity. After all, the world and all that is therein belongs to those who live there irrespective of race and creed.
The heritage statues of Syria belong to the Syrians just as much as they do to Kenyans or Spaniards or the Australians. Everything that the hand of a human-being shapes and fashions and every invention and work of art is a product of the collective consciousness of humankind.
On second thought, it seems that whisking historical or archeological items out of a given country could be a blessing in disguise. So, take care of your cultural heritage or give it to someone who does until you finish your fights with your enemy.
Do you know that thousands of cultural monuments are being destroyed in Africa because of war and internal conflict? A monument may remind you of your enemy, and you may feel that the logical thing to do is destroy it. In such a situation plundering becomes the order of the day; thieves and forgers abound. So much so that at present things have come to a point where it is becoming difficult to distinguish between the genuine and the fake as regards cultural or historical items.
Anyway, the day won’t be far away when a nation’s cultural heritage will be replaced by phony imitations while the real ones will be embellishing the private homes of the rich with Olympian tastes.
After the two world wars, there was a lot of restitution of precious paintings and works of art that had been stolen by invading powers. Russia returned its war spoils to Germany, Germany to France, and Japan to China. It is a noble act. Stolen property should be returned to the rightful owner on time. But, keeping the stolen goods safe for decades is in itself a civil act. Even those rich who stock them in their private homes are better than those who destroy them. Many of the great paintings of our time had been bought back from private collectors.
Perhaps it was a good thing some of our artifacts were in Italy during the later stages of federation. It is just that a communist regime arrived and destroyed everything that reminded it of the decadent aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. A capitalist government takes over and you see socialist memorabilia tossed into the dustbin of history. Haven’t the Bolsheviks tried to erase everything related to the Romanovs? Haven’t the Germans tried to destroy everything Jewish?
There had been many groups like ISIS in the past. There will be more in the future unless the rule of law or common sense for that matter prevails in the so called Third World. For as long as human conflict continues, fuelled by hatred and ignorance, the cultural and historical heritage of this world will never be safe. However, war and destruction will always be part of human existence. What we do in the aftermath will forever define our survival.
While Notre Dame caught fire accidentally this week, the historical artifacts in the east were destroyed intentionally by a terrorist group. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that while the latter artifacts were neglected, the former has so far attracted €850 million in donation for its restoration. According to France 24, billionaire families Pinaults, the Arnaults, and the Bettencourt have donated €100 million, €200 million, €200 million respectively. Bouygues brothers and Marc Ladreit de Lacharrièr gave 10 million each and the oil company Total has donated 100 million.
Shouldn’t the artifact in the east, which lay in ruins to this day, receive the same attention? After all, the world’s cultural heritage is ours and, therefore, it is up to us to protect and preserve and restore in case of any harm done to them. The Roman Theatre in Palmyra, the Tetrapylon are equally important as the Notre Dame and it is the world’s responsibility to restore them.