A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey
We are used to seeing horrifying images and video propaganda from ISIS and last week we saw new disturbing images showing the wanton destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Jihadists can be seen toppling statues, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers and using power tools to grind off the faces of the Assyrian artifacts, many of which date back 3,000 years. Mercifully most of the artifacts are replicas after some 1500 objects from the museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping. However the larger statues that were destroyed are originals.
The most devastating loss is the lamassu—large winged human-headed bulls– at the Nergal Gate. The beautiful and intricate gate was built during the expansion of Ninevah sometime between 704 and 690 BC. The images were destroyed with a jackkammer and it appears the damage is irreparable. The worst damage was done to the 2,000 year-old sculptures from Hatra and the damage is catastrophic. And this attempt to erase all culture other than Islamic didn’t stop there. In another appalling attack on Iraq’s heritage ISIS militants have bulldozed the Nimrud archaeological site in northern Iraq. “They are erasing our history,” said Iragi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani.
In 2001 the Taliban, on orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited and destroyed the twin 6th century Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Bamyan in central Afghanistan. The larger Buddha was over 190 feet tall and the smaller was over 114 feet tall. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs and details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. They were painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller in multiple colors.
I was in my office on Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier when one of our Afghan interpreters, Dr. Najibullah came in to see me. Before the Taliban came to power he worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for hiding and saving many artifacts before the Taliban destroyed them just as ISIS is doing now. He held out a piece of gravel he had picked up from the road outside. It was stained with red. “This is from the Buddha,” he said with sadness in his voice. He wanted to give it to me, but I made him keep it. I simply could not take even a fragment of this ancient treasure. It would have broken my heart every time I looked at it.
From primitive to modern man humans have always used art to express what their lives are like. Whether it is a cave painting of animal hunts or sculptures of ancient Gods these legacies tell us where we came from and that is something every society has the right to know. I recently had my DNA tested and when I got the results and saw my diverse ethnic heritage it was thrilling. It gave me a sense of place and belonging. Just as we marvel at our history when we visit Washington, DC and gaze upon all the monuments and memorials that celebrate our heritage, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan deserved the right to look upon their past and marvel at the artistry of their ancestors.
Any religion or culture that destroys the past has no future. While Japan and Switzerland have pledged money to restore the Bamyan Buddhas, it just won’t be the same. The tranquil giants that looked benignly down on the valley, as travelers from China made their way to the west on the Silk Road for almost 2,000 years, were destroyed by fanatic Islamic jihadists who are so narrow-minded they cannot tolerate music, art, books or secular education. When these historic legacies vanish a part of humanity vanishes and the treasures of ancient Assyrians in Iraq and the Buddhas in Afghanistan can now only be marveled at by looking at photographs.
It should come as no surprise that fanatic extremists who do not care for human life would have no respect or reverence for art. As an artist it is a loss that I take personally and I am thankful that dedicated individuals such as Dr. Najibullah preserved some of the heritage that belongs not only to Afghanistan, but to the world.