1 Mar 2015

Of the Sack of Assyria and its Insult on Humanity

Since Saddam Hussein's demise, Assyria and Mesopotamia, the very cradle of civilisation (better known nowadays as Irak), have been nothing but crippled by war and death, pillaged away, looted, blown apart, crushed to cinders, and their populations, including the Christian minority, tortured and decimated. The latest instalment in Irak's ongoing tragedy is the ransacking of the Mosul Central Library and the Mosul Museum by the crazed-up ISIS iconoclast cohorts.

For classic Art appreciators like myself, the realisation of this pillage is unbearable! Historians, archaeologists, antiquities department directors, librarians, academics, intellectuals and UNESCO are up in arms too!

The Assyrian and other pre-Muslim artefacts and statues got smashed up on cue for the cameras, and 8 to 10,000 rare books and manuscripts were subjected to auto-da-fé. In other words, this wave of destruction was an orchestrated cultural ethnic cleansing with a brutal message of irreverence and intent eradication of civilisation, past, present and future. The defacing and beheading of statues is an echo to the beheading of hostages by ISIS. The LA Times (28/02/2015) adds that "the vandalism's cultural insult strikes deep. The Iraqi people, [Altaweel said,] "are taking the destruction of their cultural heritage - their identity, essentially - just as seriously as the beheadings."

According to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, the large-scale destruction of books by ISIS across Iraq's cultural centres - already harked as the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history - "adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

In this article, I will attempt to demonstrate why and how Art is besieged from the moment it takes form. And also how Art transcends its geographical and cultural origins to become part of humanity's spiritual, artistic and immaterial wealth. Therefore the destruction of ancient Art forms, wherever in the world, should concern us all.

Human-Headed Winged Lion (Lamassu), 883–859 B.C., Neo–Assyrian period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II,
excavated at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Mesopotamia. Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ancient Art promulgates spiritual elevation and educates humanity as a whole. It anchors modern civilisation to its past, roots it for a strong and resilient growth. It confers it direction and a reference point, a meaning, a sense of stability, belonging and progression. It summons respect and other values and symbolises immortality, the transcendence of the past into the present towards the future on a timeline of cultural continuity, evolution and expansion. The sack of Assyria is therefore yet another example of an assault against humanity as a collective.

Man's creation, borne out of a dream, a vision, a hope, a wishful thought, or a representation of reality, is sublimated and enchanted to heights godly of his own making. Art's portrayed sublimation of man and self as a tool, a vehicle, engenders reverence, awe, peace, admiration, adoration even. Yet creation is pitted against man's ability for destruction. Man is creation's best friend and foe. The way I picture this complex yet simple relationship is as a triangle between the Creator (the artist as an artist - or as an envoy of God to earth as luminaries tend to be perceived as), the Creation (the actual objet d'art) and the Creature (the recipient, the public).

Creation is no mere work of art. It is a currency, a pawn, a covet, a symbol, a collateral. The immortality it exudes is at the mercy of its shortcoming of imminent destitution and/ or destruction. In times of economic and political stability, Art prospers. Otherwise it is endangered, looted, smuggled, traded as booty wares, or destroyed. The LA Times (28/02) sums it up nicely: "It [Stone] is meant to express aspirations toward permanence, sometimes vainglorious and sometimes noble. Obliterating a revered stone edifice says - in no uncertain terms - that radical change has arrived."

Human-Headed Winged Bull (Shedu), bas-relief, c.713-716 B.C. Via Wikipedia

Let us make an aside for Irak's current situation and rewind 13 years. The Anglo-American interference in Saddam Hussein's governance opened a Pandora's box of oil-fuelled malevolence. It was a prophecy of doom realised, bringing to its knees a modern and progressive nation, and return it to the Dark Ages, with the complicity of religious fanaticism. The culture of chaos is used as a smoke-screen while the country's resources are being redistributed, because it just so happens that world domination is no piped dream, it is an intention that has been pushed through from the moment that man realised that his tribe, his settlement, his kingdom, was not sole and only.

Meanwhile, in a peculiar timely twist with the Mosul tragedy, The Iraq Museum of Baghdad reopened its doors to the public yesterday (28th February) after undergoing extensive rehabilitation under the patronage of UNESCO, following lootings in 2003. The museum brings together a collection of antiquities that testify the rich cultural heritage of this particular region of the world, in terms of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic cultures.

Our role as a collective is to safeguard our cultural legacy. Yet how can we achieve this unless we treat civilisation with reverence? The way culture is treated is a reflection of a malaise on a grander scale. Meanwhile, aside from witnessing cultural artefacts falling foul to world events, I witness in my daily endeavours fragments of culture from my immediate vicinity falling prey to greed, being wiped off the map under a slab of concrete, just ceasing to be. More often though, I witness fragments of culture chipping away, turning to rubble - not purely as a result of time's wear and tear, but as a helping hand from land developers, unscrupulous antiques dealers, opportunists - with the complicity of general apathy and the selective blind eye syndrome. This happens 'unnoticed', incrementally, insidiously, perniciously, cancerously, like a Chinese torture form... turned to an art form.

The Tigris River, seen from Mosul (1932). AP Photo/ American Colony Photo Dept. via Library of Congress.

Our dumbed-down society models dis-educate our white- and blue-collars on classic art forms, while rampant short-attention deficit disorder has become an excuse, yet suited to our lifestyle on the go. Meanwhile religious extremism goes rampant on the lost and the meek, empowering them with guns as their mode of expression. Intellect is shunned by the media and derided as elitist by politicians. Our consumerist model emphasises fast fashion, fast food, cheap wares, Mickey Mouse degrees and jobs, and worldwide uniformisation of style and taste under the umbrella of a handful of global FMCGs. All of those combined factors are challenging the appreciation and survival of Ancient and Classic Art at large. It is therefore the duty for individuals like myself to warn against such dumbing-down.


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