The Destruction of Memory, by Robert Bevan

Art vs artillery

Dan Cruickshank
Friday 10 February 2006 01:00 GMT

This book documents a monstrous subject, the destruction of culture during times of conflict. The story is complex and ancient. As long as wars have raged cultural objects - cities, buildings, libraries or paintings - have come under fire. Sometimes they fell victim because they were in the way of the target, but often they themselves have been the target.

Cultural objects give a nation pride and identity, reveal its worth and power. Consequently, culture has been one of the first victims of war. When in 330BC Alexander took the great and beautiful capital of the Persian empire, Persepolis, he destroyed it as an act of vengance and as a way of diminishing the exquisite civilisation of the hated Persians. The Romans, having put down the Jewish rebellion in Palestine in 70AD, destroyed the mighty Temple in Jerusalem, the great holy site of the Israelites, as a way of robbing the Jews of pride, identity and the will to resist.

Such acts reverberate through history, although it is often difficult to distinguish the real cause of destruction, military or ideological. The 15th-century Musalla mosque complex in Herat, Afghanistan was one of the architectural wonders of the region, until in 1885 much of it was levelled by the British. It was said the demolitions were undertaken as part of a plan to prepare the city for a Russian attack (which never materialised), but the action may more convincingly be seen as an attack on the national identity of the troublesome Afghans.

The British demolition five years earlier of the ancient citadel, the Bala Hissar, in Kabul was a more honest act of cultural warfare. It was in the citadel that British diplomats were cut down in 1879. So, to reveal Britain's power to the world, Afghanistan was invaded and the Bala Hissar demolished to act, as the commander Roberts put it, as "a lasting memorial of our ability to avenge our countrymen".

That a memorial to an event should be the absence of something says much about the bizarre logic of cultural warfare. It is an entirely negative activity, to do with the destruction or removal of things - memory, buildings, identity; it seeks a state of desolation, a vacuum, an absence.

Although the story of culture under fire has a long history, recent events - the destruction of the 1,800-year-old giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, the thefts from the Iraq Museum during the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the ruthless looting of archaeological sites around the world - give the tale a sudden urgency. So Robert Bevan's book is timely; it is also fascinating: it presents a historical review, and speculates on the psychological forces at work, making disturbing connections between mass killings of people and the mass extermination of their cultural history. Then it offers case studies of a number of the most recent - and infamous - attacks on memory.

There is much about ethnic and cultural cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990s, and about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, where history and archaeology play a key role in conflicting claims to the Holy Land. There are, of course, also references to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Inevitably, the quality and interest varies. Accounts of locations Bevan did not visit are sometimes little more than a compilation of cuttings - a useful service but not particularly enlightening when one longs for an objective overview. But the descriptions of places that he did visit are perceptive, powerful and make an important contribution to conflicting accounts of complex events. He visited Nablus, in the West Bank, where historic buildings have been damaged or destroyed during incursions by the Israeli Defence Force. As Bevan explains, the April 2002 incursion into Nablus "saw one of the largest single acts of destruction of Palestinian heritage since the aftermath of the creation of Israel". The Israelis were to claim that the buildings were victims of legitimate military operations against militants while the Palestinians of Nablus believe, as I was told during my visit in 2003, that their history was being deliberately destroyed to undermine their sense of identity and diminish their claim to the land.

In the best traditions of the dogged reporter in a war zone, Bevan had to dive below the dashboard of his vehicle as raking machine gun fire from an Israeli tank met his arrival in Nablus. Bevan confirmed that hundreds of historic buildings had been badly damaged or destroyed, including three ancient mosques (two 1,600-years-old and converted from Christian churches), as well as an Ottoman soap factory and caravanserai earmarked for an EU restoration project. The complexity of the story is revealed by Bevan's conclusion: "It cannot be proved that, in Nablus, the IDF deliberately targeted Palestinian heritage, but it has shown an almost blatant disregard for it, in contravention of the Hague convention. This heritage is deemed, at the very least, as expendable".

Unsurprisingly, the book casts little new light on the looting and destruction in the Iraq Museum when Baghdad fell to US forces. Bevan has not been to the city since and the complex events have been further complicated: questions about the attack on culture in Iraq have become part of the larger debate about US actions in the Middle East. Bevan's book simply offers familiar information culled from newspaper accounts. For example, he seems simply to accept the popular view that US priorities in Iraq are accurately reflected by the fact that its forces put guards on the oil ministry in Baghdad and not on the museum when it occupied the city.

We are too close to the events, and the atmosphere too heated, to get easily at the truth. But Bevan could have talked to the staff of the Iraq Museum, particularly its director Dr Donny George, to gain a more penetrating insight. Or to Matthew Bogdanos - the Manhattan district attorney and US Marine Reserve colonel who spearheaded the investigation into the museum looting and set in train strategies that led to the recovery of over 5,000 stolen artefacts. In 2005 Bogdanos published a memoir, The Thieves of Baghdad, that at the very least gives a different, insider's, perspective.

These omissions are minor problems: Bevan's heart is in the right place and the general thrust of his narrative is compelling and convincing. This important book reveals the extent of cultural warfare, exposes its nature and, by helping us to understand some of the most terrible tragedies of recent times, gives us the means and resolve to fight this evil. All who care must read this book and learn its lessons.

'Around the World in 80 Treasures', the book of Dan Cruickshank's BBC2 series, is published by Phoenix

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