As ghastly as the catalogue of crimes committed by devotees of Radical Islam already is, the sorrowful sight of ancient monuments being bulldozed into dust, ones that have witnessed the rise and fall of endless empires with a dignity above and beyond the petty squabbles of their founders’ successors, is an act of cultural vandalism that stains all civilisation, not just that of the Middle East. But we’ve been here before, lest we forget; it’s less than fifteen years since the equally enlightened ISIS forerunners, the Taliban, blew-up the beautiful Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Whatever turmoil the world has endured in the centuries since these edifices were erected, they have survived them all, imbued with a serene sense of timelessness that has rendered the concerns of the here and now an irrelevance; they seem to gaze upon the landscape with a wisdom that knows Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and all the conflicts that have arisen from them, are passing phases they will outlive and outlast. Until now.
Imagine the same brutal treatment being dished-out to the Sphinx – or even Stonehenge; it seems inconceivable, yet the wilful and deliberate demolition of Nimrud, one of the pearls of Assyria from an Islamic era that included beauty as a crucial element of its framework, is the latest cultural atrocity committed in the name of ‘Islam’, following on from the smashing of priceless artefacts at the Mosul Museum as well as the ruination of two ancient Iraq shrines, the Mosque of the Prophet Younis and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis.
Similar acts have been carried out in Mali in recent years, especially in the famed city of Timbuktu; sites from the Islamic Golden Age, the faith’s most fruitful flowering, are viewed as veering too far from the supposedly pure bare-bones Islam favoured by fanatical militants. The twisted logic behind their determined destruction is based upon an arrogant attempt to eradicate any evidence that there was life before Mohammed; but aiming to trash the past so that what remains is a version that fits the rherotic of its revisionists is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the graves of French monarchs were plundered along with other sacred shrines in an act of opportunistic anarchy. And we don’t have to travel much farther than the Home Counties or East Anglia to witness the remnants of such philistinism closer to home.
Stroll into any surviving pre-Reformation English parish church and one will most likely be impressed with the architecture, but perhaps a little disappointed by the rather minimalist decor, something that doesn’t seem to compliment the Gothic majesty of the exterior. It radiates a chilly austerity that speaks of perennial poverty, of missing lead from the roof that is never entirely replaced, and a donation box with a collection of copper gathering dust. Of course, we are not seeing what once greeted the flock upon entering the building; we are seeing a pale shadow of past opulence, an interior stripped bare five-hundred years ago, whitewashed into sobriety lest parishioners be spellbound by the splendour of unnecessary distractions.
Distractions such as elaborate and elegant portraits of Saints and Apostles on the walls, or Christ’s life told in Technicolor stained-glass instalments; and at the centre of it all, the Virgin Mary. It was a dazzling cornucopia of exotic idolatry designed to remind worshippers of their lowly place in the world, and of the supremacy of Rome. Take Walsingham Priory in Norfolk, founded by a Saxon noblewoman after encountering a vision of Our Lady, and going on to become a pivotal pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages, boasting a phial of the Virgin’s milk amongst its relics and a famous wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. English sovereigns made a habit of visiting and lighting a candle, a tradition even Henry VIII upheld before he eventually oversaw the priory’s overnight decline and fall.
Everything changed in 1535-36. Upwards of 10,000 nuns and monks were evicted from abbeys and monasteries throughout the realm, their considerable assets redirected towards the royal coffers whilst the awe-inspiring establishments from which their wealth had generated were laid to waste by an army of state-sponsored gangsters answerable to Cromwell. But it was Edward VI, the boy king whose reign spanned six short years, who finished what his father had started by removing the last remaining Catholic trimmings from Protestant worship, such as the censure of Latin and the imposition of a common prayer-book in English, not to mention erasing all traces of the breath-taking interiors that had illuminated the grimness of life in a country short on manmade beauty. The loss of the latter was the most visible statement of intent, declaring – in tones all-too familiar to modern ears – that idolatrous portrayals of religious figures was a deviation from ‘pure’ Christian worship. The mystical, ceremonial aspects of the church were also dispensed with, the traditional barriers between all-powerful priest and subservient flock shown the door, as though the Catholic service had been a prog-rock stadium gig and the Protestant one was a punk band looking the audience in the eye.
The revered statue of the Virgin Mary that had been a focal point of the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Walsingham was burned and the priory itself left a skeletal ruin; the places of worship that suffered the loss of their art rather than their bricks were the lucky ones. Obstinate worshippers that remained secretly loyal to Catholicism were forced to attend mini-mass conducted in country house priest-holes, despite the knowledge that discovery of their attendance could result in imprisonment and execution. The wholesale facelift of the nation’s faith was complete, and for any of us left with little choice but to wander around the stone pillars of cold, grey Anglican churches on rainy Bank Holiday outings or suffer the boredom of weddings and christenings as children, how welcome a bit of Medieval Catholic Glam would have been.
Some would argue the greatest legacy of the human race is what we leave behind us, and the physical manifestations of civilisation should be immovable objects preserved for the pleasure and education of generations to come. The pre-meditated decimation of any leaves a hole in the story of mankind that can never be filled again. The poignant prediction of O’Brien, Winston Smith’s torturer, when he declares ‘there will be no art, no literature, no science’ could have ‘no history’ added to it, but Smith already knows that from his day-job of altering historical fact at the Ministry of Truth. He has spent his adult life being exposed to propagandist reports of Oceania’s military victories, though the enemy regularly changes and the history books are then rewritten to claim the current enemy has always been the enemy.
The actions of ISIS in Iraq or their blinkered brethren in Mali are merely the most extreme and headline-grabbing examples of a worrying trend to rewrite history that even extends to the relatively trivial. Popular culture has been marked this century by a conscious case of erase/rewind, comprising the removal of records by Gary Glitter, Phil Spector and Jonathan King from vintage playlists and the removal of anything featuring Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall or Rolf Harris from repeat schedules. Their names can only be spoken of in relation to their crimes (or alleged crimes, though that prefix is rarely used beyond online forums), and their careers banished to an archive it’s not too fanciful to imagine a torch-carrying mob laying siege to, the kind that would never make the connection between their aims and those of ISIS.
The dramatic obliteration of antiquities in Iraq or the editing-out of a relevant performer from a 1970s edition of ‘Top of the Pops’ are acts that are in many respects worlds apart, but both share the symptoms of reshaping the past to suit the palette of the present. The older one gets, the more memory plays tricks. By the end of this era of widespread revisionism, the dearth of evidence to support memory should leave a generation incapable of trusting anything their memory tells them anymore.