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Cultural vandalism in the context of terror

Helena Gellert, Ruhr-Universität Bochum  

“Streets are the dwellings of the collective. The collectivity is an eternally awake, eternally moving being that experiences, realises and conceives as much among the walls of houses as individuals do in the shelter of their four walls” (Benjamin 2011, p.856) [trans. by PP]. 

At the beginning of September 2015, satellite images went around the world that were supposed to document, among other things, the destruction of the almost 2000-year-old Baal temple in the Syrian city of Palmyra. In a carefully choreographed campaign of destruction, the terrorist organisation Daesh had carried out blasts at the ancient temple complex to cause targeted damage to the archaeological world heritage site. The world community had feared such destruction since the occupation of the area, as the terrorist organisation had destroyed numerous cultural sites in the past, coupled with media staging. In the eleventh issue of the propaganda magazine Dabiq, Daesh reported the iconoclastic act of violence in an illustrated double-page spread. The visual representations reinforced the global horror of acts. Satellite images from UNOSAT were to confirm the destruction. Some public reactions interpreted the acts of destruction as an expression of a barbaric iconoclasm; an expression of a struggle against civilisation itself (Cesari, 2015, p.22).  

The entry highlights the destruction of cultural heritage as a violent practice used in conflicts to attack identities. According to Pfeifer and Günther (2020, p.154), cultural property destruction has increasingly become a strategy in armed conflicts over the last twenty years. After describing the practice, it will be addressed how visual media usage influences violent acts’ impact. To this end, some representations of the destruction in Palmyra will be examined. The article investigates how collective memory can be formed performatively via architecture and monuments and what identity-forming character it can have. In this manner, the potential violence of the practice of destruction will be elaborated.  

 

In this article, I will not use the term “so-called Islamic State”. Instead, I will employ the acronym Daesh, derived from phonetic Arabic since the terrorist organisation neither represents a state nor can it stand for Islam. 

Cultural heritage 

As stated by Pfeifer and Günther (2020, p.155) the connection between the legitimisation of political order and cultural heritage is considered historically proven. Correspondingly, cultural heritage gains in importance with the rise of the nation-state. Therefore, the evaluation whether a cultural heritage is worthy of protection is highly selective as it depends on the power of states and institutions. The violent practice of destroying cultural heritage is embedded in contested discourses about political and cultural interpretive sovereignties. The knowledge about the value of cultural artefacts is the prerequisite to use the destruction of cultural property as a conflict strategy. International law distinguishes between assessing violence against cultural property regarding whether the acts are collateral damage or intentionally caused damage. Attacking cultural property is often a goal in its own, not infrequently accompanied by war crimes against specific people. The practice of destroying cultural property cannot legally be considered genocide, as the offence of genocide does not cover attacks against objects (Art. 6, IStHG Statute). However, since the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), it has been discussed whether the attack against cultural property can be considered as evidence of the intention to commit genocide. Cesari (2015, p.22) writes about the effects of violence against cultural property in armed conflicts: “Such violence, although incommensurable with the violence perpetrated against people – the Syrian and Iraqi victims of the war – still play a key symbolic role within IS’s visual and moral economy and its visual communication, and has, as such, very material effects on the people themselves”. Von Schorlemer (2016, p.6) also considers the attack on the buildings as an attack on persons: “Precisely because the saving of human lives is the main goal of international humanitarian law, however, it should not be misunderstood that the crimes targeting religious sites and historical monuments, while affecting objects, ultimately target people, coupled with death and displacement, degradation and abuse” [trans. by PP].  According to the author, the protection of individuals is inevitably linked to cultural heritage and diversity protection. The acts of violence such as those that took place in Palmyra would aim to erase cultural diversity. 

The act of destruction  

“At the entrance of the 2000-year-old Temple of Baal, the jihadists wrote in black paint: ‘Islamic State. No entry for civilians and brothers (fighters).'” (2020, Welt) [trans. by PP].  

Months after occupying Palmyra, the Daesh terrorist organisation first blew up the smaller and architecturally less significant Baal Shamin Temple. On 30 August 2015, the terrorist organisation used explosive devices to destroy parts of the largest sacred building in the ruins-city, the Temple of Baal. The Temple of Baal, which was consecrated in 32 AD, was an important part of Palmyra’s cultural landscape. The attacks on the ruins-city of Palmyra received a great deal of global interest, as the affected structures are ruins from the early history of the so-called Fertile Crescent, i.e. a region of origin of the Neolithic Revolution. As claimed by the archaeologist Schmidt-Colinet (2016, p.47), the Baal temple’s special feature was its historical use and architecture of construction. Both was procreated by the peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions thousands of years ago. Aruz (2020, getty.edu) also saw the Temple of Baal as a reflection of the long tradition of cultural interconnection in Palmyra. According to Schmidt-Colinet (ibid., p.48), the architecture in combination with the building ornamentation was unique because of the mixture of Greek and Hellenistic architectural styles with native-Oriental architectural styles: “That is to say, from the outside, the building could be perceived as a sacred space simultaneously by adherents of different cult traditions: on the one hand, by those who stood in native-Oriental cult tradition, on the other hand, by those who were used to Greco-Roman cult forms” [trans. by PP]. For several centuries, the temple was dedicated to the supreme Palmyrian god Bel, later as a Byzantine church with Christian murals and then, until 1929, as a mosque. Only recently, the temple was no longer actively used as a place of worship but could be visited by tourists as part of the entire ruins complex in Palmyra.  

Demolition as a practice 

As reported by the terrorist organisations, the Baal Temple was destroyed with explosive devices. The blasting process is a common demolition method. For the practice of cultural heritage destruction, the question of how something is destroyed is quite interesting. It can be assumed that different types of destruction can develop different effects. Compared to the dismantling or removal of stones, buildings’ blasting is a powerful procedure with a high public impact. The resulting images have great recognition value. The explosive cloud of dust that forms after the blast as the building falls into each other has iconic visual value. The visualisations of this have become part of a collective body of knowledge. Thus, the choice of the destruction method is part of the practice, depending on how publicly effective the practice is to be carried out. The necessary knowledge about the practice of demolition can be found in the civilian context (civilian demolition procedures) and the military context. Military textbooks provide detailed information on which explosive measures are necessary for which wall thicknesses and materials. For example, as early as 1911, the Handbuch der militärischen Sprengtechnik für Offiziere aller Waffen by Zschokke (1911, p.301) provides knowledge on how to blast masonry depending on the time available, workforce and thickness of the masonry. Formulas and tables provide a simplified overview to prepare the necessary blasting charges on site. The fact that blasting is a historically evolved and ritualised violent practice can also be seen in artefacts such as blasting devices. In Germany, for example, until the 1960s, devices for demolition charges were left out on militarily relevant bridges and motorways to carry out demolitions quickly in the event of war. In Germany’s construction of Jewish cultural sites, blast-proof entrance areas are still part of today’s planning.  

Pfeifer and Günther (2020, p.155) work out motives for the destruction of cultural property. According to them, symbolic motives are central. The destruction of cultural goods is directed against social orders and attacks cultural identities. Through the intentional destruction of cultural property, it is classified as something foreign and the actor thereby creates a self. This means that the act of destruction also creates something new. Here, the constitutive character of the practice of violence becomes noticeable. The practice of violence can also have strategic-tactical reasons, such as the destruction of old rulers’ symbols. The destruction of important buildings demonstrates power by capturing cultural symbols. Cultural destruction can generate effects such as fear by attacking targets that are actually low-risk – such as architectures with symbolic power. In this way, one’s own strength is demonstrated to both local and global audiences and attempts are made to create moments of powerlessness and provocation. Last but not least, monetary interests play a central role. Looting was part of a central financing strategy of Daesh. As stated by Cesari (2015, p.22), this contradicts the ideology to destroy all idol-like artefacts, which is why Daesh has tried to keep the looting inconspicuous in the media: “Yet, both IS and mainstream Western media have directed their attention to the intentional acts of destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities. I call these ‘spectacles’ because mediation and re-mediation, or the ‘production of the show’ (Harmanşah, 2015), are key to how these acts are produced and circulated, their images propelled by social media and global outrage, and to how they produce effects too” (ibid., p.23).  

The iconoclastic act of destruction in Palmyra has several dimensions. On the one hand, the three-dimensional building was destroyed on-site, and the act has a concrete impact on the local population. On the other hand, the act of destruction was subsequently propagated with the help of two-dimensional images. Bleiker (2020, p.VI) points out the difference between two-dimensional images and three-dimensional visualisations. Bleiker conceptualises representational things as three-dimensional images. While two-dimensional images can spread globally in the digital age almost in real time, three-dimensional visualisations, like temples, are limited to their location. Nevertheless, according to Bleiker, there is a link between two- and three-dimensional images. Often, originally three-dimensional images are only indirectly known through two-dimensional visualisations. These two-dimensional visualisations performatively create a certain view of (historical) events. The production and reception of the images can no longer be separated from the act of violence itself. Therefore, the representation of the practice in the media is evaluated as part of cultural property destruction. Visualisations are a political phenomenon in themselves. Often, in the context of terror, these visualisations aim to create a large visual effect and a threat scenario (ibid., p.VII).  

Collective memory in public space and architecture  

In La mémoire collective, the sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs (1950, p.146) describes the spatiality of collective memory and the interaction between both: “Ainsi, il n’est point de mémoire collective qui ne se déroule dans un cadre spatial”. Halbwachs describes the social dimensions of memory in his collective memory concept and sees memory as a cultural phenomenon. Also, as claimed by Schäfers (2003, p.32), spatial fixations are the condition for social interactions and specific places form the basis of collective identity. Thus, the author states: “But from the point of view of sociology, there is no such thing as “space itself”. Space is always socially “constructed”, provided with specific meanings, forms of appropriation and ownership, significations and functions” (ibid., p.32) [trans. by PP]. Apaydin (2020, p.85) explores the role of public space as a heritage in which values are set, the meaning is assigned and memories are developed, writing, “Public spaces have great significance for individuals and groups. With their meanings, representations and symbols, they are the key tool for establishing heritage, constructing identity and developing memories.” Public spaces are central to the creation of cultural heritage and, as stated by Apaydin, also to the development of memory. Monuments, for example, are a symbolically significant way of commemorating historical events. As a key instrument for identity construction (ibid., p.88) [trans. by PP], cultural heritage is embedded in a long, intergenerational social production process that also includes forms of destruction and loss. Political elites often intervene in this construction process to generate an ‘official, national heritage’. Representations and symbolised knowledge that are diametrically opposed to their own ideology are then attempted to be erased from the public space and replaced by their own representations. 

When examining the practice of cultural vandalism, both the significance of public space and the question of the effect of architecture on collectives are central. The sociologist of architecture Fischer (2017, p.61) determines architectures as building structure boundaries and sees them as a connection of useful functions and symbolic expressions. Architectures are always socially contested and regulated in the appearing building structure boundaries. Humans are dependent on the functions of architecture even apart from life-serving properties: “Even if human beings  for whatever reason  were no longer dependent on the utilitarian functions of building structures at all, they would still be dependent on structural embodiments, on building structure boundaries, to find the relationship to themselves and each other, to reveal it and to live in such an architecture of society” (ibid., p.63) [trans. by PP] 

Neubert (2020, p.5) also recognises an ordering moment in the built environment. In this located order, subjects insert themselves and at the same time bring it forth. As claimed by Neubert, architecture is not conceivable as a pre-materiality. Rather, it materialises according to the relevance and target structure of the practice in which the built object is dealt with: “The concretisation of the respective architectural condition of practice thus undertaken clarifies that individual sensations and perceptions of disturbances or amenities of the built object are precisely not based on taste, but develop and solidify along with social orders of practices and their teleoaffective structure” (ibid., p.17) [trans. by PP]. As stated by Neubert, dealing with the architectural environment is thus bound to collective values and orders and cannot be interpreted subjectively. 

It is the peculiarity of architecture as a medium of communication that enables the subject to experience the inside and the outside and greatly influences the subjects’ bodily experience. Fischer (2017, p.61) analyses architecture as a heavy, fixed medium of communication in a society that has a community-creating function. To work out the socially constitutive character of architecture, it is therefore necessary to examine heterogeneous axes of differentiation shaped and made perceptible through architecture. According to Fischer, different architectures, building types and building styles offer communication opportunities that only invite certain ways of life and block others. They contain symbols of an order that can be rejected or accepted. The acting subjects act in and with them and identify with them. Thus, architecture as a manifestation of building structures in a city endows, among other things, cultural or ethnic differences (ibid., p.63). This is relevant concerning the destruction of architectural, cultural goods. Correspondingly, architecture is also a medium of communication about cultural differences. These are expressed, among other things, through the deconstruction and reconstruction of relevant squares or archaeologically important buildings such as the Baal Temple. 

Fischer (ibid., p.66) attaches great relevance to sacred buildings’ ordering character along generational differences. Sacred buildings commemorate ancestors and include the dead in the present. According to Fischer, this ensures that they remain in the future. As stated by Ißler (2017, p.909), a person’s identity is based on both, an individual and collective level, primarily on memories. However, since these memories lose stability over time for biological reasons, it requires belonging to a collective that manifests these memories in collective memory by updating them in actions and objects: “As a supra-temporal and supra-individual phenomenon that is not directly bound to a person, it arises from a communal obligation and preserves for the collective symbolic stocks of knowledge and relevant data, information and practices from imminent demise” (ibid., p.910) [trans. by PP]. As stated by Hintermann (2020, p.7), memory and places are socially produced phenomena and form a basis for the development of identities to include and exclude histories. These processes of development and power become visible in landscapes of memory and thus find their way into collective memory. Sacred buildings, such as the Temple of Baal, have a socially structuring function that consists of remembering past generations and retelling certain stories. In this function, they help to constitute collective memory. Correspondingly, the violent nature of the destruction of such sacred buildings lies in the destruction of generational differences, i.e., in the erasure of memories of past generations and the exclusion of narratives.  

Before its destruction, the ruins were an archaeological, cultural good than an actively used sacred building. Hintermann (2020, p.6), however, attributes a similar memory function to monuments. Accordingly, monuments are places to which the memory function is consciously assigned. In this way, they become part of collective memory. Architecture can act as an agent concerning a collective memory’s performative character; simultaneously, it can be deformed by practical handling. The destruction of architecture inevitably means a change in collective memory and a change in the order-giving content of the built environment. Delitz (2010, p.3) writes in this regard that every society is a profoundly architecturally mediated society, each of which cannot be separated from its built environment. As claimed by Delitz, architecture also has a constitutive effect in that architecture represents spaces of possibility for processes of subjectivation. With and through architecture, it is negotiated which form of society is associated with which forms of subject. Through the practices of destruction, the terrorist organisation tries to eliminate the possibility of opposing its ideology with a publicity effect. Thus, an attempt is made to destroy the existing architectural form of memory in a strategic spectacle. Simultaneously, the remains of the destroyed architecture remind us of another history, that of the struggle for Daesh’s cultural interpretive sovereignty. The global attention gained through iconoclastic images mobilises further supporters. 

The representation of the violent act in the media 

Terror needs media visibility to have a corresponding effect (Bernhardt 2016, p.150). According to Linder (2011, p.100), terror organisations try to depict complex problems in a memorable spectacle to generate as many spectators as possible. Shock images that generate media attention are supposed to thematise the conflict. As stated by the authors, these shock images aim to expose traditional powers as vulnerable and impotent but also to generate effects such as fear and feelings of powerlessness. Smith et al. (2016, p.180) argue that visual targets such as cultural objects have become more important for terrorism because they can reach a global audience through their visuality. If cultural objects were previously destroyed primarily to subdue a local audience, terrorist organisations would use social media’s interconnectedness to reach, manipulate, and persuade a global audience. Thus, the reactions of an international audience would be used to subjugate the local audience: “This profound break from the past that can be seen in terrorist actions that are directed simultaneously towards several audiences – local, regional and international – with reactions from one audience used to subjugate, embolden or intrigue another audience” (ibid., p.182). The terrorist organisation took advantage of the international outrage over the destruction. It was propagated that the world community cared more about the world heritage than the local population. The preservation of world heritage would be prioritised over the protection of human lives. The terrorist organisation used both, the practice of destroying cultural heritage and the subsequent international response to demoralise the local public and take away their hope for support. Pfeifer and Günther (2020, p.153) argue that a global understanding of advanced culture, which is regarded as worthy of protection, would create a hierarchy over artefacts that are less worthy of protection, despite having a local importance. Daesh would adopt this normative judgement in its visualisation strategy of showing or not showing. Daesh has published many very high-quality videos of destruction acts of locally highly relevant cultural property. In the case of the destruction around the Baal temple, communication was less detailed and quite subliminal. Based on the material from Daesh, statements about the actual degree of destruction could not be made comprehensively. According to Pfeifer and Günther, the terrorist organisation wanted to generate more attention through sparse information. Due to the spectacular target of the attack, Daesh could be sure that the world community would obtain statements about the extent of the destruction itself via satellite images. The non-disclosure also generated a media expectation that already anticipated the destruction without having been occurred. Thus, a space was created in advance in which fear, apprehension, powerlessness and other effects could be manufactured. 

On 09 September 2015, a spread in the Dabiq propaganda magazine’s eleventh issue propagated the destruction of the Baal Shamin Temple and the Baal Temple. Six small picture sequences and one large photograph of the undestroyed building are shown on each page. In advance, Daesh had already spread several messages about the acts of destruction, such as the Baal Shamin Temple’s mining in June or the destruction of other parts of the ruines complex. The double pages in the glossy magazine Dabiq cannot further conclude the actual practice of violence that took place on site but can be interpreted as a staged representation of the practice.  

On the first page, the destruction of the Baalshamin temple is propagated. “A Photo Report” and “DESTROYING THE SHIRK TEMPLE OF BAALSHAMIN” are the only textual stylistic devices on the page. The first three photos show militarily dressed people using blue barrels. The barrels are carried inside the temple of Baalshamin, cables are installed, barrels are positioned on the outside of the temple with the help of a ladder. The image of the barrels should imply that they contain explosives. The faces are not shown, they are either turned away from the image producer or not part of the photograph. The focus is on the collectives activity. Fischer’s characteristic of architecture as a heavy, fixed medium of communication that communicates with subjects via an inside and outside becomes noticeable here; the bodies depicted and the image producer interact with the inside and outside. The photographs speak a clear and legible visual language. The larger photo positioned in the centre of the page shows the Baal Shamin temple with four barrels positioned outside of each entrance pillars. The images of the undamaged temples take up most of the space on both pages. Thus, the threat of destruction is visually captured, detached from the local space and addressed to a global audience. The threat, as well as the expectation of destruction, are consequently renewed. Thus, the terrorist organisation finds a visualisation of its own strength in the face of actual inferiority, which includes the powerlessness of the global community to protect the world’s cultural heritage. The three final photos visualise the moment of the demolition. The first shows a dark cloud of dust rising into the sky, which should visualise the explosion. The second photo shows a lighter dust cloud that seems to dissolve slowly. The third picture shows stones lying on the ground and the remains of an archway. The photographs show a chronological sequence of events, in which it gets not clear that they actually took place at different time points. The Baalshamin temple’s mining had already taken place in June 2015, and the demolition was carried out in August. 

The second page represents the Baal temple’s destruction in a similar scheme, but the visualisation remains more ambiguous than the previous one. The caption “DESTROYING THE SHIRK TEMPLE OF BEL” announces the visualised action. A large image of the Temple of Baal’s interior before its destruction is shown at the beginning. Next to the Temple of Baal’s image is a photograph with nine people depicted in civilian clothes carrying barrels with a stretcher. However, there can be hardly identified any faces. Compared to the previous page, the barrels are larger and according to the photograph’s illustrations cannot be lifted with mere physical strength. Another picture shows five barrels positioned at a staircase. Conclusions about the location of the positioning in the temple cannot be drawn from the photographs. The three pictures below are almost identical to the previous page in terms of motives and sequence and are intended to show the blast’s moment and the ruins afterward. The extent of the Destruction remains unclear. That page’s structure is not as clearly formulated as the previous page on the Baal Shamin temple. The images’ sequence does not clearly stage the events at the archaeologically more relevant Baal temple. 

An independent, performative pictorial act becomes clear in the photographs. Bernhardt (2016, p.155), referring to Bredekamp’s image theory, interprets the iconoclastic act of destruction as a conceived, performative image act. Correspondingly, the destruction in Palmyra was also committed because of the subsequent use of images. Thus, the visualisations and the reception of the images are inseparably linked to the act of violence. The performative act of visualisation affects longer as the duration of the destruction. Besides, the two-dimensional visualisations of the three-dimensional buildings affect the local situation and reach a larger audience. The way they are designed is intended to give the impression that one is experiencing destruction in real time. This leads to the eyewitness effect formulated by Bernhardt (ibid., p.151), which – triggered by sensory immediacy – leads to images being believed more readily.  

The title “DESTROYING THE SHIRK TEMPLE OF (…)” is meant to offer the image observer the motive of the iconoclastic act of destruction. In Islam, the term Shirk stands for polytheism. The terrorist organisation thus legitimises the iconoclastic action since the historically diverse use of the temple complex does not correspond to the monotheistic ideology of Daesh. However, Pfeifer and Günther (2020, p.170) argue that the dogmatic goal of destroying polytheism in Palmyra was not the only intention. The authors also see the destruction of Palmyra as the pursuit of pragmatic goals, such as generating as much media interest as possible. The terrorist group only destroyed the city step by step and partially and left the actual extent of the destruction unsaid. The 

authors recognise a pragmatic conflict strategy in this practice of non-disclosure and perseverance. The terrorist organisation had socialised the audience through previous acts of destruction, thus when Daesh arrived in Palmyra, destruction was expected in advance. This was followed by the gradual destruction of the ruined complex. By depositing explosives in the temples for weeks without carrying out the demolition, an expectation was generated in which space was left for fearful fantasies about the possible extent of the destruction. Reducing the iconoclastic act of destruction to a practice with a purely dogmatic theological background would be mistaken. The specific use of materials and the omission of information are strategically embedded in global political discourse. Pfeifer and Günther (ibid. p.170) also note the intention of Daesh to use the indignant outcry of the world community at the staged destruction of the world’s cultural heritage as evidence of its contradictory attitude: Considering the suffering of the local population, as well as the innumerable damages to locally highly relevant cultural property, the internationally outraged reaction to the destruction of the world heritage must be taken as cynical, if not also hurtful. 

World Heritage 

The Temple of Baal and other buildings in the ruins-city were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1980. According to Flood (2002, p.122), this status paradoxically increases the buildings’ threat, as it generates greater attention and a higher economic and symbolic value for the cultural goods. The label of world cultural heritage would create a powerful and visible target.  

It can be said with certainty that the violent practice of destroying cultural goods can have a hurtful effect concerning the constitution of identity. The prevention of possibilities and the destruction of a collective memory led to problems of identity formation. Nevertheless, regarding the Temple of Baal’s concrete case in Palmyra, it is difficult to say what constitutive character the archaeological site had for the local population. The archaeologist Schmidt-Colinet (2016, p.47) spent many years researching the excavation actively in Palmyra with Khālid al-Asaad, the director of the Department of Antiquities, who Daesh murdered on 18 August 2015. He sees his own identity attacked in the destruction in Palmyra: “It becomes clear that there is not some war going on somewhere in the world – that would be bad enough – but that parts of our ‘occidental’ identity are affected here, that our own historical memory is being erased” [trans. by PP]. 

As stated by Cesari (2015, p.22), readings of the iconoclastic acts of violence, which are limited to the barbaric, anti-civilisational character of Daesh get oversimplified. The author sees also in this context the need to illuminate the interconnections between archaeology in the Middle East and the West’s colonial history. She writes: “However, IS attacks have indeed taken the heaviest toll on undocumented Islamic heritage – militants having destroyed not only churches but also many Shia, Yazidi, Sufi, and even Sunni shrines – but this heritage loss has received much less media attention” (ibid., p.23). There has been a systematic eradication of Islamic sites by Daesh, which is probably, in this dimension, one of the largest in modern history. However, the attacks on the archaeological cultural goods in Iraq and Syria have received much more attention: “For archaeologists and many others, these represent attacks against the precious vestiges of the ‘cradle of civilization’ (see e.g. Turek 2015) because IS has targeted significant sites in the prehistory and early history of the so-called Fertile Crescent that nurtured not only the beginning of agriculture but also writing, urbanism and complex societies” (ibid., p.23). The history of Middle Eastern heritage is firmly linked to the history of colonialism and nationalism. From the 19th century onwards, archaeology in the Levant was dominated by Euro-American archaeologists. Colonialism was geared towards preserving and protecting cultural heritage for populations that were assumed to need guidance on evaluating and preserving. According to Cesari (ibid. p.25), Western archaeologists have continued to dominate excavations in the Levant, with a strong focus on the ancient and pre-Islamic periods. Archaeological layers relating to the Islamic period have been overlooked. Cesari (ibid., p.23), who herself worked on the Syrian heritage in the late 1990s, reports of partly strict hierarchical working conditions between the local workers and the archaeologists from the global North: “For many villagers, then, the archaeological ruins represented an ambiguous site – both a source of living and pride and a site where their subjugation was enacted daily”. 

Outlook 

The case of the destruction in Palmyra outlined above impressively shows how the practice of destroying cultural property can serve as a conflict strategy. It becomes noticeable, how complex political and social significance of archaeological cultural goods’, especially in conflicts, can be. Targets of attack with very high visual expressiveness unfold their enormous impact on the media discussion. The culture of protecting and preserving can promote high-profile destruction. 

 

Reactions to destruction can be manifold. In Palmyra, the call for the reconstruction of internationally relevant cultural heritage rang out extremely quickly. The practice of reconstruction is closely linked to the practice of destruction of cultural property. In the example of the Baal Temple mentioned above, various planning reconstruction approaches are already being pursued from different countries at present. It is not possible to detail the practice of reconstruction, but it is clear in Palmyra that power relations are once again being negotiated over the interpretive sovereignty of space. The civil war in Syria is still considered an ongoing conflict with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Hilgert (2015, p.191) describes it as morally questionable to already start reconstruction plans of the monuments while the war in Syria claims many human victims: “Palmyra also stands as a cautionary example of how easy it is to misuse archaeological cultural heritage for political and propagandistic purposes, and how difficult it is in comparison to develop a problem-oriented plan of action with a sense of proportion and medium-term implementation perspectives, which above all takes into the interests of the people in Syria and their rich cultural heritage” [trans. by PP]. As stated by Apeydin (2020, p.91), the destruction and transformation of heritage can also lead to new spaces of possibility. He describes the processuality of cultural heritage, which includes destruction and loss as well as construction. The material culture of the past cannot be permanently protected. The focus should be on the production of new heritage. 

The practice of destroying cultural goods can take place in very different ways. However, whether it happens openly as a conflict strategy or silently, it is always accompanied by certain cultural exclusion processes. In the present case, it cannot be spoken of the exclusion of culture. Rather, the aim is to destroy culture on site and create a culture-free ground to spread one’s own ideology subsequently. Thus, the violent potential that emanates from it becomes obvious.

Helena Gellert studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (September 2020)

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