By Ian Morris
Three months ago the Islamic State overran Palmyra, a great archaeological site buried in the heart of Syria. Within days of their arrival, the insurgents began blowing up ancient monuments and executing locals in the town's Roman-era theater. Among those arrested was 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, who had retired in 2003 after serving 40 years as the director of Palmyra's antiquities. For several weeks Islamic State militants tortured him, apparently in the ludicrous belief that great piles of gold had been hidden around the city and that al-Asaad could reveal the treasure's location. When he couldn't, al-Asaad's captors dragged him to a public square on Aug. 18, cut his head off, and hung his corpse by its wrists from a stoplight. They left his head — his glasses still on his nose — between his feet. His offense: In his capacity as a "director of idolatry," the Islamists said, he had attended "infidel conferences" and visited "Heretic Iran."
Being an archaeologist myself, perhaps I am oversensitive, but of all the despicable things the Islamic State has done, the rape of Palmyra seems one of the worst. And yet, despite my own vested interest in keeping archaeologists alive, even I have to recognize that there is method in the Islamic State's madness. Waging war on archaeology is merely a tactic in the Islamic State's struggle for soft power, and its fighters are deploying it cruelly and cleverly to strengthen their position and undermine that of their enemies.
It is far from obvious how to counter these tactics, but the first step must be to understand what exactly the Islamic State hopes to achieve with its barbaric behavior.
The Evolution of Soft Power
In some ways, there is nothing new about the Islamic State's actions. Conquerors have always understood the symbolism of venting their rage against the relics of their defeated foes' past, either by destroying them or carrying them off as trophies. In Iraq, we can trace the practice back for thousands of years. In fact, one of the most famous Near Eastern antiquities, a bronze head that likely represents Sargon of Akkad (credited with creating Mesopotamia's first real empire around 2300 B.C.), illustrates both tactics. After being venerated for nearly two millennia, Assyrian conquerors carried the head off to their capital in Nineveh, but when the Medes and Babylonians sacked the city in 612 B.C., they gouged out the bronze Sargon's eyes, cut off its ears and flattened its nose.
This kind of behavior remained normal throughout most of history. But when the British conquered Iraq in 1917 and again in 1941, and when the Americans repeated the feat in 2003, they did not indulge in state-sponsored looting or the bulldozing of ziggurats and mosques. U.S. forces did topple Saddam's tasteless statues of himself, but leaders also — albeit after a slow start — provided troops with flashcards that explained how to avoid damaging archaeological sites. (I possess a set of these myself.)
Britain and the United States behaved so differently from the Medes and Babylonians because, within the past 250 years, new ways of dealing with enemies' antiquities have largely replaced the old. The new tactics began in 18th-century Europe, when kings discovered that they could gain more soft power by presenting themselves as enlightened monarchs than they could by acting like Attila the Hun. A ruler whose scholars could classify and explain his enemy's culture was admirable and legitimate; one whose soldiers could merely destroy it was not. Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt marked a turning point: Although he carried off countless treasures to the Louvre, his scientists also wrote an academically impeccable 12-volume Déscription de l’Egypte and destroyed almost nothing.
One of the most extraordinary elements of 19th-century European imperialism was its global scramble for culture as scholars raced to master, rather than destroy, other societies' pasts. The competitions to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics (won by France) and Mesopotamian cuneiform (won by Britain) were probably just as important in legitimizing empires as the creation of "universal museums," stocked with representative samples of humanity's highest cultural achievements from every corner of the globe. (Britain probably won here too, but it was a closer call.)
Cultural imperialism continued to mutate well into the 20th century. If, as the British and Americans in particular liked to claim, the point of an empire was to teach colonized peoples to govern themselves, there was a strong case to be made that the pupils should be allowed to control their own pasts. Colonial administrators often found this a particularly difficult pill to swallow; despite the creation of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, for example, the organization included very few Indian archaeologists until 1944, just three years before the end of the Raj. Still, in the aftermath of decolonization, most countries made cultural heritage an issue of national pride and largely banned the export of antiquities.
In 1970, UNESCO made it illegal to buy or sell artifacts unless there was proof that they had been in the hands of private collectors before the convention was passed. Britain found that the greatest of all its cultural conquests — the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Athenian Parthenon and installed in the British Museum in 1816 — was steadily shifting from a source of pride to an international embarrassment. In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, put strict limits on anthropologists' ability to study or display in museums finds from indigenous cemeteries on federal or tribal lands, let alone destroy or sell them.
Now, in the 21st century, nearly every state in the world has embraced some version of the post-Enlightenment view that considers ancient artifacts to be a priceless cultural heritage. Because valuing other cultures' heritages is part of being modern, liberal and legitimate, governments that fail to protect the relics of their defeated enemies pay a huge price in soft power.
An Illiberal Group in a Liberal Time
But the Islamic State is not interested in being modern or liberal, and it thinks about legitimacy in entirely different terms. Its self-proclaimed goal is to be archaic and illiberal, which means that although its wanton destruction of antiquities and its murder of archaeologists is backward and brutal, it is also rational and effective.
The Islamic State is not alone in understanding this logic. In 1997, an unidentified Islamist group (probably al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya) attacked Hatshepsut's Temple at Luxor in Egypt, killing 62 visitors. In 2001, the Afghan Taliban demolished the magnificent Bamyan statues of Buddha from the fifth century A.D. In 2006 and 2007, al Qaeda operatives in Iraq destroyed the Shiite al-Askari Shrine in Samarra. Examples could be piled up, and not all of them committed by Islamists. Mao's Red Guards destroyed countless temples to Confucius during the Cultural Revolution's campaign against "The Four Olds" in the 1960s, and a Hindu mob razed the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya, India, in 1992.
In different ways, each of these groups sought to set itself apart from the liberal international order. What makes the Islamic State stand out is not the viciousness of the game it is playing, but the skill with which it plays, maximizing the payoffs of cultural vandalism while minimizing its costs.
The first payoff comes from the appeal of the Islamic State's actions to those who share its fantasy of recreating the rashidun ("righteous") caliphate of the 7th century. Early Islamic thinkers sometimes condemned the age before Mohammed's birth around A.D. 570 as Jahiliyyah, an "age of ignorance," and leading Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb revived the term in his 1964 book Milestones. There he argued that everything jahili is "evil and corrupt," and throughout the past 50 years, Sunni extremists have regularly linked the imposition of Sharia with the destruction of jahili relics.
This represents a radical departure from mainstream Islamic traditions, both Sunni and Shiite. Between the eighth and 10th centuries, Arab scholars studied Greek philosophy more closely than the Europeans, and in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was perfectly happy to trade Greek and Babylonian artifacts for Western goodwill or cash. The Islamic State itself generates revenue by taxing antiquities looted from the territories it controls, but where it differs from earlier Islamic regimes is in recognizing that the propaganda value of destroying such treasured resources is sometimes much greater than any possible financial gain.
The second big payoff of blowing up temples and killing archaeologists is the extreme contrast these actions create between the Islamic State and the secularist dictators who have ruled most of the Muslim world since the 1950s. Eager to be seen as modern and legitimate, many of these rulers embraced archaeology and their countries' pre-Islamic heritage. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, was perhaps the extreme case, staging a hugely expensive 2,500th birthday celebration for the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 1971. (The Guinness Book of Records lists the banquet, catered by Maxim's de Paris, as the most lavish official reception of all time.) But several Arab strongmen have given the shah a run for his money. Saddam Hussein spent a fortune restoring a 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur, and Arab cultural ministries often made it easy for Western archaeologists to do fieldwork. I speak from experience here: In 1990, Syrian authorities granted me permission to excavate near Aleppo at my first request, though the project fell through once Saddam invaded Kuwait.
There is, of course, a possible downside to destroying antiquities: It could unite the Islamic State's enemies against it. Salem Zahran, a Lebanese analyst with ties to the Syrian government, recently told Reuters that the al Assad administration expects the events in Palmyra to lead to greater cooperation between Damascus and Washington against the Islamic State. So far, though, there has been no sign that these predictions have come true, most likely because it would be so easy for the Islamic State to turn such Western hypocrisy into a propaganda coup. In the 1930s, Stalin had considerable success persuading Europeans that liberal democracy was untrustworthy and that communism was the only real alternative for opponents of fascism. Today, the surest way for the United States to validate claims that Islamism is the only option for opponents of the Muslim world's reactionary monarchs and military dictators would be for Washington to start working with Bashar al Assad.
The cleverness of the Islamic State's behavior at Palmyra, Nineveh and other sites lies in the fact that the West's response, whatever it may be, will likely rebound to the Islamic State's advantage. The worst possible response would be to answer destruction with destruction: Firing cruise missiles at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, or at the Kaaba in Mecca, would so obviously be a soft-power catastrophe that no Western policymakers would even consider such an option. So far, the favored response has been a high-minded denunciation of Islamist barbarism, but even this tactic has strict limits. If Westerners can be made to seem as though they care more about Palmyra's ruined Roman temples than they do about dead babies in Gaza, the Islamic State will once again succeed in looking more righteous than its enemies. What Westerners call crimes against world heritage, Islamists call legitimate blows to immoral, godless tyranny.
There is a third option. The West could follow the classic liberal strategy of meeting bigotry with tolerance, and encouraging even more cultural exchanges and museum exhibitions displaying the splendors of Muslim civilization. This may be the least bad choice available, though it, too, plays directly into Islamist narratives that stress the West's moral paralysis and military impotence.
This story seems to point toward three possible conclusions, all of them unpleasant. First, attacks against archaeologists and ancient sites are a subtle and powerful tactic in the struggle for soft power in the Middle East. Second, the West has yet to devise an adequate response to this tactic. And third, until it does, we can expect to see more archaeologists murdered and more of the world's cultural heritage destroyed.