The Isis destroyers of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud would have loved William “Basher” Dowsing. From the winter of 1643 through to the following summer, authorised by an ordinance of England’s Long Parliament to remove “all monuments of superstition and idolatry”, Dowsing, a Puritan officer who was provost-marshal of the armies of the Eastern Association during the first civil war, made it his personal mission to obliterate as much as he possibly could of sacred art in the churches and colleges of East Anglia.

He was so proud of this godly work that he kept a detailed journal scrupulously recording the achievements of his demolition squad. At Pembroke Hall, Cambridge university, in December 1643, “we broake and pulled down eighty superstitious pictures”, he wrote; at the village of Clare in Suffolk, a thousand paintings were destroyed along with wooden figures of the 12 Apostles on the roof. You stood up to Basher at your peril. At Swaffham Bulbeck, a village in Cambridgeshire, John Grange, who was reported to have got drunk and laughed at the “round heads”, had his house burnt down the next morning for his temerity. Angels in any form — paint, plaster or wood — had Dowsing foaming at the mouth and calling for the mallets.

The assault on “idolatrous” images in England had begun in earnest a century earlier with the Protestant Reformation. One thing you didn’t see in Wolf Hall were the sledgehammer gangs unleashed by Thomas Cromwell during the dissolution of the monasteries. In this first phase, the wreckers’ targets were works said to promote foolish devotion to spurious miracles. But, from 1547, during the reign of the boy-king, Edward VI, a much more aggressive onslaught was launched on all images equated with “idolatry”. It has been estimated that by the time this state iconoclasm ended, with Edward’s death in 1553, England had lost as much as 90 per cent of its Christian art.

Those who believe images are an offence against God all argue in much the same way as those Puritan iconoclasts. Jewish purists through the centuries take the second commandment’s order against “graven images” to mean an absolute prohibition on pictures in synagogues and prayer books (other than the Passover Haggadah) rather than a ban on the sculptures that were objects of pagan worship. Jews and Muslims shared the objection to giving human likeness to a single faceless, formless, supreme deity and (along with some Christians) believe that making images of the world was a presumptuous trespass on the divine monopoly of creation.

But the image-haters never got their way in any of the three great monotheisms: in the first five centuries of their existence, the floors of Jewish synagogues were carpeted with mosaics, including likenesses of figures from the Bible, glowing images that only disappeared at the same time as the coming of Islam; the dogma that Islam itself forbids images of the Prophet is belied by his appearance in countless Muslim books, albeit with his face often veiled or disguised by a flame; and not all Protestants believed images were a desecration of the purity of the Gospel word. Luther was relaxed, even enthusiastic, about their power to stir piety.

In the face of the Basher Dowsings, then, it was still possible to resist wholesale mutilation and destruction. When the Parliamentary governor took York in the summer of 1644 he gave specific orders against defacing any church monuments, a sensibility that preserved many of the surviving glories at York Minster. More modern political obliterators, determined to wipe their cultures clean of any competing sites of devotion, have often met their match from conservators within their own camp. For example, to prevent French revolutionary mobs from ripping out and smashing up the royal tombs at St Denis and anything else associated with the centuries of the old regime, the 18th-century French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir made pre-emptive swoops on the medieval objects, storing them in the abandoned monastery of the Petits-Augustins, which he renamed the Museum of French Monuments.

Images taken from a video showing Isis militants destroying artefacts last month in Mosul, Iraq
Images taken from a video showing Isis militants destroying artefacts last month in Mosul, Iraq © AP

The obliterators — whether at Nimrud or Bamiyan, where the Taliban destroyed ancient colossal Buddhas in 2001 — all act from the same instinct of cultural panic that the supreme works of the past will lead people astray from blind, absolute obedience. Neither beauty nor history have the least interest for them because they live in and force others to inhabit a universe of timeless subjection. The mere notion that the achievements of humanity might rise to the level of sublimity is itself a sacrilegious affront. In a way this is a backhanded compliment to the power of images. And yet when this puerile and fearful instinct leads to irreversible acts of annihilation, it is not only their own immediate culture that is the victim but the entirety of humanity, which loses a piece of its memory as surely as if a slice of our collective brain had been removed by a mad lobotomist.

But the wringing of hands over this loss to humanity will have no effect on those for whom it is as nothing compared with the claims of divinity. It is understandable that, when asked on BBC Radio 4 if he would countenance military intervention to save Nimrud, the Assyriologist John E Curtis answered in the affirmative. But a Unesco strike squad belongs, alas, to comic book dreams. Even before its planes could be fuelled, the bulldozer boys will be congratulating themselves on having reduced masterpieces to rubble and dust.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. He will be in conversation with the editor of FT Weekend Caroline Daniel at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday March 21


This month, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, bulldozed and looted the ancient Tigris river sites at Nimrud and Hatra, Iraqi government officials have confirmed. This followed the release last month of Isis video footage of its supporters taking sledgehammers to Ottoman-era shrines and statues at an ancient history museum in the northern city of Mosul, which has been under the group’s control since June last year.

What next? Aware of the importance of Iraq’s rich archaeological heritage, the government brought forward the reopening of the national museum in Baghdad. It has also called on the US-led military coalition to bomb Isis positions in the country in an attempt to protect ancient treasures from further looting and destruction. Among the sites thought to be most vulnerable to attack is the ancient city of Uruk, in the south, which, according to experts, contains the world’s oldest examples of monumental architecture and urban life.

“Your heart is breaking because nobody even knows what exactly has been destroyed,” says Peter Pfälzner, a German archaeologist working with authorities of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to preserve historical sites. “This is destruction of cultural heritage but it is also destruction of an identity, to create a completely new identity.”

Pfälzner and his colleagues are concentrating their efforts on finding and recording the locations of northern Iraq’s most significant archaeological sites, especially in Dohuk, one of the three provinces of the mountainous KRG adjacent to Mosul. “As soon as they know about ancient sites and their surroundings, [people] are proud and absolutely ready to protect it. They just need to know about it.”

Borzou Daragahi is the FT’s Middle East and north Africa correspondent


One of the tragic outcomes of Syria’s civil war has been the destruction of historic sites, from fortresses to medieval souks, that have been commandeered in war zones. Rebels unable to fight the regime’s overwhelming air power have increasingly turned to “tunnel bombs”, which target army positions from underground. The rebels dig a tunnel under an army position, pack it with explosives and then set off a blast.

According to archaeologist Michael Danti, who works with the American Schools of Oriental Research at Boston University, such explosions not only destroy these beautiful pieces of architecture, they also destroy layers of unearthed artefacts buried beneath the sites. In Aleppo’s ancient souks, a Unesco World Heritage site, the al-Sultaniyah madrassa, established in 1223, collapsed in October last year; according to reports, the Khasrawiya madrassas and mosques, whose construction spans the 13th to 15th centuries, collapsed two months later after being hit by tunnel bombs.

What next? Archaeologists say there has been little international outcry over this kind of destruction compared with, say, Isis’s destruction of ancient Assyrian antiquities in Syria’s eastern Hasaka province. This is despite the fact that almost 90 per cent of Syria’s heritage destroyed by Isis and others has been Islamic artefacts, including mosques, shrines and tombs from the 13th and 14th centuries. International organisations are trying to support Syrian archaeologists and other locals in protecting sites not yet damaged.

According to Cristina Menegazzi, Unesco’s programme specialist on Syria, while there is little they can do for many buildings, they are working hard to protect moveable items and museums. All the country’s museums have been closed and items that cannot be moved have been surrounded with concrete walls, wooden frames and sandbags.

Erika Solomon is the FT’s correspondent in Beirut


Timbuktu’s ancient mosques and monuments, built of mud and limestone bricks, have endured centuries of coruscating desert winds and flash storms, thanks, in part, to the town’s inhabitants, who have dedicated themselves to maintaining the sites. It was only in 2012 that their future looked in question when Islamist extremists from the Ansar Dine group swept across Mali’s north, capturing most of the main towns alongside allied extremists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Intolerant of the city’s mystical Sufi traditions, they banned music, and took hoes, pickaxes and bulldozers to the shrines where saints were buried, and which they considered idolatrous. Sixteen mausoleums were destroyed, including two that sat alongside the vast 14th-century Djingareyber mosque.

What next? Many parchment manuscripts were saved from burning thanks to the bravery of residents who began spiriting them away in metal crates by canoe and truck to the capital Bamako, and to the intervention of the French, who sent troops to help crush the Islamist insurgency. But tens of thousands of manuscripts are now at risk from another source: humidity.

Abdul Kader Haidara, who runs one of the city’s private collections, says the manuscripts are now being preserved and digitised in Bamako in preparation for their return journey. “They will come back to their previous owners, in Timbuktu,” he says. Funding has come from international sources ranging from German foundations to the more innovative crowdfunding initiative of a computer programmer from Washington state in the US.

Lazarus Eloundou, head of Unesco in Mali, estimates that at least 370,000 manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu during the insurgency. He laments the “incalculable loss” of around 4,200, which were either burnt or looted. In the past few weeks, Unesco has also begun reconstructing some of the mausoleums.

William Wallis is the FT’s African affairs writer


The Malawi Museum in Minya province, Upper Egypt, was ransacked amid the chaos that engulfed Egypt in August 2013, when security services forcibly dispersed two Islamist protest camps, killing hundreds.

Looters broke into the museum, which housed antiquities from the surrounding region including relics from Tel el-Amarna, an extensive Egyptian archaeological site. Hundreds of objects were stolen, while those too big to be taken away, such as sarcophagi, were smashed. The damage included the destruction of valuable gypsum masks from the Greco-Roman period and a painted Old Kingdom statue of Pepi Ankh, a nobleman, shown embracing his wife, which was knocked over and broken. More than 900 of the 1,089 artefacts in the museum were stolen or damaged.

What next? The looting happened during a particularly turbulent period in Egypt’s recent history — the killing of the protesters came six weeks after the military ousted the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and sparked wider violence across the country — and was overshadowed by other events, including the burning of churches and attacks on police stations.

“There was too much happening,” says Monica Hanna, a lecturer in Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. Hanna and other independent academics called for scholars who had worked with the museum to send photographs of the objects in order to compile a register. It was circulated to the Egyptian police and army and to Interpol. The list was also sent to international bodies that combat trafficking in antiquities so the objects could not be sold on.

Egyptian police managed to retrieve many objects; in October last year, the government announced that 950 had been recovered. Though there were plans to repair and reopen the museum by the middle of 2014, it remains closed. “Unfortunately nothing was done [to safeguard other sites] after the Malawi attack,” says Hanna, pointing to recent damage to a museum in Arish in the northern Sinai, as a result of a bombing attack by Islamist militants targeting nearby installations belonging to security services.

Heba Saleh is the FT’s Cairo correspondent


In March 2001, the Afghan Taliban, then in power in Kabul, bombarded and blew up two colossal Buddhas carved into a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the Hindu Kush mountains. Until their destruction, they were two of the largest standing Buddhas in the world — one 53m tall, the other 35m. They were also among the oldest, hewn out of the rock in the sixth century when Bamiyan was a renowned Buddhist centre as well as a key point in the ancient trade networks linking China to Europe and central Asia to India.

So vast were the monuments that they took days to destroy, first with anti-aircraft guns and other artillery, and then with explosives planted in holes drilled into carvings.

What next? The statues form part of the Unesco World Heritage Site in the Bamiyan valley and the Taliban’s actions were decried as a crime against culture and humanity.

The Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001 by a US-backed rebel assault on Kabul following the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington masterminded by al-Qaeda. Japan, among other donors, has promised money to reconstruct the Buddhas from the damaged remains. Bamiyan, dominated by Shia Muslim Hazaras hostile to the Taliban, is among the most peaceful places in Afghanistan but, elsewhere, the country is wracked by civil war in the form of a renewed Taliban insurgency.

Victor Mallet is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief


On the surface, it is just a cave, though a particularly large one, nestled amid eastern Libya’s Green Mountains. But scientists believe it may unlock key questions about our ancestors and how they survived some 200,000 years ago.

Discovered in the 1950s, the ancient cave at Haua Fteah remained largely unexplored until the 2000s. Now it is in grave danger; it may already have been damaged or looted. No one is sure because no one has been there. Located close to war zones in Benghazi and Derna, many worry it is in danger of being struck by errant missiles, looted by profiteers or damaged by zealots.

Other sites are in danger too. An Ottoman-era castle in the southern city of Sabha was struck and damaged last year by a missile during fighting between Tebu and Arab militias. At many sites across the country, including the spectacular seaside Roman ruins at Leptis Magna, observers have noted illegal construction and building, with squatters taking advantage of a lack of governance to build houses. Last year vandals reportedly damaged the ancient, precious, prehistoric cave paintings at Tadrart Acacus, in southern Libya.

What next? Nothing much. Libyan officials of the two rival governments now fighting each other in an escalating civil war say they have bigger worries than archaeological sites. Complicating matters, some in power sympathise with jihadis who consider such sites sacrilegious. Islamist politicians in Tripoli look the other way as their extremist allies tear down cherished urban monuments and Sufi shrines. Speaking to a western journalist last year, Omar al-Hassi, prime minister of one of Libya’s self-proclaimed Islamist governments in the capital, praised one al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group’s bleak vision as “beautiful”.

Savino di Lernia, an Italian archaeologist who has spent a quarter of a century studying Libya, says: “Libyan archaeology is particularly rich and diversified, being in a very strategic location from the Mediterranean to the Sahara. The landscape and geography are very important. The archaeological record is very old.”

And, last month, in an article for the scientific journal Nature, he warned: “Perhaps the greatest threat to Libya’s diverse heritage is the trafficking of archaeological materials, for profit or to fund radical groups.” More action was needed to protect and to conserve Libyan artefacts and sites, he wrote, otherwise “archaeological research in Libya, already moribund, will soon die. It would be gravely disappointing and paradoxical if, after years of neglect under the Gaddafi regime, Libyan archaeological heritage is once again to be abandoned.”

Borzou Daragahi


The longer view: Daniel Dombey, the FT’s Turkey correspondent, on the continuing dilemma Turkey faces in its efforts to conserve a historic Armenian church

In 1951, a young journalist called Yaşar Kemal came across an ancient Armenian church set upon an island in Turkey’s Lake Van, otherwise famous for its swimming cats.

The church, built on the island of Akhtamar by King Gagik I in the 10th century, had been abandoned since the Ottoman empire’s 1915-18 massacre of as many as 1.5m Armenians, widely described as a genocide. It had been pillaged, used as a sheep-pen and was about to be destroyed by the Turkish army. One adjoining building had already been partly demolished. And yet, as Kemal appreciated, the building, known as the Church of the Holy Cross, is a masterwork. Its reddish dome echoes the snowy peaks behind it to majestic effect. The stone reliefs on its exterior of rabbits, griffins and warriors are beyond compare.

Aghast at such an act of cultural eradication, Kemal travelled to Ankara, where he managed to persuade the authorities to stay their hand. But the church remained derelict for a further half century. Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish commentator who visited the site in the 1970s, remembers its defaced and pitted walls at that time.

Things changed when an Islamist-rooted government came to power in 2002. The new leaders, principally now-president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had much more ambivalent feelings than their predecessors about the disintegration of the old Ottoman empire. They often celebrated that vanished multicultural world and sometimes took on Turkish nationalist taboos.

Hopes were also high that Ankara’s negotiations to join the EU would progress, and any sign of a more ethnically tolerant Turkey would surely help.

And then there was the question of the Armenian massacres. Erdogan’s 2005 announcement of the renovation of the church came the day after a summit in which Armenia demanded that Turkey recognise that the killings amounted to genocide. The 2007 reopening of the church as a museum, after restoration work that cost some $1.5m, became part of Turkey’s response to questions about the past slaughter of Armenians.

But permission to affix a cross to the dome was only given in 2010; the church is only permitted to hold one main service a year. Some ethnic Armenians have complained that aspects of the restoration — ceiling and floor tiles, for example — were insensitive, and that funds could also have been spent restoring the many ravaged smaller churches in the area. There have also been objections to the use of the island’s Turkified name, Akdamar.

All the same, the restoration is markedly superior to many of Turkey’s reconstructions of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman buildings, which frequently reinvent or destroy major features, use machine-cut slabs or the wrong colour stone.

“The problems were overcome through international technical support, especially from Armenia,” says Zakaraya Mildanoglu, an architect who advised on the restoration. Restoring frescoes from the residues of eggs, watermelons and bird droppings was not a major difficulty, he says, though finding qualified stonemasons was.

But he adds that even today, security guards stop people from praying inside the church except on the designated day of worship.

Yaşar Kemal, the man who saved the church, died on February 28 this year, one of Turkey’s most loved writers. But the country’s Armenian legacy is unfinished business. On April 24, Armenia and other states will mark what they say is the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Turkey’s response has yet to be decided.

Slideshow photographs: Getty; AFP; AP

Photographs: Corbis; AP


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Vandalism followed the ‘first’ Arab Spring / From Francis Ghilès

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