Article published in The Funambulist 11 (May-June 2017) Designed Destructions. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
In July 2012, Ansar Dine, an extremist Salafist group linked to Al-Qaeda in Mali used axes, shovels and other tools to destroy cultural and religious monuments, bashing in the door of a 15th century mosque in Timbuktu. Out of the seven tombs of Muslim saints that were destroyed, the most defiant act entailed bashing in the door of Sidi Yahya mosque. This door had been closed for centuries in sacred belief that opening it will bring immense misfortune. The outrage against this destruction was widespread and there were several attempts to save the monuments and preserve the ancient manuscripts not just by large organizations like UNESCO but also by smaller, local organizations. The most clandestine one, Mamma Haider Library, smuggled up to 350,000 manuscripts from forty-five different libraries. However, since then, we have become accustomed to news of monuments and artifacts as targets of deliberate destruction. The war in Syria with its complete lack of regard for human life and heritage, and the proliferation of spectacular violent acts by ISIS have not only become commonplace but have found a riveted audience in the global North. Videos of ISIS hacking away at statues from the Assyrian and Akkadian eras in Mosul’s central museum were circulated in 2015. Most recently, militants rampaged across Palmyra in Syria blowing up a tetrapylon, a part of a Roman theatre and the 2000-year old temple of Bel. There is a tendency to view these acts as exceptional, categorically “abnormal” and without precedent but it is worthwhile to explore such rage against monuments and ancient heritage as part of a continuum within the history of our troubled world.
French philosopher George Bataille wrote of the intrinsic violence and fear radiated by monuments that loom above and around us. “Great monuments are raised up like dams,” he writes, “pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes” (“Architecture,” 1929). For Bataille, the storming of Bastille reflected the animosity people felt toward the monuments that had become their masters. He illustrates that human order is bound up with the architectural order thus giving voice to an existing intuition amongst all mankind, one that has led governing classes to often create structures of apartheid, physical walls that have risen up as wedges enabling a tragic web of inclusion-exclusion politics. He insists, “Such that if you attach architecture, whose monumental productions are now the true masters all across the land, gathering the servile multitudes in their shadow, enforcing admiration and astonishment, order and constraint, you are in some ways attacking man.” Thinking about architecture through this lens dramatically alters the easy presumption that monuments are the souls of societies or metaphors of progress or symbols of national pride but show that they also have the ability to command, prohibit, exclude and dominate.