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Vandalism in an antique land

October 29, 2015 - 4:01pm -- Nick Young

There may be something new in the way that ISIS has set about destroying ancient monuments in  Syria and Iraq—but archaeological vandalism itself has a very wide spectrum, as I realised during a recent visit to the Sudan National Museum.

In the sad, sprawling mess of 2015 Khartoum, the museum comes as a pleasant surprise.  The antiquities are well presented in a light and airy building set in tidy grounds that include a pond—symbolising the River Nile, a guide told me—surrounded by reconstructed temples.  

An unhappy story underpins this tasteful curation. In the late 1960s, thousands of square kilometres of land on the banks of the Nile, mainly in Egypt but also in the north of Sudan, were flooded in the making of Lake Nasser and the Aswan high dam.  The flooded area was the heartland of the ancient, Nubian civilisation which, for a time, ruled over Egypt.  For a decade before the inundation, UNESCO led an archaeological rescue mission, salvaging huge statues and entire temples that were up to four thousand years old.  Some, like the Abu Simbel Temple, were relocated to the shores of the new lake. Artefacts on the Sudanese side of the border were shipped to Khartoum. Nubian temples also ended up in New York, Leiden and Madrid, as gifts to countries that had helped the effort.  But a lot was left behind, under the floodwaters.

A Sudanese friend argues that as well as consolidating Egypt’s claim to the lion’s share of the Nile waters, the inundation of lower Nubia helped to assert nationalist Egypt’s claim to cultural supremacy as the authentic cradle of civilisation, not to be rivalled by anything south of its modern border.  The scheme also fractured the modern Nubian community.  At least 50,000 Sudanese Nubians were resettled, some as far as 700 kilometres further south, while around 70,000 of their Egyptian cousins had to move, the majority reportedly heading off to Cairo and the delta. 

As if that were not food enough for thought, I notice, standing in front of the reconstructed Buhen Temple, built by Queen Hatshepsut in BCE 1500, that it is tattooed with graffiti.  “R. H. Borrowes, E. J. Hawkes, Jan. 1851” is chiselled neatly in letters about four inches high, above the faded Nubian hieroglyphs scored into the stone.  Not far below is some Greek lettering I can’t make out, dated 9.11.78.  On the adjacent Semna Temple, a certain W. Downey scratched his name, in much scruffier capital letters, in 1884, with the ‘n’ reversed; quite possibly, a semi-literate soldier in the British imperial army that had occupied Egypt and Sudan two years earlier.

Borrowes and Hawkes would almost certainly have been familiar with Shelley’s famous sonnet, Ozymandias, published in 1818, which pushed the romantic imagination beyond the ruins of Rome and Greece.  The poet’s “traveller from an antique land” tells how a vast monument to the “King of Kings” ends up as a “colossal Wreck” in the “lone and level sands.”  Even the mightiest of us amounts to nothing.  But what a thrill to see the ruins for yourself and what fun, one in the eye for the mighty, to scratch your name in them, and probably carry away a chunk or two as a souvenir.

It is interesting how, towards the end of the imperial adventure, British sensibilities shifted somewhat from appropriation—carting off treasures to the British Museum—to in situ protection.  Various notices around the Khartoum museum site state that “These buildings are protected by the Antiquities Ordinance of 1952 [three years before Sudan’s independence] and it is an offence to damage them in any way or to write names on them.” That last-minute, protective instinct was evident too, in the establishment of nature reserves across the African colonies on the eve of independence, to conserve what wildlife was left after the imperial hunting spree.

Nasser’s sacrifice of ancient sites for the sake of ‘development’ may have been unfortunate in some ways but it was certainly understandable, a rational trade off.  Understandable, if deplorable, motives seem to have driven most kinds of cultural destruction that we know about, from ordinary tomb raiding to revenge, as in the original Vandals’ sacking of Rome (although scholars now say the actual damage was wildly exaggerated by posterity).  The destruction of England’s monasteries, with great loss of literary and musical manuscripts, was driven by the dual quest for riches and political control.  The Red Guards who smashed up Buddhist temples during China’s Cultural Revolution were also political actors, or rather tools, in a cause that bore at least some resemblance to European anticlericalism.

None of this casts any light on ISIS now taking bulldozers to ancient monuments in Iraq and Syria. The Red Guards might seem the most relevant comparison. But no: in attacking the “four olds” they were attacking things that still had a hold on people’s everyday life, whereas Mesopotamia really is ancient history.  And the idea that anything could be retrospectively idolatrous is so absurd that it is hard to attribute it to people who, we are also told, are hard headed enough to sell off the more portable antiquities on cultural black markets.

Can it simply be, then, that they're showing off their power on the Internet, to shock and awe the world?