Wiping the Slate: Ideological Violence and the 'Cleansing' of our Shared Culture

757 years ago, Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, marched on Baghdad, the “city of peace,” with a Mongol army at his back. After his offer of surrender was arrogantly rebuffed by the Caliph Musta’sim, Hulagu unleashed the full force of his siege weapons and cavalry against the city, massacring between 200,000 and 800,000 inhabitants in the process. As contemporary accounts attest, “so many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that…. the river ran black with scholar’s ink and red with the blood of martyrs” (1).

    The human toll of the Mongols’ genocidal march through Central Asia and beyond is well known. Baghdad was only one such instance, as similar annihilations took place at Merv and Herat, killing millions at those two sites, respectively (2). Yet the cultural abyss left by the fall of Baghdad, the capital of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, and epicentre of the Islamic Golden Age, will remain throughout human history. As Ian Frazier attests in an article for The New Yorker, Baghdad had grown to house an intellectual plethora of “literature, music, calligraphy, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, [and] history,” among other subjects such as astronomy (3). The loss of this irretrievable wisdom serves as a milestone in the collective campaign of obliteration humanity has undertaken upon its own shared history, in the name of fickle political ideologies and military expediency.

    The Internet has wrapped us all in a cocoon of social media, drawing us closer to each other in ways unimaginable even a century ago. It allows us to marvel at the glory of ancient and faraway civilizations; reading their literature and gazing at their artwork provides a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors. But this globalization has not halted the irreversible destruction of our shared culture, as political movements like IS, the Taliban, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq make poignantly clear. Will we cherish the monuments of humanity’s creativity, and stop their demolition, or will we continue to allow usurping ideologies to trample on the only relics we can truly take pride in as a collective species? Let’s consider the undeniable effect on our society of artifacts like the Code of Hammurabi, a compendium of legal precedents that established one of the first organized judicial codes of human civilization, when we look back at the progress our collective culture has made throughout the millennia.

    Islamic State, a recent perpetrator of this kind of destruction, lends itself to easy critique. As the current bogeyman of world politics, IS has lived up to its barbaric reputation in its treatment of both humans and their culture. In this video, members of the group gleefully record their breaking of Assyrian statues from the 2700 year-old city of Nineveh. Or perhaps you’d like something more violent? Here, we see an explosion decimating the city of Nimrud. And yet, this is most likely the first you'll hear of this.These two cities, founded in 700 B.C.E. and 900 B.C.E. respectively, were once massively prosperous urban centers of the Assyrian Empire. I can only hope that you, dear reader, find this offhand obliteration of our ancestors’ gifts to the winds of time as much of a travesty as I do. The list of this ‘cultural cleansing’ goes on. IS reportedly bulldozed the 2,000 year-old Parthian city of Hatra southwest of modern-day Mosul, along with looting treasures from the famed Mosul Museum (4). This aggregation and selling of cultural artifacts “is being used to support their recruitment efforts and strengthen their operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks” (5). Evidently, IS’ burning desire to “establish their legitimacy as the proper heirs to the legacy of earlier “destroyers of idols,” including the prophets Abraham and Muhammed” by labeling pre-Islamic cultural heritage as “idolatry,” only goes so far as their dependence on these priceless examples of human ingenuity as sources of funding and personnel recruitment via media attention (6).

Image 1: Scene from the Royal Lion Hunt, North Palace, Nineveh, as seen at British Museum. Photograph: Krishna Kulkarni /The Review at NYU

Image 1: Scene from the Royal Lion Hunt, North Palace, Nineveh, as seen at British Museum. Photograph: Krishna Kulkarni/The Review at NYU

    Unfortunately, IS alone cannot shoulder the burden for ‘cultural cleansing’ in the modern age. Across the world, a lack of respect for the monuments of humankind’s shared heritage has spread like wildfire, despite the best efforts of organizations like UNESCO to designate and maintain these treasures for the benefit of future generations.

    Another example of the disastrous coalescence of religion and politics comes in the form of the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a holy city in Uttar Pradesh state, India. The mosque, built in 1528 by the founder of the Mughal Dynasty, Babur, remained a flashpoint of Hindu-Muslim tension for centuries to come, as the site reportedly stood upon a destroyed Hindu temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu deity (7). In 1992, after extended disputes over worship at the site, a mob of Hindu political supporters of the VHP, Shiv Sena, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demolished the mosque, sparking riots across India that left roughly 2,000 people dead (8). Perhaps you’ve heard of these political groups? They are, after all, coalition partners under Narendra Modi’s current BJP-led government. Another dual tragedy of lives lost and tradition evaporated in the name of ideologies claiming a monopoly on the substance of our world’s past.

    The Taliban committed a similar atrocity in 2001 in the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan when they used dynamite to blow up two 165-ft. statues of the Buddha that had stood for 1,700 years (9). The Bamiyan Buddhas marked the westernmost boundary of Buddhist influence in South Asia, and was the site of a remarkable blend of Greek and Buddhist artistic styles (the ‘Gandharan’ school) interposed by the invasion of Alexander III of Macedon (destroyer, in his own right, of the magnificent Persepolis in Iran) in the 4th century B.C.E. (10). Twin testaments to the ageless beauty of two seemingly disparate cultures carved into the very face of the Hindu Kush mountains, banished to the dustbin of history by a group only 7 years old at the time.

Image 2: One of the two Bamiyan Buddhas, before (left) and after (right) destruction by the Taliban in 2001  .   Photograph: AP/AFP, via  BBC News   . Accessed at    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31813681

Image 2: One of the two Bamiyan Buddhas, before (left) and after (right) destruction by the Taliban in 2001. Photograph: AP/AFP, via BBC News. Accessed at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-31813681

    But of all the destructive political movements that have marred the face of the Middle East’s threatened cultural landscape, none can compare to the direct and indirect historical travesties that the United States committed in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Scholars warned that the “extraordinary significance of the monuments, museums and archaeological sites of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia)” was in “grave danger” due to the U.S.’ impending assault on the country (11). Yet these admonishments went unheeded, and the damage has been done to the “cradle of civilization” in the Tigris-Euphrates region, home to remains of human culture from 10,000 years ago and the birth of writing as we know it (12).

Let’s start at the very beginning, in what Balaji Venkateswaran for Outlook India calls “the Second Sacking of Baghdad,” evoking a morbid nostalgia of Hulagu’s invasion of the city (13). Upon the arrival of U.S. forces bent on overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government, “it took only 48 hours for the [Baghdad] museum to be destroyed, with at least 50,000 artifacts carried away by looters” (14). Lost amid the chaotic looting of the National Museum of Antiquities were entire catalogues of artifacts stretching back to the 3rd millennium B.C.E. that consisted of carvings, statues, bronzes, and jewelry from ancient Nubia in North Africa all the way to Sumer in modern-day Iraq. An archaeologist from the Museum who, in vain, pleaded with American troops to disperse the looters, had this to say to the American President: “A country's identity, its value and civilization resides in its history...if a country's civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation” (15).

For comparison, the 229-year-old Declaration of Independence sits behind bullet proof glass and innumerable armed guards, while the weight of the United States Military watched the plundering of relics seven times its age.

Image 3: Aftermath of 2003 looting at Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities. Photograph: Yannis Kontos/Polaris/Eyevine, via  New Statesman   .   Accessed at:    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/treasure-trails-how-museums-became-diplomatic-fixers

Image 3: Aftermath of 2003 looting at Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities. Photograph: Yannis Kontos/Polaris/Eyevine, via New Statesman. Accessed at: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/treasure-trails-how-museums-became-diplomatic-fixers

The cultural genocide did not end here. In what has been called “one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory” by the Guardian, the U.S. establishment of ‘Camp Babylon,’ a military camp built on the ruins of the renowned ancient city of Babylon, has damaged the site beyond any glib excuse of ‘collateral damage.’ “U.S. military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists.” wrote Katrina van den Heuvel for The Nation in 2005 (16), . Furthermore, the presence of a U.S. military camp in the area served as a lightning-rod for nearby militants, with Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai lamenting, “"It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days" in the Iraq Crisis Report, No. 117 (17).

It’s been 12 years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The country, fresh from a catastrophic foreign intervention, now must struggle to repel a new cultural calamity in the form of IS. Thousands upon thousands of artifacts remain missing, and will return to the public view extremely slowly, if at all. The void in authority and funding for cultural programs in Iraq has allowed thieves posing as amateur archaeologists to dig up ruins of lesser-known sites across Iraq, resulting in the sale or destruction of buildings, inscriptions, statues, and other artifacts that have never been examined by historians (18). Has the U.S.’ military excursion in Iraq lived up to its predecessor? Balaji Venkateswaran had this to say on the comparison to the Mongol invasion: “Not only have these modern-day hordes allowed the destruction of millennia of human history and the pillaging of hospitals and schools and administrative centres out of sheer wantonness, arrogance, apathy and incompetent planning, they are equally unlikely to learn anything from the conquered. 'Stuff happens,' as Rumsfeld said” (19).

Cultural genocide is draining the very lifeblood of human achievement. It is dividing the community we arrogantly call ‘globalized’ into sectarian ideologies bent on destroying any chance we have of becoming a human culture. And perhaps worst of all, it is wiping the slate of history clean, denying ourselves and our children of the ability to take pride in collective human accomplishment. This is not a recent epidemic. Nazi looting of European masterpieces has been well documented, along with their public burning of art and literature (20). However in recent years it seems as though we are blithely allowing the very roots of human creativity to slip quietly under the rug of military and political ideology and the violence that seemingly always follows. Calamities like the Syrian civil war have devastated cultures that hold innumerable value to us all, like the destruction of Aleppo’s ancient souq, a landmark on the ancient Silk Road in one of the world’s longest continually-inhabited cities.

Scientists constantly stress the vital necessity of synchronized global action on climate change; if we truly believe we can, collectively, face a menace as looming and as dangerous as the very degradation of our natural world, then it is absolutely essential to stop childishly claiming ownership of a particular tradition or history, while simultaneously treating others as dispensable. We can all share pride, admiration, and respect in the glorious buildings and artworks left to us by the founders of our civilization centuries ago. Perhaps once humanity sees these ransacked cultural treasures as examples of what brings us together rather than what sets us apart, we may yet have a chance at coexisting relatively peacefully on the same planet, one that seems to be getting smaller every day. Humans share 99.5% of their genome with other humans; if we continue to allow that extra 0.5%, comprised of our idiotically constructed fantasies of nationality, religious exclusivity, and race, to divide us to the point of sectarian chaos, then, in the words of Professor Farnsworth of Futurama, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore!”


Disclaimer: The facts expressed here belong to everybody, the opinions to me. The distinction is yours to draw…



  1. Ian Frazier, “Invaders: Destroying Baghdad,” The New Yorker, 25 April 2005. Accessed at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/04/25/invaders-3?currentPage=2

  2. Ibid

  3. Ibid

  4. Marina Lostal, “The systematic destruction of cultural heritage at the hands of Islamic State,” Global Policy Forum, 9 March 2015. Accessed at: https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/144-bibliographies/52745-the-systematic-destruction-of-cultural-heritage-at-the-hands-of-the-islamic-state.html

  5. Ibid

  6. Kristin Romey, “Why ISIS Hates Archaeology and Blew Up Ancient Iraqi Palace,” National Geographic, 14 April 2015. Accessed at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150414-why-islamic-state-destroyed-assyrian-palace-nimrud-iraq-video-isis-isil-archaeology/

  7. “Q&A: The Ayodhya Dispute,” BBC News, 5 December 2012. Accessed at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11435240

  8. “Timeline: Ayodhya holy site crisis,” BBC News, 6 December 2012. Accessed at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11436552

  9. Ahmed Rashid, “After 1,700 years, Buddhas fall to Taliban dynamite,” The Telegraph, 12 March 2001. Accessed at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1326063/After-1700-years-Buddhas-fall-to-Taliban-dynamite.html

  10. “Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley,” UNESCO. Accessed at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/208

  11. Donald MacLeod, “Scholars Move to Protect “Priceless” Iraqi Heritage,” The Guardian, 21 March 2003 via Global Policy Forum. Accessed at https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/167/35453.html

  12. Ibid

  13. Balaji Venkateswaran, “The Second Sacking of Baghdad,” Outlook India, 25 April 2003. Accessed at http://www.outlookindia.com/article/the-second-sacking-of-baghdad/219924

  14. John F. Burns, “Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure,” The New York Times, 12 April 2003 via Global Policy Forum. Accessed at https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/167/35475.html

  15. Ibid

  16. Katrina van den Heuvel, “Halliburton Destroys Babylon,” The Nation, 28 March 2005. Accessed at https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/167/35542.html

  17. Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai, “Iraq Crisis Report (No. 117),” qtd. in Heuvel, “Halliburton Destroys Babylon,” The Nation, 28 March 2005. Accessed at https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/167/35542.html

  18. Steven Lee Meyers, “Iraq’s Ancient Ruins Face New Looting,” The New York Times, 25 June 2010. Accessed at https://www.globalpolicy.org/humanitarian-issues-in-iraq/consequences-of-the-war-and-occupation-of-iraq/destruction-of-iraqs-cultural-heritage/49249.html?ItemID=819

  19. Venkateswaran, “The Second Sacking of Baghdad.”

  20. Alex Shoumatoff, “The Devil and the Art Dealer,” Vanity Fair, April 2014. Accessed at http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2014/04/degenerate-art-cornelius-gurlitt-munich-apartment