An ill-advised edict by the Taleban government early 2001, to obliterate some of the world’s oldest Buddhist masterpieces in the Afghani province of Bamiyan, sent “dark shivers through the international community”, as described by ABC news. Shortly after the toppling of the Buddha’s statues, the Taleban itself was toppled; their leadership in disarray, some killed and others on the run.
An unforgettable scene of the destruction of a particular statue of the Buddha, the largest in the world, on March 2001, triggered fury, and unequivocal condemnations from world governments and NGOs. “I told them (the Taleban) that the international community is baffled at the moment and it would create international outrage if the edict is carried out,” the UN’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, told AFP in Kabul prior to the detonation of the statues. And an “international outrage” it was. But as some were genuinely concerned about the world’s irreplaceable cultural heritage, others cultivated the Taleban’s foolish decision to rid themselves of “false idols”, politically. That single event arguably laid the foundation for the propaganda campaign that preceded the war on Afghanistan by the United States and a band of local warlords.
Was the Taleban’s religious dogma truly threatened by the presence of a 175a*” foot Buddha statue? Or was the decision a desperate call for attention, for validation, perhaps a display of evidently so deficient a strength? Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taleban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia”, remarked in an ABC interview: “The Taleban has gone completely bananas.”
I would’sve settled for this intellectually atypical analysis if it were not for the fact that hostile regimes and foreign invaders habitually aim much of their hostilities toward illustrations of history. In many instances, history is also a causality of war. Iraq and Palestine are prime examples. During a visit to Iraq in April 1999, I was dissatisfied by an explanation given by an employee at the Iraq National Museum that the building was closed due to constant bombings by American warplanes. Bombs seemed to target and evidently ravished much of the museum during the 1991 war and subsequent years. Thus, unparalleled historic pieces were hauled into an underground area, adjacent to the main building. My relentless hackling and pleas finally paid off however, as I was allowed to gaze for a few moments at segments of history so unequaled with lessons beyond astute. Large edifices, that date back thousands of years, stood in a dark basement wrapped in white sheets, dusty and battered.
My body was no longer responding to the scorching heat of Baghdad, as it gave in to a wave of endless shivers. I witnessed the making and remaking of history set in stone. Every giant block seemed to testify to one unmistakable end: Invaders never prevail. The likeness of history as narrated by images was startling: Invaders, giant and powerful, local inhabitants, tormented and enslaved, a rebellion, rivers of blood, decapitations, screams of agony, joy and victory. Then, a new cycle of history begins, hidden under another white sheet, dusty and battered.
Was it the threatening prophecies of these strident edifices that impelled the wild-west style theft and desecration of the remaining symbols of ancient Iraq, following the fall of Baghdad last year? In some peculiar way, by permitting the robbing of Iraq’s cultural and historic treasures, the most modern invaders unwillingly validated the course of history. But this was not the first persecution of historic symbols in the Middle East. More modernly, Israel and its intellectual Zionist cliques, whose proliferation of one radical and self-servingly constructed version of history, deny any historic entitlement of the dwellers of the land to their own land, is a patent example. Both Palestine’s ancient and recent history is being denied, physically and allegorically. Since 1948 onward, hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns, some as old as history can recall, have been wiped off the map.
But history in Palestine is still in the making. Between December and January 2004, the Israeli army has actively demolished scores of buildings in Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. Nablus’s roots are traced back to 72AD, when the Roman Emperor Titus built a town in honor of his father. Flavia Neapolis it was named, “the New City”. But the New City is decaying under the chains of Israeli Army tanks and bulldozer blades. During the recent weeks alone, Nablus and its refugee camp, Balata, have lost 16 people to the Israeli siege and raids. Aside from the loss of precious lives, ancient treasures have also been blown up or bulldozed, in Nablus’s Old City, in Al-Qarun area and throughout.
The Palestinian Authority’s “urgent appeals” to world governments and NGOs to save Nablus and its historic symbols have fallen on deaf years. Alas, “international outrage” is yet to be reported.
Nonetheless, history has a way of teaching lessons, even though it often chooses vulgar, bloody ways of stressing its points. One massive rock dotted with images of war and victory in Baghdad makes it painfully clear that giant invaders would eventually concede, even cower before their war booty and enslaved subjects. The Buddha statues’s destruction highlighted the futility of undermining the cultural and spiritual mix of Afghanistan. Accordingly, an acceptance of such a realization is the first step toward true peace and harmony in the warring nation. Bulldozing history in Nablus with such dreadful thoughtlessness shall not discontinue the mere existence of the Palestinian people or their moral and legal entitlement to their own land. What hostile regimes and cruel invaders fail to realize is that the lessons of history don’st weaken when its symbols are turned into heaps of rubble. It is the spirit that is carried on by successive generations that ultimately matters. Those who admire the Buddha’s teachings have not grown less faithful even with the destruction of his colossal statues; Iraqis are embarking on a new chapter of an almost foretold future, just another interval in the existence of ever-resilient Mesopotamia; Conversely, the people of Nablus will persevere, despite the unbearable dust, mounting bodies and malicious bulldozers.
I wish that those who seek to smother the symbols of history would make an effort to learn from them, just one more glance before reducing them to debris. There is an invaluable lesson to be learned, which I realized, years ago, in a dark, underground museum in Baghdad, so dusty and battered.
RAMZY BAROUD is a Palestinian-American journalist and editor-in-chief of The Palestine Chronicle online newspaper. He is the editor of the anthology: “Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion.”