Bamiyan to Palmyra: modern Islamist iconoclasm in war

By Nils H. Korsvoll

Figure 1: The Valley of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan from the air, viewed 21-01-21, < https://www.flickr.com/photos/achimvoss/15449773724/in/photolist-pxf8t3-7xmDxP-UpQadb-i1bfU-3G6Wyk-8LByHn-8LByCr-8eDAZ3-8eDB1s-8LEBWG-8eDB6w-8eDBnj-8LByyp-8eDBo5-8eAjSK-8eAjE6-8eAjvF-d4nqR9-8eAjAa-8eDBaN-8eDB5u-8eDAWG-8LBymk-7uSXJB-8LECnh-8LByqR-4VLqjH-4XzJoG-bVDoiD-i1bfR-i1bfS-29YHHNs-bH8UXV-4XzHML-8LByMB-4VLywK-7QqZYS-8eDBk1-4VQMVU-8eDB9f-4VMcFe-4VQBaS-8eDB2N-4VLey6-4VMeqF-oBu51i-4VL8Zt-4VRxNL-4VQuAE-4VMg8r>

On the eve of the destruction of the monumental Buddha-statues carved into the rock-face in the Bamiyan Valley, to the north east of Kabul, then-leader of Afghanistan Mullah Muhammad Omar answered the international outcry against the demolition saying: ‘All we are breaking are stones… My job is the implementation of Islamic order’ (AFP, 2001).

Now, iconoclasm, in the meaning of religiously motivated destruction of art or cultural heritage, was nothing new when Omar said this in February 2001, neither within Islam nor indeed in the world beyond. There have been strong iconoclastic movements in all three major monotheistic religions, leading to extensive campaigns targeting artworks in both peace- and wartime (Dirven, 2015). However, the spectacular demolition, using artillery fire and explosives, of these massive figures, testament to the ancient Gandharan culture, set an important precedent for iconoclasm as a tool for modern islamists (Tompkins 2018, p. 160).

In this essay I briefly touch on the background for islamist iconoclasm, before discussing its manifestation in the Taliban attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas in some more detail, and finally I compare this with the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) attacks in Palmyra some fourteen years later. In my discussion, I explore the role and function of this destruction of cultural heritage in the respective conflicts and its link(s) to Islamist iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm and Modern Islamism

When art and cultural heritage is targeted by islamists, they often refer to is as shirk, which can be translated as ‘idolatry’ or ‘polytheism.’ The term comes from the Quran and the traditions from the life of the Prophet Mohammad, collected in the Hadiths, where shirk, together with kufr (‘rejection’/‘unbelief’), describes the religious traditions and practices in the pre-Islamic Hijaz, the western part of the Arabian Peninsula (Hawting 2000, pp. 3-4). 

Another line of argument follows the second commandment, which forbids idols and condems the presumption to mirror or usurp the divine creation that they entail (Elias 2007, pp. 14-16; Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, p. 3). 

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth

Now, F. Barry Flood notes that this prohibition was not enforced through all of Islam in the first decades after the death of the Prophet, but by 750 it was quite firmly established through Hadith and theological treatises (Flood 2002, pp. 643-644). Islamist iconoclasm today is often associated with what is called “Wahhabism”, an aniconic religious school that arose with Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and spread with the influence of the Saudi kingdom (Flood 2002, p. 651). 

There is no space for me here to present Wahhabism, but its fundamentalist ethos has inspired current islamist movements, including al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, the Taliban and Daesh/ISIS (Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, pp. 3-4; Dirven 2015, p. 3). Importantly, however, islamists also target cultural heritage within Islam, as when rebel groups Ansar Dine and MNLA in 2012 attacked the magnificent medieval library and unique collection of mosques and shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, for being un-Islamic and idolatrous (Gerstenblith 2016, pp. 356-357).

The Taliban’s Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001

The Bamiyan Valley, in what is today Afghanistan, was over fifteen hundred years ago a major religious centre for the sophisticated Gandharan kingdom, which combined artistic impulses from Hellenism with Buddhist religion and philosophy. The site included two monumental, standing Buddhas, carved into two high cliff faces in 554 and 507 C.E., reaching 53 and 35 metres above the ground respectively (Tompkins 2018, pp. 157-158). 

The grandeur of the Buddhas is recorded in the memoirs of a seventh century pilgrim from China (Tompkins 2018, p. 157), and medieval Muslim authors praise the buddhas at Bamiyan as one of the wonders of the world (Flood 2002, pp. 649-650). 

Indeed, as late as the autumn of 1999 Mullah Omar stated that the buddhas caused no offence, as there were no Buddhists in Afghanistan to worship them, and that they moreover should be protected because they could be a source of income for the country (Falser 2011, p. 159). Only some sixteen months later, however, in February of 2001 the two monumental buddhas were blown up, following a decree from Mullah Omar saying that all non-Islamic statues and sanctuaries should be destroyed (Falser 2011, pp. 159-160). What had changed?

In the beginning of 2001, the Taliban was under heavy pressure from the Northern Alliance in the area. They only recovered the Bamiyan Valley for a long enough period to carry out and publicise the destruction, before they again lost the region to the Northern Alliance (Tompkins 2018, p. 159). 

Perhaps the sudden shift in attitude towards the buddhas was a result of this change in military fortune, but several scholars argue that it rather came from the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan by the international community because of their reluctance to hand over Osama bin Laden. Although Omar’s decree used language and arguments calling on a return to true Islam and the fight against idolatry, Flood (2002, p. 651) notes that ‘the eventual transport of Western journalists to the site to record the void left by the Buddha’s destruction suggests that the intended audience for this communiqué was neither divine nor local but global’.

Proposals from international museums and Buddhist countries to dismantle and remove the statues for preservation outside Afghanistan were rebuffed, and representatives of the Taliban government scorned the international community for offering to spend millions on statues while Afghan women and children suffered (Elias 2007, p. 26; Flood 2002, pp. 651-653). Local press also saw it as retribution for the destruction of the Babri Mosque a decade earlier by Hindu nationalists in India (Elias 2007, p. 22).

In sum, Michael Falser calls the destruction “the first large-scale live-act of performative iconoclasm” (2011, p. 161), and along with other scholars he sees it as a protest, however unfortunate, against the international community’s presumption to define and control what constitutes Afghan cultural heritage (Falser 2011, pp. 163-166; Flood 2002, p. 652).

ISIS’ Ravages at Palmyra in 2015

If the Bamiyan buddhas were the first, the destruction at Palmyra by ISIS or Daesh in 2015 can certainly compete in the attention and horror that it aroused across the world. ISIS captured the ancient city, and its modern sibling Tadmur, early in the summer, just months after their well-publicised attacks on museums and archaeological sites in Mosul and Nimrud. 

Consequently, the international community feared for the capital of legendary queen Zenobia, who in the third century C.E. had dominated the eastern half of the Roman Empire and whose capital was a marvel of immense temples, kilometre-long colonnades, unique burial chambers and an almost intact Roman theatre (Dirven 2013). 

Back in the summer of 2015 there was initially some uncertainty as to what ISIS would do, but soon enough reports came that the uniquely preserved temple of Baal-Shamin had been destroyed, and some days later the magnificent temple to Baal, one of the biggest surviving temples from Antiquity, followed suit. Many of Palmyra’s distinct burial monuments were destroyed, as well as Sufi shrines (Cuneo, Penacho & Gordon 2015; Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, pp. 6-7).

Again, questions of motivation arise. Although the temples were targeted first, they had not been in religious use for millennia. There were reports that ISIS-militants were trawling the ruins for treasure, and this may be true, but most commentators saw this as another well-publicised act of performative iconoclasm, to use Falser’s term, continuing what ISIS had done in Northern Iraq (Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, pp. 1-16; Harmansah 2015, pp. 170-177). 

This iconoclasm follows the same rationale as we saw in 2001, where modern islamists seek to defy the West’s assumed power to define and control what constitutes Syrian or Near Eastern cultural heritage (Harmansah 2015, pp. 171-172; Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, p. 5). ‘The main purpose is the production of the show’ (Harmansah 2015, p. 175).

This violent claim to define Syrian cultural heritage also carries in it another, more domestic purpose, namely to strip the new ISIS territories of any non-Islamic culture or heritage that may challenge their ideal of a pure, Islamic society (Harmansah 2015, p. 170; Isakhan and Zarandona 2018, pp. 6-9). This was less important for the Taliban in 2001, as the Buddhist, Gandharan culture posed little threat as a contemporary challenge to their Islam, but in both Syria and Iraq the ancient heritage has been an important part of both national and regional identity building in recent history (Rothfield 2009, 12-14).

Figure 5: Scaffolding Around the Site of the Destroyed Buddah, viewed 21-01-21, < https://www.flickr.com/photos/tracyhunter/1778377848/in/photolist-3H9DM3-3H8X5m-3Ha5Bo-3H8XsE-3H9yQL-3H4DKc-3H54qa-3H8WX3-3H5vbe-3H5DvB-3H9kUJ-3HbaqF-3HadPJ-3H5onR-3Hb8BP-3H8X1W-3H5a8g-3H9cDE-3H9N11-3Hb6GZ-3HfhEQ-i1bfX-5wioMz-5wijxk-3Hbbsi-3HaXk2-5wnDkb-3H96Py-hXmHk-5wnHEw-5wihUB-5wnFDu-5wnCTW-5wnEQ7-5wnEpq-5wnFfL-3G6Wtv-3GbfWW-3HfexJ-3G6WfT-3HfdQW-3HbcWH-3Hb1Pe-3Hb5pv-bUMXpa-chFHK3-Kpp1u-Kprqo-i1bfV-Kpp1C
Figure 5: Larege Buddah Statue in Bamiyan, viewed 21-01-21, <https://www.flickr.com/photos/txmx-2/15931626167/in/photolist-qgPKpM-KprqS-i1bfT-4VLqjH-3hbDBX-4XzJoG-4XzHML-8LByMB-i1bfR-i1bfS-4VLywK-7QqZYS-8eDBk1-4VQMVU-8eDB9f-4VMcFe-4VQBaS-8eDB2N-4VLey6-4VMeqF-29YHHNs-oBu51i-4VL8Zt-4VRxNL-4VQuAE-4VMg8r-4VQqqo-4VLbo6-4VM4pe-4VLzSg-4VLz9T-4VLnZv-4VLfua-bH8UXV-4VLi7g-4VLhoR-aatDkF-4VLvkn-4VQtxU-4VQPgy-4VQUJ7-4VLaKc-4VLdd2-4VQHPd-4VQTSA-4VLj1B-4VLAU6-4VLZJ2-4VLupc-4VQGXQ&gt;

Conclusion

First of all, the initial protection of the buddhas by the Taliban, and Palmyra’s long history and peaceful existence in a Muslim country, shows that the iconoclasm they were subjected to was spurred by ongoing conflicts. Moreover, the initial descriptions, by Western media and the international community, of the destruction as vandalism and medieval barbarism over-simplify and misrepresent what happened (Isakhan and Zarandona 2018, p. 11). 

Rather, destruction was a tool of defiance and empowerment in the conflict between the Taliban or ISIS with the international community (Flood 2002, p. 654; Falser 2011, pp. 166-167; Harmansah 2015, p. 176). However, several scholars also stress that there was extensive theological backing and grounding for the iconoclast actions and warn against ignoring this (Elias 2007, pp. 19-25; Harmansah 2015, p. 175; Isakhan & Zarandona 2018, pp. 5-6). 

The two cases demonstrate how modern, islamist movements or regimes can use iconoclast theology to attack cultural heritage in conflicts, but that their motivation or reason for doing so is likely to be complex and vary according to the situation at hand.


About the author: Nils H. Korsvoll is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Agder, Norway (https://www.uia.no/en/kk/profile/nilshk). He wrote his doctorate on the combination of religious and popular ritual features in Syriac magic bowls, a form of amulet from the sixth and seventh centuries found in current-day Iraq. This work introduced him to the problems connected to illegal trade in antiquities and plunder of archaeological sites. Now, among other things, he investigates how scholars and academic institutions, knowingly or unknowingly, participate in the market for illicit antiquities. 

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

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