Thursday, March 12, 2015

At the Nergal Gate

Like many of you, I’ve been watching on with some combination of horror and incredulity as ISIS has set itself to destroying the artistic and archeological heritage of Iraq…and I’ve been particularly drawn, also with bewildered disgust, to the actual video released by the iconoclasts themselves (for once to use the term literally to mean “destroyers of images”) so that the world can see their handiwork for itself. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see an edited version with English-language subtitles provided by the New York Times—42 seconds out of an original 300—by clicking here. You can see the full video, but without the subtitles, by clicking here. Both are very worth watching.) 

The video begins with a young bearded man wearing a huge Muslim-style yarmulke explaining that Muhammad himself ordered “us” (by whom he presumably means all devout Muslims) to remove and obliterate statues—I’m quoting here from the English subtitles—and then goes on to note that his prophet’s companions heeded well his command as they captured and conquered various countries in the region. As he speaks, the camera pans some of the Mosul Museum’s treasures. (The Mosul Museum is Iraq’s second largest gallery of ancient art, following only the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in terms of the richness of its collection of antiquities.) And then we get down to it. One after another, men climb up to the top of the pedestals on which these ancient treasures are, or rather were, displayed…and push them over onto the ground, where they are smashed to dust. And then, presumably as statues were encountered that were too big merely to topple with the force of a single person’s body weight, we see ISIS zealots using pick-axes, hacksaws, and electric chisels to destroy statues, busts, and other, mostly larger, works of ancient art. Nor do they invariably just let them fall to the ground: in some cases we see them using their sledge hammers to smash the topped statues and truly to pulverize them.  

And then we are suddenly outside the museum at the famed Nergal Gate, once a city gate of old Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, where we see zealots smashing the gigantic human-headed eagle-winged bulls, called lamassu, that were intended to symbolize the city’s determination to remain safe and secure from marauding outsiders. Nor was Mosul the only setting for ISIS’s iconoclasm. In Nimrud, in northern Iraq, ISIS militants used bulldozers to destroy one of the nation’s most important archeological sites, the remains of the capital of King Shalmaneser I (d. 1245 BCE).  And many experts imagine that ISIS’s eyes will now turn to Hatra, known to movie-buffs as the setting for the opening scene in The Exorcist but in its own right one of the most culturally significant and well-preserved cities from late antiquity in Iraq.

The world has reacted with predictable outrage. The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell, for example, described ISIS’s activities in Mosul as an act of “catastrophic destruction.”  Other authorities used similarly strong language. A UNESCO official, for example, said that the ISIS “extremists are trying to destroy the entire cultural heritage of the region in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and rewrite history in their own brutal image.” But when I watch these videos—and particularly the longer one, the one without subtitles—I feel myself drawn into the story in two distinct ways, each related to my personal worldview and Jewish faith.

For one thing, these people are not as foreign to us as all that.  In the world out there, who even knows who the Assyrians are?  It is true that there are sects of modern-day Iraqi and Syrian Christians who call themselves Assyrians, but the real Assyrians—the ones whose archeological remains have fallen victim to ISIS’s sledgehammer…what average American even knows when or where they lived? To us, on the other hand, these are familiar names. Whom the world calls Tiglat-Pileser III, Jews (or at least Jews who know their Bible) know almost familiarly just as Pul, the tyrant whom King Menachem of Israel bought off for a mere thousand talents of silver. It was the Assyrian king Shalmaneser IV who besieged the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel and died during the siege, leaving it to his successor Sargon II fully to defeat Israel and to take the ten tribes of Israel who lived there into captivity, never to be heard from again. And it was Sargon’s son Sennacharib, known in the Bible as Sancheiriv, who laid siege to Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah and who would probably have succeeded in conquering and razing the city if…something hadn’t happened. (The Bible says that God sent an angel successfully to take out 185,000 of his soldiers, which naturally cooled his ardor to continue with the campaign considerably. 

Sancheiriv, on the other hand, left a report of the campaign considerably more flattering to himself but with roughly the same ending.) Plus, of course, it was to Nineveh itself that the prophet Jonah was sent…and what Jew doesn’t know that story almost by heart?  So when American newspapers pause at length to explain who these Assyrians were whose art is being demolished in Iraq, we whose lives are shaped by the study of Scripture skip quickly ahead to the meat of the story: we know these people well and hardly need to be introduced to them formally as though they were strangers newly come to the ball.

So the eradication of these monuments is also an attack, at least indirectly, on our history as well. But there’s another aspect to the story that draws me in, one dramatically less simple to negotiate. What these ISIS guys are doing is, after all, also not so foreign to us…for the Torah too commands the Israelites not merely to turn away from the idolatrous rituals of the Canaanite and their gods, but actually to destroy their statuary and all the plastic appurtenances of their faith. Nor is there anything even slightly ambiguous about the many passages that command the faithful to “pulverize their altars, destroy their worship-steles, chop down their worship-trees, and incinerate their idols.” And something along those lines must well have happened, because, indeed, most of the nations whose cultural artifacts Scripture condemns and orders utterly destroyed have indeed left behind…nothing at all.

Yes, it’s true, of course, that the larger context in Scripture justifies the destruction of these idolatrous artifacts with reference to the worry that encountering a thriving, lively cultural milieu without destroying its plastic imagery could lead to the Israelites intermarrying with the Canaanites or, perhaps even worse, to settling into a kind of peaceful co-existence with the very nations from whom God has chosen to take their ancestral lands and grant them to the newly-freed Israelites.  So the parallel is hardly exact: the Bible sees a real possibility of Israel being seduced into the worship of alien deities, but ISIS is acting out of a fundamentalist loathing for all statuary connected with ancient polytheistic civilizations even though there is no conceivable possibility of Iraqi Muslims abandoning their faith and choosing instead to worship the gods of ancient Assyria.

But, even so…there is something challenging in those words from the Torah, words that command that a nation not merely be defeated militarily but that its cultural artifacts be destroyed utterly and, needless to say, permanently. Did our ancestors actually do that? It’s true that there are no actual accounts in Scripture of Israelites pulverizing Canaanite idols with the ancient equivalent of sledge hammers (which, now that I think of it, probably were sledge hammers). But that is thin balm indeed, the thought that it might not have happened. Far more important to consider is the fact that the Torah wants it to happen, wants the cultural heritage of ancient Canaan not to exist at all, not merely not to be embraced.

Whether or not the Torah was presenting an accurate picture of the cultural dangers that faced the Israelites with their entry into Canaan, who can say?  Scripture clearly thinks so! But, regardless of how things were then, more relevant is how things are now. And now, given that the works of sublime artistry that ISIS has destroyed were ponies in a race that has been behind us not for centuries but now for millennia…that surely has to be the relevant point. Nor do moderns understand the legitimate rivalry between religious worldviews as something rationally or reasonable adjudicated through the demolition of the accouterments of one side by the faithful of the other. Indeed, we live in a world in which different faiths seek to attract people to their houses of worship and to their worship services by appealing to them intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally…through the media of the printed word, the broadcast speech, the uploaded video, and the proffered podcast. The notion of seeking to spread the good word about one’s own faith is something moderns have come to think of as a normal feature of a vibrant, diverse religious society.  But the notion of going to war with ancient statues for the sake of eradicating their non-existent pull on the heartstrings of the faithful…that is not proselytism but savagery, not participation in thoughtful, respectful debate but the negation of the notion that that kind of debate between people of different worldviews itself is something worthwhile and potentially productive. 

The destruction of the lamassu of Nineveh, statues that Jonah himself may well have walked past on his way into Nineveh, was unjustifiable barbarism with no rational justification. Speaking of Jonah, by the way, he himself plays an unexpected role in this story as well: ISIS blew up his tomb, or his alleged tomb, in Mosul just last July. (If you haven’t had enough yet, click here to watch the tomb being demolished by a man with a huge sledge hammer.) We live in a world in which the once unimaginable has become commonplace. You would think that someone who has read as much Shoah-based literature would be impervious to tales of brutishness and barbarism. I’d have thought that too. But we’d both have been wrong.

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