Last weekend, Carolyn and I visited friends in Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We saw the classic musical Guys and Dolls. (I played Nathan Detroit in summer camp.) We also toured Ashland’s historic Railroad District. As we strolled, I couldn’t help thinking of the barbarians who seek not to preserve history but to destroy it.
American gold-seekers settled Ashland in the early 1850s. Timber and wool products contributed to the town’s growth. In 1887, the Southern Pacific Railroad joined Portland and San Francisco in Ashland where a golden spike was driven. The old SP Depot, repurposed as a commercial building, stands at 5th and A Streets, a hundred yards from its original site.
All this brought to mind the Syrian city of Palmyra 120 miles northeast of Damascus. Known as Tadmur to Syrians and Tadmor in the Hebrew Bible, Palmyra boasts ruins dating from before the Assyrian Greeks. They include a stunning Roman theater of the second century CE. But not everyone finds them thrilling.
Islamic State (ISIS) now controls Palmyra. ISIS and all Islamists abhor ancient cultures. After conquering Mosul, Iraq in 2014, ISIS used sledgehammers and electric drills to destroy Assyrian and Akkadian statues in the National Museum. Last summer, ISIS claimed to blow up a site said to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah. In March 2001, the world watched in horror while the Taliban destroyed two giant sixth-century stone statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.
Religious and secular totalitarians seek to obliterate history. It’s simple. People exposed to past cultures enjoy the opportunity to appreciate, compare and think about their own. Ideologues find critical thinking threatening. Reason undermines rigid doctrines built on blind and often ignorant faith.
The past also chips away at our often-inflated egos. The glories and vainglories of history remind us that while technology changes, the human psyche does not. History confronts us with the fact that we are not the first humans; we are not all that original. It challenges us to realize that our place in the chain of events doesn’t grant us moral superiority by default.
At this writing, the treasures of Palmyra survive—at least those not stolen for sale on the antiquities black market. But as long as ISIS remains in the city, Palmyra’s rich history stands in peril. Human beings already have met horrible fates. Last Tuesday, ISIS shot twenty men in Palmyra’s amphitheater.
How long will ISIS maintain its hold on Palmyra? How long will this vicious “caliphate” and similar Islamist groups bent on forcing their “truth” on Muslims and non-Muslims alike continue to rape, pillage and plunder? John M. Owen IV, writing in the May/June 2015 FOREIGN AFFAIRS (“From Calvin to the Caliphate”) believes that the West cannot produce an outcome to our liking. “But just as the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim superpower of the time of the Wars of Religion, could not resolve the strife among Christians in the sixteenth century, no outside actor can pacify the Middle East today. Only Muslims can settle their ideological war.”
This may take a long, long time. We may not like the outcome. Still, they say you can’t kill an idea. Not that Islamic State isn’t trying.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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