By Simon Jenkins
17 November 2016
‘All is not lost. Yes, the Assyrian remains of Nimrud have been demolished. But what is demolished can be replaced.’ Engraving by H Layard. Photograph: Eileen Tweedy/REX/Shutterstock
The destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud is a catastrophe for Iraq and for our shared cultural history. Peoples come and go, drifting in the mists of time. These relics were the rocks of ages. The bulldozing by Islamic State of Nineveh, the flattening of Hatra, the demolition in Raqqa and now the destruction of Nimrud wipe from the map what were the great precursor cities of the European era.
There is no beating about the bush. Nothing in the history of this benighted region, no brutal king, no imperial satrap, no Ba’athist rogue, initiated anything as horrific as what came in the train of George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. By deliberately destroying order and government in Baghdad and sowing chaos, the American and British invaders created a hell on Earth. There is no truer maxim than that a lifetime of tyranny is better than a week of anarchy.
In the name of “western values”, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions driven from their homes. Those values have wiped out the oldest Christian community in the world. Every church in Mosul has been demolished. And all to appease Bush’s lust for revenge against Saddam Hussein’s humiliation of his father – and Tony Blair’s infatuation with Bush. At least Donald Trump has rightly called it a war crime.
But all is not lost. Yes, the Assyrian remains have been demolished. But what is demolished can be replaced. Nimrud and the other sites are the subject of records, surveys, films, photographs galore. Every minute detail of the sculptures and reliefs is known.
Digital scanning, robot etching and 3D reproduction can recreate these monuments, to an exactness unknown to past attempts at such reinstatement. Extrusion techniques can rebuild monuments using the dust of the ruins themselves. There is no reason why the temples of Palmyra, the palace gateway at Nimrud or the sixth-century monastery of Dair Mar Elia (St Elijah) should not rise again, exactly as they were as recently as last year. The flattened Nimrud ziggurat was, after all, a mound of earth.
The skills and equipment exists. The cost is not great. The moral obligation on the United States and Britain to pay is massive. It is to reverse what Isis hopes will be its lasting memorial, the visible eradication of a civilisation in the land of its birth.
There is, however, an obstacle. It lies in reactionary sections of the art historical profession and the archaeology bureaucrats of Unesco. They hold any reproduction to be “inauthentic”; that destroyed sites should be “conserved as found”; that what happens in wars and natural disasters is “history”, and as such should be left in place.
This is sanctimonious pedantry. These people are Isis’s useful idiots. The reinstatement of damaged and destroyed buildings is as old as the hills. The 19th century did not just repair; it reproduced parts or all of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe to ensure their survival. Not a medieval castle in England would exist if Unesco had its way. Hardly a Tudor wall is 16th century. When a stately home goes up in flames, we rebuild it.
Even the monuments destroyed by Isis were, most of them, extensively rebuilt by later generations. Part of a Lamassu winged bull of Nimrud looks distinctly modern. Much of Palmyra was re-erected by the colonial French. Just as tourists delight in Arthur Evans’s Knossos in Crete, however fake its 20th-century reconstruction, so they delight in the temple colonnades of Sicily’s Agrigento, largely built by Mussolini.
The cult of the ruin is now the terrorist’s best friend. He knows that every time we gaze on the remains of his deeds, we will be reminded of his message. After the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, the local community pleaded to have them copied and reinstated after the NATO invasion. UNESCO archaeologists descended on the site and declared it out of the question. It would be “brand new” and “inauthentic”.
All they would tolerate was the repositioning of extant blocks of masonry on a frame – in effect a memorial to the Taliban. Something called the Venice charter forbade even the filling in of missing gaps with new material. The locals could get lost. “Western values” ruled.
The idea of putting the restoration of Syria and Iraq in the fastidious but inert hands of Unesco is utterly depressing. Yet already Damascus museum’s saintly director, Maamoun Abdulkarim, has had to pledge “no modern stones” at Palmyra. Why not? Why not even stone reconstituted from the dust of the old stone?
Of course restoration can be done badly. But as the rebuilt churches of Moscow and the reconstructed temples of Japan attest, any restoration is better than a pile of rubble. The deep pleasure that ordinary people get from old buildings is a composite – of the site, the design of a building and the artistry of its creators and decorators.
The age of the actual building material is near trivial. The idea that it is all that matters, that otherwise a monument is meaningless, is absurd. It is rightly dubbed “substance fetishism” by critics. Yet it seems doomed to hamstring what should be the greatest effort at historic reinstatement of modern times.
UNESCO’s various diktats emerged from an understandable need to discipline the rebuilding of Europe’s heritage after wartime bombing. Modern technology has rendered that out of date. Today, if Europe wants to pickle its ruins and entomb their contents in its museums, so be it. But it should be seen as an academic cult, not a sensible or universal demand.
The remedy is in the hands of allied governments. If they have any remorse for what they have done, they should go into Iraq and Syria as hostilities cease, bringing records, diggers, 3D printers and jigs, and start rebuilding.
We should never forget that it was a craving to impose “western values” on Iraq that caused this disaster. It would be outrageous if more western values were used to keep in place a memorial to the barbarism those values unleashed.