Reports of the destruction of Deir Mar Elia, a sixth century monastery in Iraq, surfaced around the world this past week. The responses ranged from outrage and shock to the numbing realization that ISIS destroyed a piece of history again.
One of the marks of genius of the Islamic culture has been its ability to appropriate what was good, useful and beautiful from cultures that it had conquered.
The entire Middle East has developed one civilization on top of another for more than 5,000 years. The two most recent and familiar are Christianity and Islam, which are the major elements in a centuries-old synthesis that ISIS is now threatening with extinction in the Middle East in a way that can only be described as nihilistic.
While geography may not be very interesting for many, it is fascinating. Maps can be like an archaeological excavation with layer upon layer of history waiting to be revealed. Maps of the Middle East are particularly interesting as human civilizations have such a deep footprint. Place names often indicate things that have been long forgotten. The Arabic word qal‘at, for example, appears in many place names. It means “fortress” and the name can remain long after every trace of a fortress has disappeared.
Another place name often found is the Arabic word dayr. In English this may appear as dayr or deir. Thus, we find Al Dayr in Iraq and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and there are many others. The word is important because it means “monastery.”
Before the arrival of Islam, and for some time afterward, Christianity was the major religious and cultural force in Mesopotamia. Different forms of the Syriac tongue formed the language of worship, literature — especially poems and hymns — theology and philosophy of the Mesopotamian church.
Removed but not necessarily isolated from the theological controversies that plagued Christianity in the Greek and Latin speaking worlds, Syriac-speaking Christian monks created a huge body of literature. Their monasteries were great centers of learning where many Greek philosophical texts were translated and preserved.
The Muslim conquerors in Mesopotamia and Syria in the seventh century took over a highly developed civilization that had deep roots in Christianity. Over the centuries, and for a variety of reasons, the Christian population diminished and the Muslim population grew. Significant and at times influential Christian minorities existed in Mesopotamia until the second half of the nineteenth century when the Christian population began to plummet.
With the exception of Lebanon, the contemporary Middle East is overwhelmingly Islamic. Here Islamic means more than “Muslim.” While it is true that the vast majority of Middle Easterners follow the religion of Islam and are Muslims, their literature, art, architecture, music — although often different from one Muslim country to another — are profoundly influenced by Islam. In fact the “dominant culture” in the Middle East has been so influenced and transformed by Islam over the centuries that it is very easy to overlook the deep Christian roots in the region.
There is something nihilistic in almost every totalitarian movement, be it secular or religious. It may be because totalitarianism, regardless how overwhelming and violent, is basically brittle and fragile. Totalitarianism has an almost universal fear of history and art, both of which show that things can be and have been different.
Nazism’s attempt to recreate the history of the “German Nation” as the Third Reich, Stalin’s purges of artists, the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Pot Pol in Cambodia, the personality cult of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and the wanton destruction wreaked by ISIS in the Middle East are all attempts to erase the past.
While ISIS is more complicated than many analysts believe, it is clearly nihilist in its methods and ideology, which is unusual in Islamic history. ISIS is driven to destroy all vestiges of the past, such as the destruction of Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum and the Hellenistic remains of Palmyra. While there are some reports of ancient artifacts being sold rather than destroyed, the end result is the same — the elimination of history. In the case of ancient Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman art, “theological” reasons can be manufactured; ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of “smashing idols.”
But any “theological justification” just does not ring true. The same attack on the past that is carried on by ISIS against the ancient worlds is also being made against Christianity and even other Muslims who, by the standards of the Qur‘an (ostensibly the sacred text of ISIS) are not idolaters. Churches and monasteries, even ancient Islamic shrines such as the Tomb of Jonas in Mosul, are being destroyed.
In the past, one religion often took over an important monument of another. The Umayyads took over the Church of John the Baptist in Damascus (seventh century), the Ottoman Turks took over Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Christian Reconquistadores in Spain took over the great mosque in Cordoba (both 15th century). In each case, the conquering religion changed and adapted the structure to its own faith’s theology and practice. However, none of the monuments were destroyed. There is a difference between religious imperialism and nihilism.
The recent discovery of the destruction of the Monastery of Mar Elia in Iraq is one of many instances of churches and Christian institutions being destroyed by ISIS. Coupled with the brutal killings of Muslim dissidents, Christians and other religious minorities, the international community is faced here with both cultural and ethnic-religious genocide. While nihilistic regimes have a history of ultimate self-destruction, the evil that can be accomplished by them is beyond belief. In a world that is increasingly interconnected, the destruction of a sixth century monastery, which was basically a ruin, may not seem important in the “grand scheme” of things. It is however, something that cannot be overlooked when mass destruction — the ultimate nihilistic goal — is increasingly easy to accomplish.