Ordering the library at Alexandria put to the torch in 642, Amr ibn al-‘As is supposed to have said that whatever was in it that agreed with the Quran was superfluous, whatever disagreed with the Quran, impious. The story is not true (the library had been burned several times before, and Amr was an ‘As, not an ass), but it makes for a good vignette of fanatical vandalism. In fact, something close to the opposite was more typical of the Muslim conquest of the Roman and Sassanian empires. Within a century of the first conquests the scientific and philosophical texts of the Greeks were being carried to Baghdad by the barrow-load and translated into Arabic. Baghdad became the greatest entrepôt of intercultural knowledge in the world for half a millennium, and the focus of the broadest, deepest literary culture the world had yet seen. While Rome was a sheep-grazed, bandit-infested ruin and Paris and London were daub-and-wattle villages, Baghdad held the torch for civilisation. And long after Baghdad had faded, sacked by Mongols in 1258, Cordoba in Andalus took up the same torch, becoming the window through which Christians could access the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of Greeks and Arabs. Audacious scholars like Friar Bacon of Oxford went there to study in the world’s greatest libraries at the knees of an older and intellectually much more sophisticated culture than their own.
So the current slew of destruction being visited on libraries, museums and monuments across Daechi bandit country is not consonant with the mainstream history of Islam, traditionally greedy for knowledge and attentive to the past; though it has often surfaced as vicious undercurrent, just as destructive iconoclastic puritanism surfaced in Byzantium and later in the West. It is easy (and absolutely right) to abhor this kind of ignorant, solipsistic vandalism, but in doing so we should also remember our own Reformation, which involved the wholesale destruction of monastic libraries (a century later Aubrey still laments finding manuscript pages lining pie-dishes), the purging of images from churches, the ripping-out of tombs, the smashing of stained-glass and the burning alive of conscientious objectors. Religious reformation is not a kind business, something often forgotten when supercilious commentators in the West opine that Islam still awaits its Reformation: Islam is arguably having its own reformation, right now, and it is very messy. Disintermediation, the impatient establishment of direct lines between the individual and God, the individual and the holy texts, is a radically destabilising business. In our case, fluffy Anglicanism was still several centuries away, so we would do well not to hold our breath as we wait for fluffy Islam.
We should remember too the destruction of war, and the libraries of Germany destroyed in Allied action – perhaps a third of all the books in Germany in 1939 were burned in the next six years, and many of the great buildings of the Reich. And closer to home, we must not forget how in Baghdad US troops allowed the Iraq Museum to be looted and the National Library to burn down. Little of this (though there are exceptions, like the Bosnian national library), in modern times at least, is the deliberate, nihilistic cultural warfare that Daech seems to revel in – and which is the mark of Wahhabi Salafism wherever it spreads its dark wings, from the destruction of the early Muslim graves and the houses of the Prophet’s family at Mecca to the desecration of sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mosul or Tunis. In the shadow of those same black wings universities are stripped of their books and their faculties, whole spectra of humanistic subjects banned and punished. As Ibn al-Ass said, even if Ibn al-‘As didn’t, “Whatever agrees with the Quran is superfluous, whatever disagrees with the Quran, impious.”
The uncompromising puritanism and relentless logic of uber-tawhid, the paranoid monotheism that tries to obliterate any distraction, any hint of reverence for the human, any wisp of suspicion of mediation between man and God – this is a recurrent but not dominant strand throughout Muslim history, the simplistic, assertive self-doubt of the outsider faced with things too complicated to grasp or too subtle to explore. In our day it has been propagated, and vastly inflated, by a tidal wave of money from the Persian Gulf in what one can only describe as one of the most successful cultural relations offensives of modern times.
And the more we hate it, the more they do it, because riling the West is very much part of the script in Iraq these days. Anything the Daesh can do to bait the old colonial powers (and contemporary manipulators) of the West is attractive: blowing up winged bulls and colossal buddhas is much more satisfying than just thumbing your nose. “Come and get us,” those sledgehammers cry – because their apocalyptic, chiliastic schema demands foreign troops on Muslim soil to provoke their Armageddon. It is tragic and extraordinarily ahistorical, the obsessive hyperlink back to the mid-seventh century, denying all the greatness of Islamic civilization that has come since, and the earlier civilizations on whose shoulders it stands. And that of course is just the point. What little information we can assemble about the educational background of the better-educated Islamists of Daech or the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that they are engineers, computer-programmers, doctors, vets and agronomists. Not a historian, archæologist or sociologist in sight: these are men trained in disciplines that only allow right and wrong answers. I’m reminded obliquely of Talat Pasa, reproached by Henry Morgenthau, the US Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, with Turkish plans to blow up Ayya Sofia in case of an allied landing, who replied smugly, “There aren’t six men in the Committee of Union and Progress who care for anything old. We only like new things,”
But our being visibly traumatized probably does more harm than good, and much of the work of saving Iraq’s heritage necessarily goes on in secret, without fanfare, just as the libraries of Timbuktu were smuggled piecemeal to safety before the book-burning barbarians arrived in town. Better for us to document, and at a personal level, to remember. I have been looking through photographs and remembering Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud, Nineveh and Ashur from my time in Iraq in 1989 and 1990, before the first Anglo-American (etc) War. We were privileged to be in Iraq at a time when all these extraordinary and wonderful places were intact, almost empty and mostly visitable. I climbed the ziggurat at Ur with my mother, at least as far as the soldiers in the anti-aircraft battery on the top would let us; I scrambled up the citadel at Nineveh among the fragments of ancient Assyria; I stroked the beards of the winged bulls at Nimrud – with one of them I photographed my daughter, and it is desolating to think of some hirsute imbecile destroying it with a bulldozer. In the alleys of Mosul I found smoky churches, thick with incense and ostrich eggs, that far pre-dated Islam; at Hatra the strange statues with giant blackberries on their heads which we have just witnessed hammered to oblivion; and by the banks of the Tigris we watched a Mandæan wedding, a congeries of rituals from long before the birth of Christ. In all this we were more fortunate than we then realized, and while I shudder at what is happening both to people and to history, I remember with a very real, if grim, joy. And I think of the Mesopotamian plain, cluttered with mounds as far as the eye can see, each one a town or city, still largely unexcavated and likely to remain so, however fast and hard the Daechi bulldozers loot.
I was reminded recently that Baldock in Hertfordshire is named after Baghdad. When the Knights Templar founded the market town of Baldock in the 1140s, they seem to have called it Baldac, or Baudac, both versions of the contemporary French name for Baghdad. Whether this represents a manifesto of their intention to retain the Real McCoy in the face of Muslim attempts to recapture it, or whether it was a piece of sympathetic magic meant to boost trade at their newly granted market by the spring of the river Ivel, I do not know. The great bronze canopy over the altar at St Peter’s is a baldaquin, or baldacchino, named for the Baghdadi taffeta of which less permanent regal canopies were made. Another Baghdadi taffeta, ‘ataba, gives us ‘tabby’ – first a cloth and then, by analogy a cat, though a cat that supposedly reached England from Cyprus in the baggage of another ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, as a gift for Archbishop Laud. It was known at first as a Cyprus Cat rather than a Baldock Pussy. That’s probably quite enough etymology, and I end by wondering how Baldock has missed the trick of twinning itself with Baghdad (somehow Eisenberg and Sanvignes-les-Mines lack the zing of – forgive me – the ur-Baghdad). I shall clearly have to refer henceforth to Baghdad as Baldock.