The fight to keep our past alive

The path to follow in order to find a balance between protecting our past and securing our future, and why military should be left out of it

Our fight against time is as old as humankind itself. The inexorable flow of hours, months and years is a tragedy we have always known we cannot escape. And though men, throughout their history, have proved brave and resilient and have found ways to freeze time, to bind its flow and leave a trace of their passage that nothing could cancel.

And in this fight –as the prehistoric caves in Africa prove – the stronger tool in our hands has always been art. Art in all its form, art as the most powerful means to tell those who will come who we were, and how they are who they are.

This is how we have been winning this millennial fight. This is how our cities, museums, archeological sites tell us how did we get here.

Then why are there men who have passed to the enemy’s field? Why are there men trying to erase our past and with it our identity, letting time laugh at us?

Because when I said men are brave and resilient, I forgot to add that men can also be weak and ignorant.

That’s why men, throughout all their history, have built magnificent things, but also destroyed magnificent things. That’s why men have tried to produce things that could leave a mark in history, but also destroyed the  marks left by others – failing to see that you don’t have to make something to appreciate and respect it, failing to realize that it doesn’t matter who is the author, what his religion or his nationality is, since what is done by one man in any remote part of the world is an achievement of us all.

Far from being a new phenomenon, it is once again men’s ignorance to guide groups who have cancelled some of the most ancient and beautiful things men had built in the Middle East. They have thus far consigned to history pieces of arts such as the Gorgon heads of the Assyrians , four out of six world heritage sites Syria had, the mosaics the Romans made to decorate their palaces and temples, the statues kept in the Mosul museum, the ruins of the ancient cities of Hatra and Nimrud…and the fear now is that Palmyra, an ancient Roman city in Syria, could follow suit.

Partly convinced of their idolatrous nature and significance- proof of the “infidels” who once lived those lands- and partly looting those antiquities to sell them and thus finance their activities, those groups are right now cancelling our achievements.

Saving art is far more than just saving beauty: it means saving our history from disappearing.

We have, therefore, to protect our past from ignorance and self-deceiving ideologies. But such a mission comes at a price, and what is to be decided now is what price are we disposed to pay, and is rational to pay.

I firmly believe, as person who had tears in her eyes when admiring for the first time the majesty and stunning beauty of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that saving art is a duty we cannot avoid. But I also believe that calls for military actions and proposals such as the creation of “blue helmets of culture” or the one that came from UNESCO, calling for the creation of protected cultural zones, fail to recognize that there is no work of art – no matter how ancient or beautiful – that can be compared to human life.

We have to save art but all the efforts of the international community should be aimed at protecting people. We have to preserve our past but the priority is to grant everyone a future. Groups who destroy our past, in fact, are threatening our future even more, and “protected cultural zones” should not be created until there are men, women and children living in “terror exposed zones”.

The fight to save future and man cannot but overcome that to save past and art.

If those proposals lack pragmatism and common sense, the positive and hopeful note is represented by all those people who, in many countries, have taken on themselves initiatives to save what they regard as a heritage too precious to be let go.

In Mosul locals have risked everything to protect a local minaret; others in Syria and Iraq (for instance in Idlib) have concealed works of art or sent them abroad to foreign museums; and among the most important initiatives there are educative programs, held by academics in areas under rebels’ control, aimed at explaining the members of those groups the importance – and the interests – of preserving art. At this respect, an invaluable job is that of the so-called Syria’s Monuments Men. This is a group of 200 local archeologists, academics and volunteers who are travelling unarmed all over the country to save from looting and disruption what is left in Syrian museums and Syrian cities, and who are also organizing meetings with the groups operating there, to educate them to be more sympathetic to cultural heritage.

These examples of courage and action tell us that, in order to prevent time from cancelling what we have been and what we have done, the best path is for the international community to avoid military actions. Military interventions, indeed, far from saving ancient sites would just turn them into battlefields, endangering even more the lives of the locals.

A better measure, on the contrary, would be to rely on art experts and institutions all over the world to support local people and local museums in cataloguing, concealing and sending abroad works of art, that to survive need to leave – hopefully only temporarily – their lands of origin. Far from becoming a fight among world museums to host those pieces of art – fight that would only make Syrian and Iraqi museums reluctant to send their antiquities abroad – it should be a worldwide cooperative work aimed at finding temporary new homes for those endangered beauties. So that in the centuries to come they will still be there telling our posterity who we were.

It is a matter of fact that there are things that cannot be saved from their destiny, and at times we lose our fight.

This was the case in Afghanistan when in March 2001 the Taliban turned into dust the 1500 year old Bamiyan Buddhas. And though, for any man who – blinded by his own ignorance – proves unable to appreciate art, history and culture, there are thousands of men who will never give up defending our heritage with creativity and passion – in this fight far more effective than any weapon. During the nights of the 6th and 7th of June, in fact, a Chinese couple realized in the holes left by the Taliban more than a decade ago, 3-D projections of the Buddhas.

Certainly not comparable to what we lost, nevertheless their light forced time to come back at our will for two nights. And it reminds us that man’s desire to defend his past is something too big to be stemmed.

Something that not even explosives and ignorance can destroy.

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