On December 17th, 2011 l’Institut d’Egypte in Cairo’s Tahir Square was sacked and burned by a mob destroying about 200,000 books and papers. A learned academy, established under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 to carry out research during his Egyptian Campaign, the Institute was Egypt’s leading centre for the study of archeology, humanities and science and was the largest library in the country.
It first met August 24th, 1798 with Gaspard Monge as President and Napoleon as Vice President. It had 48 scholars and, as with L’Institut de France, it was organised into sections and lasted until its 47th and final meeting on March 21st, 1801.
It is a measure of these times that most of the World’s news media gave little attention to the story; there are too many philistines among the news desks nowadays to realize what may be more important than the usual tripe and ‘infotainment’ served up as news. It is also interesting that the official website of the l’Institut was taken down just after its destruction and the interim Egyptian military government has tried to portray the attack as an accident caused by a single protestor missing his mark with a Molotov Cocktail. Indeed, and the moon is truly made of green cheese.
With a great many Egyptians are horrified by the attack, hundreds volunteered to sift through the charred and carbonized remains of a great library, looking for anything salvageable. Tourism accounts for 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP (although Egyptian standards of customer service could stand major reform) and the arson attack represents a severe blow to this industry. Moreover, many Egyptians are also proud of their ancient heritage of their country.
However, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood seem likely to win a substantial majority and will form the next government. Their opinions about the Institut and Egypt’s pre-Islamic history have been clear before: They dislike both and a few seek to erase that heritage entirely.
“There will be tourism for purposes of [medical] treatment, but the tourism sites of the pyramids, the Sphinx, and Sharm Al-Sheikh will be shut down, because my task [as a ruler] is to get people to serve Allah rather than [other] people [i.e., tourists]. No proud Muslim will ever be willing to live off tourism profits, because the tourists come [to Egypt] to drink alcohol and fornicate. [If they] want to come, they must comply with the conditions and laws of Islam. We will explain to them that, according to the shari’a, the pyramids are [the remains of] a pagan and polytheistic age.”
— Sheik Adel Shehato, interview in Roz al-Yousef, August 13th, 2011
A Salafist leader and al-Nour Party candidate for parliament in Alexandria, Abd al-Moneim al-Shahat, described the civilization of ancient Egypt as a “rotten culture” that did not worship God (Ahram Online, December 2). He has also suggested that the Pyramids be covered with wax as a measure against idolatry (Reuters, December 9). Other Salafists have denounced the ancient monuments of Egypt as a danger to the practice of Islam and some groups have declared that the Institut was too much of a ‘Western’ influence to be tolerated.
Even during one of the first demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January 2011, a number of Islamists used the opportunity to break into the Egyptian Museum which is the main repository of many of the most important artifacts found over the past two hundred years and they vandalized some of the exhibits. The intruders also attempted to destroy two royal mummies and some of the artifacts that were shattered included some of the more impressive tomb models buried with Tutankhamen.
“The Christian is free to worship his God in his church, but if the Christians make problems for the Muslims, I will exterminate them. I am guided by the Shariah, and it stipulates that they (Christians) must pay the jizya tax while in a state of humiliation.”
— Sheik Adel Shehato, interview in Roz al-Yousef, August 13th, 2011
The Muslim Brotherhood will merely discriminate harshly against Egypt’s remaining Christian communities. The Salafists have been enthusiastically burning ancient Coptic churches, kidnapping Coptic women and raping, er, marrying them and so ‘converting’ them to Islam. The murder rate of Copts has increased since the ‘Arab Spring’ took hold in Egypt.
Although during the first few centuries after the Islamic conquest of Egypt, there was some interest in the Ancient Past, the legacies of the ancient world were largely neglected until Westerners began paying attention in greater numbers after Napoleon arrived in the 1790s. The battered face of the Sphinx results from Turkish target practice with cannons – a human face cannot be depicted in art in the Muslim world.
One can find similar traces of Muslim occupancy – however temporary – all around the Mediterranean world from what happened to statues and burial markers. At least the Turks on Cyprus and Rhodes did not seem to erase them as a deliberate policy. Judging from the inconsistent vandalism – a flurry of musket shots into a stone escutcheon here, or a bashed in cross on a tomb in a crypt there – the Turks appear to have vandalized as the mood took them individually. The Arabs were much more thorough.
The worst offenders are probably the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia – the spiritual mentors to the Salafists of Egypt and the bank-rollers of the Muslim brotherhood. Born in the depths of the Saudi Peninsula in the early 18th Century, Wahhabism is a stripped down version of Islam that seeks to purge the elaboration added by others and to return to the absolutism of Mohammed himself – preferring Mohammed the bloodthirsty warlord of Medina to the earlier preacher of brotherhood in Mecca.
It is human nature to add value and decoration to things they revere. Buddha would not have approved of giant gold-plated statues of himself here and there; Moses might take issue with some of the ornamentation to be found in the largest and most prosperous synagogues; and plenty of critics have unfavourably contrasted the simple ways of Christ the carpenter to the art lavished on cathedrals and the complexities of ecclesiastic power-structures. Despite this, precious materials and art encrust many sites important to most of the world’s religions.
Islam was still in its formative stages when the Byzantines were going through a fit of iconoclasm and the Muslims grafted the Greek admonitions about art and music onto Islam. Mohammed was not shy about borrowing from others (which is why so many passages in the Quran are familiar to readers of the Torah and the Bible) and his followers picked up much from the Byzantines; unfortunately they chose a bad time to emulate the Greek Orthodox Church. As a result, Islam is bereft of the magnificent heritage of painting, sculpture and music that accompanies other religions. However, this did not stop generations of Muslims from pouring their creativity into textiles and ceramics to create their own religious art.
Like Buddhists and Christians, many Muslims also adopted the idea of saints and sought to also pray to saints to ask for intercession on their behalf. The idea of venerating saints and other figures, the importance of relics and the notion of pilgrimages to sites associated with saints also crept into Islam, especially among the Shia.
The stripped down Islam of the Wahhabis has no tolerance for much of this. Art in a Mosque, especially if it portrays people or animals, and the whole business of saints and relics is ‘Jahiliyya” or “ignorance of God” and utterly dispensable. There is a long tradition of iconoclasm in Islam usually aimed at the churches and synagogues of Dhimmi but also occasionally focused on Muslim practices. The Wahhabis raised this to new levels when they raided into southern Iraq in 1801 and 1802 and murdered thousands of Shiites while sacking Karbala. Then in 1803, they occupied Mecca despoiling tombs, shrines and other sites even including the grave of Mohammed himself. They believed that all Muslims should have simple unadorned graves.
In 1925 the Wahhabis finally filched Mecca away from the Hashemites, who were the stewards of Mecca for a thousand years, and they have since used every opportunity to inflict their beliefs on other Muslims. They still harass and persecute Muslim pilgrims who seek to pray at the grave of Mohammed or who try to leave tokens at the holy sites of Islam.
Of course, over the centuries Muslims generally have not been shy about burning, bashing and – at least – remodelling other sites.
The Great Library of Alexandria may have had part of its collection accidently burned when Julius Caesar was besieged there in 48 BC and may have been damaged in the fighting between Queen Zenobia and the Emperor Aurelian in 275 AD. The Library’s buildings but apparently not its full collection, was further damaged in sectarian rioting in Alexandria in 391 AD. However, it is clear that the long history of the library ceased entirely after the Muslim conquest of Alexandria in 642 AD when, even by Arab accounts, the whole collection was deliberately destroyed.
India’s Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the Qutub Complex in Delhi were built atop important Hindu and Buddhist sites and the same thing occurred to churches and synagogues through the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Interestingly, in Spain, major churches today are having problems with Muslims turning up to pray inside them and staking out the claim that the church was converted from a Mosque or else built atop a demolished one. The Muslim habit of ignoring pre-Islamic history means that they forgot the long-vanished Mosques they hope to reclaim were usually built atop even older Churches.
Part of this results from an Islamic pattern of ‘religious occupation’ that reflects military occupation in many ways. In the initial years after the Islamic conquest of much of the Middle East, Muslim Arabs were few and far between. Accordingly, Abu Bakr and other early Caliphs thought it best to avoid placing Arab garrisons inside major cities which were full of Christians and Jews since the garrisons might be absorbed by the people they were governing. Instead, the Arab troops were stationed outside the cities. However, flush with Jizya taxes, inside the cities, Arab rulers were able to pay for very large Mosques which served as daily reminders of the cultural presence of Islam, in much the same way that Cavalry forts in the US and police posts in Canada nailed down much of the West in the 19th Century.
This history provides the context for the giant mosques currently being erected inside many Western Cities. A giant mosque that was planned in London by Tablighi Jamaat (the South Asian variant of the Wahhabis) for the next Summer Games would have been a case in point; the plans called for it to be the largest religious site of any kind in Europe. Other giant Mosques for small congregations have been planned near other landmark sites – like one over the Sandhurst Military College in the UK or the Cordoba Mosque project near the World Trade Center site.
All this history reminds us that the destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamyan in Afghanistan in 2001 by the Taliban was nothing new. Many of the great landmarks and temples of other religions have been demolished to demonstrate the superiority of Islam. The process continues: In 2009 a Hindu temple in Bangladesh was destroyed just before a major festival and in 2011, Malaysian police officers demolished a Hindu temple in Glenmarie.
There have been sprees of iconoclasm in the histories of other religions – not least Christianity. The Protestant reformation saw the destruction of statues and art inside many churches in the 16th Century, but seldom saw the destruction of the churches themselves. Henry VIII’s land reforms also put paid to many ancient monasteries, so that now we can only guess at what the ancient Abbeys at Ely and Glastonbury looked like in their heyday. The ‘Secular Humanists’ and anti-clerical elements in French Revolutionary mobs also gutted several ancient churches and monasteries (particularly the Abbey of St Denis), while Nazis and Communists gleefully destroyed many places of worship as well.
Islam does resemble Nazism and Communism in that it tolerates no rivals, except that they are diminished and must acknowledge a new subordinate status. However, what makes Islam different is a deliberate desire to quell all Pre-Islamic history (something true of neither Hitler nor Soviet Communists who both saw themselves as the culmination of history). To the fanatics of Wahhabism and Salafism, the past is ‘Jahiliyyah’, a state of ignorance of God, and is therefore unimportant and of no consequence. To them, it is best to erase it
There were plenty of local Afghans opposed to the dynamiting of the giant Buddha statues at Bamyan but the Taliban had the guns. There are many Egyptians who are proud of the history around them, but if the Salafists gain power it won’t matter. A temple or statue that has withstood centuries can be destroyed very quickly by a very few who think ancient culture is unimportant. The Romans had a name for people like that – they called them Barbarians. That is a good name to bear in mind, when learning of the next Salafist plan.