History was made at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today when a man was found guilty of Cultural Destruction. His name was Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi and he was charged with leading the Radical Islamist group that destroyed invaluable antiquities in a mosque and numerous mausoleums at a World Heritage site in Timbuktu four years ago. Some of the artefacts he destroyed covered subjects such as astronomy and were exquisite examples of Islam’s cultural flowering, an age Islamic Fundamentalists regard as a heretical aberration, so determined are they to eradicate any evidence that contradicts their own twisted take on their chosen faith as they present that to both Believers and Infidels alike as the only incarnation of Islam.
The actions of the thugs Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi led mirror those of endless others terrorising the Middle East and parts of Africa in the present day, though they also mirror the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism that took place within Christianity five-hundred years ago, when similarly ‘idolatrous’ images were brutally vandalised by the philistine foot-soldiers of sovereigns such as our very own Edward VI. Unusually, today’s accused vandal apologised for his actions and entered a guilty plea, though this won’t save him from an expected sentence of around 30 years.
Anyone who saw the appalling videos documenting the barbarians of ISIS when they rampaged through the glorious site of Nimrud in Iraq last year will feel little sympathy for Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi when he receives his sentence later this week. The discredited practice of nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists shipping buried treasure from such sites to European museums now seems quite benevolent in the light of more recent acts of vandalism on the artefacts they left behind, preserving what would otherwise be lost forever when so many of these locations are situated in some of the world’s most perilous trouble-spots. The tumultuous events in Egypt over the past five years have even placed that nation’s prized possessions in danger, so any unlicensed ‘theft’ on the part of western archaeologists can appear considerably less like the colonial burglary that the ignorant and ill-educated are prone to pointing the finger at.
For the ICC to stage such a trial as the one that climaxed with the guilty verdict today is a positive development, a long-overdue recognition that the destruction of the planet’s cultural heritage is as criminal as all the other wanton destruction perpetuated by terrorist groups. Mind you, were those responsible for the similarly senseless erasure of architectural jewels in this country to be consigned the dock, The Hague wouldn’t be able to squeeze in any war criminals due to the town-planners and architects clogging up the courtroom. Their vandalism may be motivated by profit and greed rather than religious fanaticism, but the damage they leave in their wake is no less destructive.
What of men like Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Transport Secretary Ernest Marples, who ignored all schemes and suggestions to save London’s Euston Arch in the early 60s, when that landmark monument to the pioneering power of Britain’s nineteenth century railways was dismantled and discarded in favour of a faceless and forgettable facade for the new-look Euston Station? What of Bolton Corporation, who gave the green light to raise the superb Victorian Gothic majesty of St Saviour’s church to the ground in the 70s, an act of desecration that provoked one of architectural critic Ian Nairn’s most impassioned critiques when he stood in the ruins during one of his memorable BBC TV films of the era? Reading Nairn’s London guidebook (published in 1966), I became aware of the sheer volume of churches Christopher Wren built in the City of London, and while the Blitz was to blame of the disappearance of so many, ‘progress’ was equally responsible for finishing off what the Luftwaffe failed to do.
While there is a valid argument for not preserving every single building simply because it’s old, there is a fine line between unnecessary demolition and necessary redevelopment. It was only after the Euston Arch had been torn down, for example, that it was discovered that the new Euston Station would have had the space to simply relocate the monument elsewhere after all. Too late, alas – although there is an ongoing campaign to resurrect one of the capital’s great lost architectural achievements, thanks in part to the tireless investigations to locate the stones of the original monument by TV historian Dan Cruickshank.
We like to think that the worst of the demolition in the UK largely took place in the 60s and 70s, as though we’re somehow superior to our predecessors in recognising commercial interests over aesthetic ones when we see them today; but the sneaky tricks employed by the planners and developers in the twenty-first century are merely more cunning and less blatant than those employed in the twentieth, and they don’t need a Holy Book to justify their vandalism when it rips the heart out of a city centre. If only Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi had proposed replacing Timbuktu’s antiquities with a glass complex incorporating restaurants, cinemas, cafes, shops, bistros and various other ‘leisure facilities’, he might not now be looking at three decades behind bars.
© The Editor