Erasing History: Cultural Theft, Cultural Vandalism

The burning of medieval Malian manuscripts and demolition of Sufi shrines by Islamists in recent days has generated outrage around the world.  The sheer scale of the vandalism, with its utter disregard for Mali’s cultural heritage, has caught the world’s attention to a degree not seen since the blowing up of the Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.  But these are merely two glaring examples of an insidious, ongoing practice taking place in other parts of the world, for the most part unnoted and unremarked upon by the international community. 

It was on a trip to the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus three and a half years ago that I encountered first hand the effects of cultural theft.  One of the “must-see” items on my list of places to visit was the Byzantine Museum and Art Galleries in Nicosia which houses more than 150 priceless icons, some ancient, others more modern.   Visiting the Museum and viewing the icons was, for me, a truly awesome experience!  The earliest icon I saw was dated to the 900s.  The beauty of the religious art pieces defies description.   

There was one wing of the museum which evoked a different emotional response, however.  This was a room which contained no icons or other artworks, only photographs:  photographs of art treasures stripped from the walls of Greek Orthodox churches in the northern part of the island. The occupation of northern Cyprus by the Turks since 1974 has had a deleterious effect on Cyprus’ Christian heritage. Churches in the Turkish-occupied north half of the island have been robbed of their icons, frescoes, mosaics, and other art objects by those looking to profit by selling these treasures to private collectors.  One of the worst cases involved the stripping of 6th century wall mosaics from the Church of Panagia Kanakaria. 

Some of the stolen art pieces have been tracked down, and repatriated to Greek Cyprus.  For instance, a Turk living in Munich, Germany was found to have in his possession religious art “loot” from fifty churches in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.  Repatriation of art work has proven to be a long process, however, due to the courts but, thankfully, there have been some success stories like the one below.





This mosaic of Saint Matthew the Evangelist (525-530), depicted on a postcard which I bought at the Museum, is one of the success stories.  This ancient mosaic was repatriated to Greek Cyprus from Germany in 1991.



Burning medieval manuscripts, blowing up statues, stealing mosaics:  These are all acts readily identifiable as cultural theft and cultural vandalism, acts leading inevitably to the loss of a people’s cultural history.  But there are other actions just as insidious, yet which seem to “fly below the radar screen,” unrecognized by most people for what they are.  Some artifacts of cultural history, for instance, have simply been appropriated and renamed.  Take Rachel’s Dome, located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem. For over 1700 years, Rachel’s Dome, the grave site of the Jewish matriarch who died giving birth to her son Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20), was recognized as an exclusively Jewish site, even by Palestine’s Ottoman rulers.  Two years ago, UNESCO declared Rachel’s Dome to be the ‘Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque’, despite the fact that the site was never a mosque. It all began in 1996 when the Muslim religious authorities in the area stopped referring to the grave site as Rachel’s Dome and instead began calling it ‘the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque’.  Bilal ibn Rabah was a black Ethiopian slave who served Muhammed as his first muezzin, the first person to be in charge of calling Muslims to pray five times a day.  Bowing to Muslim sensibilities regarding the grave site, UNESCO designated the site a mosque on 21 October 2010.   

Sometimes cultural theft takes the form of appropriation, at other times, denial.  In 2000 at the Camp David Summit, Yasser Arafat told President Bill Clinton that the Jewish Temple was not located in Jerusalem, but in Nablus.  Two years later, Arafat claimed Solomon’s Temple was located nowhere in Palestine; it had existed in Yemen.  Arafat’s successor has continued this strategy of denial, claiming that there has never been a Jewish presence or Jewish history in Jerusalem.

Why do we in the West feel outrage at the burning of Mali’s ancient manuscripts, and rightly so, yet remain unmoved by the theft of Byzantine art or the appropriation of Jewish sites?  Could it be because these stories of cultural theft never make headlines?  Or could it be that we really don’t place much value on our Judeo-Christian heritage?  Maybe it’s both. 









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