There are few things in this world which possess the power to bring me to tears, but the devastating images of Palmyra’s ruins had a more profound effect on me than I expected. The gory details of Daesh (IS)’s bloody reign have become such a staple of our daily news, that it took an assault on human culture of this magnitude to once again remind me of the sheer brutality of this organisation.
I was not alone in my disgust, the global media unanimously condemned Daesh for their senseless vandalism of what was once a UNESCO world heritage site. The director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova referred to Palmyra’s destruction as a war crime and numerous media outlets have protested the brutality of Daesh’s destruction.
There is something especially troubling about the deliberate destruction of art and architecture. The notion that something years in the making can be ruined in a matter of seconds unsettlingly emphasises the very fleeting nature of humanity. Even relics of the most powerful and dominant empire the world has ever seen are defenceless at the hands of merciless terrorists.
Although I of course share the general consensus of sorrow for the history that has been lost in Palmyra, I have found it hard to align myself with the media’s arrogant narrative of the story. In another case of the collective amnesia that is so often present when it comes to Europe’s colonial history, we confidently refer to Daesh as inhumane for their lack of consideration for human culture despite the fact that many former colonial powers have committed similar or even worse atrocities.
The only difference between Palmyra and the ancient African kingdom of Benin for example, is that the latter was never considered a “world heritage site”. In fact most people are unaware that Benin, located in what is now southern Nigeria, possessed walls which were at one point four times longer than the Great Wall of China. Instead of being lauded as a “wonder of the world” as is the case with Roman settlements such as Pompeii and Palmyra, barely any historical traces of Benin’s majesty remain.
When tourists visit sub Saharan Africa they are not shown historical monuments of African culture or examples of awe inspiring architecture as is the case in most European cities. In fact one would be forgiven for believing that Africa lacks any sort of history at all given the distinct lack of evidence. The harrowing truth is that Africa has just as rich a history as Europe but these artefacts have been brutally, ruthlessly and deliberately destroyed.
I recently read an article detailing how Benin was literally burned to the ground by British forces in 1897. The city was looted and stripped of its vast wealth before being blown up, forever to remain lost in history. Far from being remorseful it seems that the British are almost proud of such thievery. Much of the looted treasure is now displayed in the British museum in London and the British government even went so far as to SELL back to Nigeria 700 of their own bronzes which were stolen from them in 1897.
Further research taught me that as many as 100 other cities across Africa suffered the same fate as Benin over the colonial period including Timbuktu which in the 14th century was considered the richest city on earth. It’s pretty clear that almost all the European colonial powers engaged in the same calculated eradication of a chunk of cultural history that Daesh so recently exhibited in Palmyra. In some respects, I would even consider the actions of Britain and their contemporaries worse than Daesh’s destruction of Palmyra because they involved a very targeted and systematic attempt to remove the achievement and history of Africa from the human consciousness.
It is often said that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” and although I am of course all for “throwing stones” at the monster that is Daesh, I also think that it is true that perhaps the West’s criticism for them shouldn’t becoming from such an aloof stance. If Daesh’s destruction of Palmyra is a war crime, then surely former colonial powers should be prosecuted for their own war crimes in Africa? It’s very easy to distance oneself from Daesh’s appalling disregard for art and culture, but having done exactly the same and on an even larger scale; we must ask ourselves the question- are we any better?
Of course the argument will be made, and rightly so, that the men and women who today form the British population are in no way responsible and do not condone Britain’s colonial past. This is true, but there is also an astonishing lack of remorse for such a monumental evil that still causes many problems today. Throughout my formal education, I have studied history and not once was the word colonialism even mentioned. In some ways the colonisers of 1897 have achieved their aim, the great African cities remain forgotten and to the wider world Africa is known for little more than poverty and disease.
The story of the lost African cities is so much more than just historical revelation. The way in which Africa’s history has been stolen presents many problems for the modern world. Multiple generations have grown up in a world where history and culture belong to Europe. Africa’s own power, wealth and majesty have been expertly hidden and this subtly reinforces the idea of European superiority. More importantly, generations of young Africans are growing up wondering why there are no stories of great cities that they can identify with in their textbooks, and why the achievements of their ancestors are not celebrated by humanity. The message is loud and clear, unless you’re European, your achievements are insignificant.
Although Palmyra now stands in ruins, the fact remains that its legacy and indeed that of the Roman Empire will be remembered for its magnificence. The same however cannot be said of Benin and the multitude of other African cities that have been erased from history; and perhaps this is the greatest colonial evil of all- a stolen identity.