Friday, January 18, 2008

Crimes Against the Humanities

The destruction of the Library at Alexandria is often attributed, by Christians, to Muslim Caliph Omar, who supposedly ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." It is also said that the legend of Caliph Omar was promulgated by Saladin, who found the precedent convenient when he himself needed to destroy a library.

Earlier, however, in 391, Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria is said to have complied with this request. There were also anti-Persian riots in the city at that time, which may have produced the real destruction.

The first personage accused of the library's destruction, is Julius Caesar, more or less by accident, when he sacked and burned Alexandria harbor.

Iconoclasm (Eikonoklasmos, "Image-breaking") is the name of the heresy in the eighth and ninth centuries primarily affected the Eastern (Byzantine) Church. It was among the last of the breaches with Rome that prepared the way for the schism of Photius. There was a lesser outbreak of idol smashing/art vandalism in the Frankish kingdom in the Western (Roman) Church.

Later, during the Reformation, iconoclasm was one of the many new/old facets that Protestantism presented to the world. Iconoclastic riots took place in Zürich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), and Scotland (1559). And event called "Beeldenstorm" took place in what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Northern France. This outbreak of iconoclasm included such acts as the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte; and the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere.

Significant destruction of artworks and manuscripts also took place in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Some were anti-religious and anti-clerical; many were directed at more secular targets, especially tax and debt records.

Upon the death of Sir Richard Burton, his widow proceeded to burn most of his notes, diaries, and some unknown number of manuscripts, including a translation of "The Perfumed Garden." Some say it was for fear of his soul and as part of a campaign to portray him as a good Catholic. Others say it was on Burton's own instructions. Either way, we'll never read his translation of The Perfumed Garden.

There is an apocryphal tale, probably started by Mark Twain, that in the latter part of the 19th Century, steam engines in Egypt were fueled by burning mummies. Whether or not ancient (or modern, the desert is still used for mummification) mummies were every used for fuel or kindling, there was a painter's pigment of the time called "Mummy Brown," which was, in fact, made from powdered mummy. Also, mummies removed from the dry climate of Egypt tend to grow rot, and such was the fate of many that made their way to Europe during the Colonial Era.

Twain also described American tourists taking chips off of the Pyramids and other grand artifacts as "souvenirs." That one has the ring of truth to it.

In 1687, the Venetians, under Francesco Morosini attacked Athens, and the Ottomans fortified the Acropolis and used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. On September 26, a Venetian mortar, fired from the Hill of Philopappus, blew the magazine up and the building was partly destroyed. Francesco Morosini then proceeded to attempt to loot sculptures from the now ruin. The internal structures were demolished, whatever was left of the roof collapsed, and some of the pillars, particularly on the southern side, were decapitated. The sculptures suffered heavily.

Historically, the greatest cause of damage to existing marble sculptures in Europe has been acid rain and fog during the middle to late 20th Century.

Most of the golden artifacts of the Aztecs and Inca peoples were melted down for their metal content.

Thomas Bowdler was an English physician who published an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work that he considered to be more appropriate than the original for women and children. He similarly edited Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His name is now associated with prudish censorship of literature, motion pictures and television programs.

Some estimates place the number of languages in Pre-Columbian America as high as a thousand. Only a handful remain.

In the early days of talking pictures, the older silent films were considered useless, and many of the highly combustible films were used as kindling for the bonfires and similar events.

In the early twentieth century, Zionist immigrants in Palestine tried to eradicate the use of Yiddish amongst their own population, and make its use socially unacceptable. State authorities in the young Israel of the 1950s went to the extent of using censorship laws inherited from British rule in order to prohibit or extremely limit Yiddish theater in Israel.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two monumental statues of standing Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, situated 230 km (143 miles) northwest of Kabul at an altitude of 2500 meters (8,202 feet). Built during the sixth century, the statues represented the classic blended style of Indo-Greek art. They were dynamited by the Taliban in Afghanistan in March 2001.

In 1969, when I was away at college, a combination of foundation work and an untimely storm flooded the family basement. My mother saved my comic book collection


Arnaud said...

Your mother saved your comic book collection!? But... but, that goes against all of human experience and wisdom!
Mothers destroy comic books collections, usually during your first time away from home, that's the main reason for their presence on this planet...

black dog barking said...

Tuchman's Guns of August uses the burning of the university library at Louvain in Belgium to represent the horrifically repressive German army attitudes to occupied citizenry.

To their credit the Germans were apparently bent on razing and burning the entire town, not just the library. And, they claimed, if the locals had told them about the library it would have been spared.

Arnaud said...

A good review by Ursula Le Guin of People of the Book in today's Guardian.
The novel, by Geraldine Brooks, has for subject the true story of the Haggadah, a 14th century Jewish codex saved from the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo by a Muslim librarian.
And before that from the Nazis in 1941 by an Islamic scholar...

James Killus said...

My mother loves me. On the other hand, she doesn't remember saving my comics, but then, they weren't as important to her as they were to me.

I was obviously not trying to be exhaustive in my list; I even debated putting in the Taliban destructions, given that the looting of Baghdad was of greater importance, and the U.S. strongly partakes of that shame.

Many thanks for the additional items. Perhaps I should try to float a book proposal. One among so many...

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