Fiction: I Lost My Heart at Wounded Knee

Written by Lewis Twiby.

Snow drifted gently from the grey sky, matching the sadness in his heart: the heart that had been ripped from him. All the warmth that had been in his mother’s body had started to drift away. A warmth that had kept him safe through his ten years. A warmth that ended when the blue-coated soldier had fired upon his mother. Her body was the only thing that stopped him from sharing her fate. He was so scared. His entire body shivered through fear and the biting cold. What was going to happen to him now?

He had been scared when they had fled with the other Hunkpapa to join Chief Spotted Elk when the Indian agents had killed noble Sitting Bull. Almost a man, he had vowed not to cry but his mother let him weep into her shoulder as they fled to the new reservation. Life had been hard on the old reservation: the ground was dry, crops refused to grow, wasting diseases took people like his father away, the rations were meagre, and the warriors could not hunt the buffalo even if the Indian agents said they could because there was none left. Sitting Bull had given them hope, though. Sitting Bull who had managed to get so many to safety when they went to war against Long Hair Custer. Who had parlayed with the Americans on behalf of the Sioux people. Who had visited the big cities in the east with the funny-man Buffalo Bill. Now he was gone. Gone like his father, his grandfather… and now his mother.

Tears had frozen on his cheeks. Gently he kissed her on her forehead and took off the Ghost Shirt which he wore over his normal one. He placed it around his mother’s body so she would not get cold. She hated the cold. For that reason, he used to throw snowballs at her when the snows came.

“I hope the Ghost Shirt works better for you, mother,” he sniffed. A smiling warrior had given him the shirt during their flight after Sitting Bull’s death. He had never taken it off since. He had even urged his mother to wear it. Were the southern Navajo right? He had heard from the warriors that they had rejected the Ghost Dance. The young warriors had partaken in the ritual to make them immune from the bullets of the bluecoats, drive the invaders from their land, bring back their ancestors, and bring back the buffalo. He had been so excited. A chance to see his father again. It did not matter in the end. The dead remained dead, the buffalo were nowhere to be seen, bullets still killed them, and their land continued to be taken.

The snow crunched with his every step. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Before he lost his heart he had loved that sound. In a distant memory, he remembered his father showing him how to make a man out of snow. They had stuck stones into it to make a head and found some crow feathers, as dark as the night sky, to make hair. He and his friends had then pelted his father with snow. It was only two years ago but it felt like a lifetime. The bluecoats had taken everyone he loved from him: his father from the wasting disease, his mother from the bullet, his friends lost during their exodus from the reservation. For all he knew they could be lying in the snow like his mother.

All around him were tepees flattened by the long departed roar of the soldiers’ bullets, snow greedily drinking up the red blood, and gouges in the white from people fleeing, along with their pursuers. He was not scared of encountering any of the soldiers. It would be a relief. He could join his mother and father. Or maybe the stories of the young scouts were true about soldiers taking children to be raised by white families. Maybe he could tell a white family about what was happening to his people and they could tell the leader of the Americans what was happening. The leader of the Americans would see what the army and agents were doing and would give them back their lands, and give them medicine and guns and buffalo. Except that the only people around, Lakota or American, were lying dead in the snow.

A loud snort and the crunch of snow brought his mind back to the frozen reservation. Was it an American soldier, or a Lakota warrior? The rider wore a rifle across his back, brown trousers, and a white Ghost Shirt. His dark hair had smatterings of white, but not thanks to the snow. Upon his face were tell-tale lines of age. The aged warrior nimbly jumped off his horse like a man of half his years to land in the snow with a crunch. He waded through the snow to kneel before him.

“Are you lost my boy?” he asked in Lakota. “Where are your parents and kin?”

He felt tears welling up behind his eyes. To avoid his shame, he looked at the snow seeing it melt as his salty tears dropped to the earth. He felt the warrior grasp him in an embrace. “Do not fear child. We may be separated from them for now but we shall be reunited. Come, I shall take you somewhere safe.” He took the warrior’s hand and together they waded through the snow. The aged warrior gently lifted him onto the horse.

“I am Mahpiya Icahtagya,” the warrior said smiling.

“Chaska,” he replied.

Not wasting any time they soon left the scene of broken dreams and hearts. The snow continued to fall as if they had never been there.

Bibliography

Brogan, Hugh. The Penguin History of the United States, Second Edition, (1999, London).

Brown, Dee. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, (1971, New York).

Foner, Eric. Give me Liberty!: An American History, (2004, New York).

Between Psychotherapy and Spirituality: Buddhist Interaction with Freudian Psychoanalysis

Written by Christopher Harding.

In the West, Sigmund Freud is thought of as one of the greatest critics of religion that has ever lived. In our own times, we are quite familiar with attempts to integrate psychoanalysis and psychotherapy more broadly with religious traditions including Christianity and Buddhism. The rise of a ‘mindfulness’ culture, which encompasses a publications boom, classes, retreats, and media usage of a mixed spiritual and psychological language, is a major example of such integration in the early 21st century.

But for Freud and his generation in Europe there wasn’t so much ‘integration’ of psychoanalysis and religion as reduction – of religious sensibilities, hopes, beliefs, and practices to various kinds of psychological functioning and malfunctioning and from there, ultimately, to our physiology. Religious worldviews, religious habits: these are things out of which the human race must gradually grow, claimed Freud, whose book The Future of an Illusion (1927) became a classic statement of this case.

My interest in the relationship of Buddhism with psychoanalysis came from a sense that there is interesting and important territory to be explored here on three levels. Firstly, there is our contemporary blending of religious and psychotherapeutic cultures, which feels too easy, too superficial, and not always very fulfilling. Secondly, there are the encounters of Freud’s era, where real difficulties were acknowledged in how psychoanalysis and religion might fit together. Finally, it is interesting to consider the divide between Europe and Asia in this argument – and in Japan and India in particular.

To give a flavour of this divide, here is a short exchange between Freud and an Indian academic from Calcutta University, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, who visited Freud in the 1930s and tackled him on his materialism. Chatterjee later recorded the encounter in his diary, as follows:

‘I said to Freud: One of the great doctrines of the philosophy you have built up is, as far as I understand, that libido or the sex impulse is intimately connected with all art and spiritual aspiration. The saints and sages of our country too, some of them, were conscious of this.

[He then read from a short piece of poetry by an Indian mystic]:

‘I adore that Supreme Being Govinda or Vishnu, who because he is the very soul of Bliss, of Knowledge, and of the Highest Joy, takes up the nature of Smara – the sex urge – and in this way manifests himself in the minds of all creatures. And through this sport of His, is forever triumphing in all these worlds.

‘I then asked Freud: What do you say to that? I would like to put a straight question to you. What is the real thing, the permanent or abiding thing in existence? What relationship has man’s life with that reality? What is the final conclusion you have arrived at?

‘Freud laughed at me. He said: You see, from all that I have thought over this matter I have found no connection between man’s life and some permanent or abiding thing about which you speak. Here on this earth, with death, everything pertaining to man has an end. My powers are gradually coming to an end, and finally everything will be finished.

‘This despite being an appreciator of art? I asked.

‘Art, beauty, joy – all these centre round the body. And this is my considered conclusion: nothing exists after death.

‘What of those who say “I have seen, I have known?”

‘All that is self-deception of persons who are emotional, and who have only imagination and nothing else.

‘What I feel is that unless one has some touch of mysticism in life, some sort of feel or glimpse of a realization of this Unseen Reality, he cannot properly live. The fine arts, music, these bring into our minds this glimpse of the mystic being that is behind life.

‘Possibly you are accustomed to think like men of your own people, Freud replied. You are talking just like one of them. All this is [but] the transformation of our emotions.

Here was a radical materialism, combined with an apparent refusal of the kind of cultural relativism that allows people today to accept differing religious and psychotherapeutic cultures as equally valid, even while they may not be clearly compatible. Given Freud’s hard-line position, how could a pioneering psychoanalyst and loyal Freudian like Kosawa Heisaku in Japan, working in the 1930s-1950s, truly be both a Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist and a follower of Freud? What did he believe about his own fundamental being, and about the world around him – about where these things come from, where they are going, and what meaning they have? Is Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism a collection of metaphors that reduces, ultimately, to the kind of human psychology Freud described? Or might it be vice versa: Freudian psychology gives us practical, scientific, manageable ways of understanding and coping with the human imperfections that Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism describes?

I put this question to a former analysand of Kosawa from back in the 1940s, Dr Nagao, who is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. He taught me two crucially important things – both of them about language.

Dr Nagao suggested that language and logic be regarded as human tools: useful in making sense of things around us as long as we don’t confuse their parameters with actual limitations out there in the world. For Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists, to believe that language and logic can do any more than this is to succumb to jiriki: the deluded belief that as humans we possess an advanced ability to know the world, to work out our salvation within it, and shape ourselves to it.

The second thing that I learned from Dr Nagao was how, for Kosawa Heisaku, Buddhism and psychoanalysis were first and foremost ways of living as opposed to grand theories about how the world is. Their shared aim, for Kosawa, was helping people to see: to see as clearly as possible the flaws and deceptions that cloud and mar their lives. One of the biggest of these is the deception that we are truly independent agents. Kosawa thought that we are not, and that what psychoanalysis may achieve for us is a harrowing, embarrassing but inescapable realization that we are very deeply the creation of others. First we are creations of our family, especially in those early life interactions with mothers and fathers about which Freud had so much to say; of friends and society at large; and finally, ultimately, of the workings of ‘Other-power’ (tariki). This is the ‘infinite light of compassion’ that some Jōdo Shinshū Buddhists talk about as a celestial Buddha, Amida (the most famous representation of which is the giant statue located in Kamakura, Japan). The more we know ourselves through psychoanalysis, or indeed through other sorts of therapy, the more that we will come to see Other-power at the very root of our being. Kosawa believed that Shinran, Jōdo Shinshū’s founder, had had this insight many centuries ago, and that in his own time Sigmund Freud was pursuing the very same path – despite his antipathy towards the religious systems of his day.

Two lines from the poet Kai Wariko, a near contemporary of Kosawa Heisaku, express this well:

‘The voice with which I call Amida Buddha
Is the voice with which Amida Buddha calls to me’

In other words, even at the moment ‘I’ call out to Amida for help – a prayer known in Japanese as the nembutsu – I realize that at the deepest root of myself, my subjectivity, there is nothing other than Amida.

It was perhaps for this reason that Kosawa talked as much about ‘living’ psychoanalysis as he did ‘doing’ it: not just practicing a technique as a professional, but living in the light that psychoanalysis was shedding on his experience. For Kosawa, this way of living included engaging in a solo form of ‘free association’. This is the psychoanalytic technique whereby a client allows thoughts to come and go as they please, speaking them out loud, which the therapist then uses as a source of information about his or her client. As a solo undertaking, in Kosawa’s hands, this became almost a kind of mindfulness practice.

As such, it was ahead of its times. Kosawa’s young students, in the 1950s, disliked much about his technique and his worldview. They worried – and perhaps they were right to do so – that what Kosawa insisted was a philosophical insight about our false sense of selfhood (jiriki) might really be more about a very conservative form of cultural politics, in which individualism was regarded as pathological. Having just come out of fifteen years of war (1931 – 1945) for which an ultra-conservative military elite bore much of the responsibility, and during which Japanese people had explicitly been encouraged to set their own desires and interests aside for the sake of something greater, Kosawa’s view of the world looked distinctly suspect.

This is a problem with which contemporary spiritualities, not least mindfulness and the engaged Buddhism movement, must continue to wrestle. We might worry that forms of mindfulness that seem to do no more than contribute to one’s work efficiency, emotional stability, or general attractiveness as a person are superficial, missing something fundamental. But equally, ideas such as ‘going beyond ego’ or rejecting a ‘false self’ are open to abuse as rationalizations for subtle forms of personal or political complacency – a withdrawal from crises around the world, or at least a failure to meet them with a measure of those very things that many forms of spirituality tend to underrate: assertion, passion, anger, and a refusal to delegate to some ‘Other power’ work that can and should be done by ordinary puny old human beings.

Image: John Lodder

Bibliography

Dale, Peter N., The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness (London, 1986).

Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, (London, 1928).

Harding, Christopher, ‘Japanese Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: the Making of a Relationship’, History of Psychiatry 25.2 (2014).

Safran, Jeremy, ed., Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an Unfolding Dialogue (Boston, 2003).

Young-Eisendrath, Polly and Muramoto, Shoji, eds., Awakening and Insight: Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy (Hove, 2002).

Fertility in the Early Middle Ages: The Dangers of Folklore

What did an early medieval bishop see when he looked up at the stars? In tenth-century Italy Atto of Vercelli saw divine fingerprints.

God had arranged constellations in the heavens, he explained in a sermon, for our benefit on earth. Stars help us to mark the passing of time, to map journeys over sea or land. When Atto looked back down from heavenly bodies to those who gazed at them, however, he glimpsed a more troubling spectacle. Astrologers claimed to predict the future through the stars. They could foretell births and arrange suitable marriages. Countless couples carefully attuned their sex lives to the rhythms of stars and other signs in the hope of conceiving a child. Or so Atto said. His real point was to discredit such ideas. Was anyone really claiming, he asked sarcastically, to have gotten a child by observing the stars?

Perhaps coordinating moments of intimacy with the movements of the immense night sky formed part of fertility lore in the early middle ages. Scattered across an array of early medieval texts are what look like other tiny glimpses into this lore: fertility boosting herbs administered in drinks or pessaries; amulets, charms and prayers for conceiving children; special sites, from shrines to springs, tinged with the aura of fecundity; and much else besides.

In the Etymologies, a hugely popular proto-encyclopaedia widely read for centuries, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) wrote of waters in Campania which cured infertile women and insane men, and two springs in Sicily which rendered, respectively, the sterile fertile and the fertile sterile. (Anyone interested in tracking down the Greek fountain in Boeotia which boosts memory should beware; another fountain there induces forgetfulness). A more unusual Old English text in an eleventh-century manuscript carefully described omens in pregnancy. Want to find out if a child will be a boy or girl? A pregnant woman should be offered a lily and a rose. If she takes the lily, she will bear a boy; and if she takes the rose, she will bear a girl. And no nuts or acorns or fresh fruit from the fourth month or the child could end up being ‘foolish’. And so on.

It is tempting to scour texts for these references and to gather them into a compendium of early medieval folk beliefs and practices surrounding reproduction. The constellations of fertility lore would make for quite a spectacle. But the panoramic view is misleading. It smudges the boundaries of place and time. Taking small snippets from everywhere amounts to a bigger picture of nowhere in particular. This is one of the dangers of folklore.

Those small snippets merit closer inspection. At first sight, they may not yield much. Take Atto’s sermon. Retrieving any further details on how childless couples used stars and other signs in the quest for conception is impossible. Literally. Here, we can almost claim the dog ate our homework. The sole surviving manuscript of Atto’s sermon is mutilated – who’d have predicted? – right in the middle of the sentence on childless couples resorting to stars and signs. (It’s not even an intriguingly deliberate mutilation, which sometimes happens when later readers of manuscripts don’t like what they read; other chunks of text are missing in a disappointingly random pattern).

But, if we can’t find anything to add about childless couples at Vercelli, we can at least say a little more about who was preaching to them. In the early middle ages, authors of sermons and other pastoral texts plagiarised with abandon. They borrowed and recycled formulaic condemnations of all sorts of practices like augury, divination, astrology, use of amulets and charms, and more. As the sheer scale of repetition has become clearer and clearer historians have become increasingly wary of regarding preachers’ manuals as clear windows onto the beliefs and practices of their congregations.

This is why Atto’s sermon is intriguing. It is both typical and atypical. Not all authors of sermons leaned quite so heavily on older material. Atto’s critical dissection of fertility lore does not look like wholesale recycling of older tropes. There is little by way of precedent. In all likelihood, as a historian has recently (and, I think, rightly) concluded, Atto was addressing what some of his contemporaries thought and did.

More precisely, distorting and exaggerating what they did. Needless to say, the likes of Atto were not impartial observers who dutifully tell us about early medieval society as it really was. For example, in our sermon Atto sneeringly attributed belief in star signs to what he called rustici, country bumpkins. It may be tempting to conclude that it was rural peasants who tended to believe in this sort of stuff. Perhaps they did. But preachers often resorted to these smears precisely when their audience was anything but rustic. In preaching, the rustici label was often a rhetorical strategy specifically designed for criticising an urban (and even urbane) audience. Earlier in the sermon Atto outlined an intellectual genealogy of astrological beliefs originating in the imaginings of ‘ancients and pagans’. Superstitiones formed part of the preacher’s vocabulary and one literal meaning was survivals. To dress contemporary practices up as ancient aberrations which were now resurfacing was a preaching reflex conditioned for centuries before Atto spoke to his congregation in Vercelli.

In our broad-brush panorama of fertility lore, details from Atto’s sermon blend nicely into the warm pastel colours of beliefs as old as fields and forests. But, on closer inspection, perhaps we are being seduced by rhetoric. My point is not to endorse uber-scepticism over sounding out any beliefs and practices whatsoever beyond those of the loud minority that authored our texts. But if we can sound out beliefs and practices from Atto’s sermon, they might well be the beliefs and practices of the well-heeled in an Italian town, not peasants in the countryside. Atto does not offer us an internal perspective designed to explain astrology and its uses by the childless, but an external perspective designed to debunk. That’s why he associated it with rustici and ancient pagans. This, then, is another danger of folklore. Beneath the label folklore lie beliefs and practices that are distorted in the written record because authors deemed them dangerous or delusional, and many authors were more skilled at what they did than first meets the eye.

Historians and their different intellectual frameworks produce other distortions. Ancient and later medieval medicine produced treatises that theorized the causes of sterility and barrenness. Early medieval medicine did not. The dearth of theory makes early medieval medicine look rough and ready in comparison with what came before and after – and, indeed, in comparison with contemporary medicine further east in Byzantine and Islamic societies. This is one reason why few historians brave this field and why the best introduction to it is an article entitled ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’. It may also be a reason why early medieval medicine is so much more susceptible to being interpreted in terms of folklore.

Several medieval manuscripts contain a short gynaecological text listing pessaries and other remedies for women. Some of these remedies made use of plants like artemisia (incidentally, the plant also used to produce absinthe) or myrtle ‘so that a woman can conceive’. Another remedy took a different approach:

“So that a woman conceives even if she has never conceived. After a she-goat has given birth, before her kid … begins to suckle, milk [her] and make a small cheese from this and bind it in a small cloth hung from her left arm so the woman can carry it. But if she wants to go into a bath, she should carefully leave it at home. She should keep it with her at all other hours.”

Until not that long ago, this is the kind of detail that made a certain kind of medical historian fidgety. They would instinctively speak of primitivism and superstition, and voice disappointment that medicine, once vigorous and healthy in classical antiquity, had now been contaminated with new strains of folk medicine. Putting a more positive spin on it, perhaps we can try to imagine how such a remedy, an attempt to rub off animal fertility on humans, might have emanated from ordinary folk in a largely agrarian society.

Ironically, whether meant positively or negatively, this reading misconstrues learned culture for folk belief. The remedy originated in a work composed in late antiquity, a work which drew on older, classical medical traditions. (A possible Greek influence on its author recommended that goat’s milk should be the first thing a newborn sups on after recovering from birth). Nor, then, is the remedy early medieval; in fact, it mainly survives in later medieval manuscripts. Perhaps ideas found in texts such as these informed beliefs and practices outside learned circles. A recent study of medieval ideas surrounding impotence has highlighted various moments when learned authors tapped into popular culture. The interfaces between learned culture and folk practice deserve much more attention. But, far from giving us a direct glimpse of folk medicine in the early middle ages, the goat’s cheese remedy represents learned medical traditions across a longer time span.

In early medieval history, there is always a risk of setting the bar too high. That is, of assuming that the disgust or disinterest of sources largely written by elites creates a vast, unbridgeable distance from beliefs and practices of the non-elite. But there is also a risk of setting the bar too low. In trying to retrieve these beliefs and practices, the distortions of elitist texts can easily be mistaken for the real thing when refracted through the label ‘folklore’. If we want to begin to try to imagine how ordinary people made sense of their world, then we need to read the likes of Atto every bit as suspiciously as they read the beliefs and practices of their contemporaries.

Image: Judy Schmidt

Bibliography

Barney, Stephen (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, 2010).

Horden, Peregrine, ‘What’s wrong with early medieval medicine?’, Social History of Medicine, 24 (2011), pp.5-25.

Liuzza, Roy, Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: An Edition and Translation of Texts from London British Library, Ms Cotton Tiberius A.III (Cambridge, 2010).

Meens, Rob, ‘A preaching bishop: Atto of Vercelli and his sermon collection’, in M. Diesenberger et al. (eds), Sermo Doctorum: Compilers, Preachers, and their Audiences in the Early Medieval West (Turnhout, 2013), pp. 263-82.

Rider, Catherine, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Rose, Valentin (ed.), Sorani Gynaeciorum vetus translatio Latina (Leipzig, 1893).

Saudi Arabia and the Destruction of Islamic Cultural Heritage

Whilst the West despairs over the destruction of the Arch of Palmyra, the walls of Nineveh, and the lamassus of Nimrud by Islamic State, a second wave of cultural heritage destruction is sweeping across the Middle East almost unnoticed. The international media has devoted extensive coverage to the obliteration of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State fighters, but for the most part has failed to report on the countless monuments and artefacts destroyed every day by Saudi Arabia, both in its own country and, lately, in the Yemen.

In January 2002 Saudi Arabia demolished a 200-year-old Ottoman castle in Mecca in order to build a five-star hotel, residential complex and parking lot. The original fortress was built in 1780 by Ottoman Turks in order to protect the Ka’aba and other Islamic shrines in Mecca from bandits, including invading Wahhabi radicals – ironically the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam that now makes up the dominant minority in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis defended their actions by citing the understandable need to provide accommodation for the almost three million Muslim pilgrims who journey to Mecca every year, but Turkey, who viewed the destruction of the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress as ‘cultural genocide’ demanded a UNESCO intervention. This was unsuccessful and the castle was bulldozed.

The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who saw the castle in 1814, described it as
‘a very large and massy structure, surrounded by thick walls and solid towers… It contains a large cistern and a small mosque; and might accommodate a garrison of about one thousand men. To Arabs it is an impregnable fortress… even against Europeans, it might offer some resistance.’
‘Large and massy’ the Ajyad Fortress may have been, but the new Abraj al Bait Royal Makkah Clock Tower complex towers over the Ka’aba like Godzilla considering a peanut.

The Ajyad Fortress is far from the only architectural casualty in Saudi Arabia. Experts at the Washington-based Gulf Institute have estimated that over 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have been demolished in the last two decades alone. This is all the more remarkable when you take into account that the vast majority of these sites are neither secular, pagan, Christian, nor Ottoman – they are early Islamic holy sites. For example, the house of Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, has been bulldozed and replaced with public lavatories whilst the Prophet’s own birthplace is now a library, soon to be further damaged with the addition of underground parking. The human dangers of the extensive modernisation of Mecca were also made clear earlier this year when a construction crane collapsed into the Masjid al-Haram, killing an estimated 111 and injuring 394.

The destruction of early Islamic heritage by Saudi authorities is not even unique to sites popular with tourists and pilgrims, where the need for modern facilities could be argued to outweigh the preservation of historic buildings. For example, the Tomb of Eve, a debatable archaeological site in Jeddah, was sealed with concrete by religious authorities in 1975. Meanwhile, abject disregard for cultural heritage has spilled over intoYemen. Although Yemen was once part of the wealthy caravan kingdom of Sheba (home of the legendary queen), knowledge of Yemeni culture and history is sadly lacking around the world. Now it is in danger of being lost forever, as a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia – and with logistical support from the USA – has been waging war against a Shia rebel group who now controls the country’s capital, Sana’a. A UNESCO list of Yemeni protected areas has done little to minimise the destruction, particularly in the World Heritage Site of Sana’a old town. Elsewhere, the Great Dam of Marib, a 2,800-year-old marvel of engineering almost twice as long as the Hoover Dam, has been struck four times by missiles, whilst some of the oldest surviving fragments of the Koran are constantly in danger of being bombed. Forces fighting along Yemen’s southern coast have reputedly destroyed the 700-year-old Sheikh Omar Ali al-Saqaff mosque in Lahf, whilst earlier this year a Saudi airstrike destroyed the Dhamar Regional Museum. The museum held more than 150 ancient South Arabian inscriptions, including the oldest-known texts from the Yemeni highlands, plus an important fourth-century wooden minbar.

The Saudi destruction of historic sites is closely linked to Wahhabism, the Sunni branch of Islam, which rejects the ideas of bid’ah (innovation/reformation) and shirk (idolatry). Wahhabism advocates a pure Islam, dedicated only to Allah, and also denounces the veneration of saints, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, the use of ornamentation in mosques, prayer at tombs (including the tomb of the Prophet), and taking non-Muslims as friends. Wahhabism is part of the impetus behind Islamic State’s desire to erase all monuments, whether sacred or secular, from the map.

The West’s failure to raise any serious issue about the Saudi destruction of Islamic cultural heritage raises some serious questions. Do we only care about the ‘star’ attractions, big name archaeological sites that were popularised by western archaeologists from the time of the Enlightenment? Palmyra, Nimrud and Nineveh are known to most people with a smattering of classical education – or at least to those who have visited the British Museum. This attitude would explain why the western media has failed to headline the destruction of any of the Islamic historic sites and monuments mentioned above. Surely all these sites and their cultures are worthy of our recognition and safekeeping, or at least our outrage when they are wilfully destroyed or desecrated?  We are witnessing the obliteration of centuries of Islamic culture – a culture as deserving of our protection as any classical site endangered by Islamic State.

Image: Eric Vernier