Ever since 9/11, we seem to have had no shortage of cataclysmic, globally-transmitted events to shock us to the very core of our being and shake our sense of reality. The most recent of these mass-media incidents took place on Monday evening, as the 12th century Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire and came close to being burnt to the ground. As a key symbol of French (and European) cultural identity, and one of the most visited, globally recognized monuments in the world, the possible destruction of this masterpiece of Gothic architecture had everyone aghast in horror and sharing melancholic selfies taken in front the iconic façade, with even Donald Trump rushing to tweet some misplaced words of advice. Hollywood – quick to destroy Parisian monuments when it comes to showing the end of the world – had already blown it up in a number of its fatuitous blockbusters, but this seemed more like a culmination to Victor Hugo’s darkly foreboding Notre Dame de Paris, which the great novelist wrote in 1831 as an indictment of intolerance, ignorance and human cruelty. That book was also a strategy aimed at rescuing what Hugo considered to be a crystalized beacon of collective human creativity. Dangerously imperiled by neglect, the Cathedral was on the verge of collapse and Hugo’s enormously popular novel compelled the French state to renovate the church and even make new additions to it.
With Monday’s fire now extinguished, French officials have confirmed that most of the building and its artworks have survived and though some irreplaceable original elements (such as the buttressed wooden roof, the legendary organ and the 19th century spire) are lost forever, a full restoration is imminent. And it took just one day for some of the world’s largest corporations and richest people to raise over 800,000 million euros towards the restoration. The entire process could, in fact, drag on for over a decade and cost, as early reports suggests, close to two billion euros. This amount seems staggering in the context of humanitarian crises and the overall ecological catastrophe that the planet is undergoing today. So naturally, the media and the Internet have been abuzz with rhetorical debates about the ethics of providing so much money for the restoration of a single building, while according to UNICEF, 22,000 children die of poverty everyday and others perish due to armed conflict (Yemen, Syria, Palestine) or the effects of global warming (everywhere). Surely if ten or so corporates can put out that much for the Notre Dame, they can also save millions of endangered lives, or clean the oceans of plastic at the very least? After all, it is people who create and appreciate art and their fate has to come first.
But pitting human lives and art against each other on the scales of ‘importance’ is surely an epistemic obfuscation. Humans have always been ready to risk and sacrifice themselves in order to protect sacred sites and objects. There are countless such instances in modern history – from the Armenian Genocide to World War II, the recent war in Syria and the 2013 rescue of Timbuktu’s medieval archive of Islamic texts in Mali from invading Islamist rebels. Rather, what we should ponder about after Notre Dame’s near-fatal scarring is why such monuments, and art overall, matter to us and what their significance is in everyday life. The universal outpouring of shock and grief during the hours that the Cathedral burnt, indicated that there is something about great works of material culture that transcends abstract or theoretical notions of ‘worth’ to become a vital component in the work of being human.
In dedicating two whole chapters of his great novel to the description of Notre Dame, Hugo himself proposed it as a collective, intellectual effort of society – a distillation of humanity into material form, which evolves over time. And it is this crucial aspect that makes a monument like the Notre Dame so indispensable. It actually helps us live and not merely exist. We rely on such art not only to represent our national, communal and individual selves but also to serve as points of connection and communication where all other means fail: language, culture, religion and most of all, politics. It is, in all times and up to now, the first diplomatic resource that we employ in trying to smooth out conflicts between clashing states and groups. Objects of art and architecture are, quite literally, the face of our dignity and the narrative that explicates who we are as a community and what values we stand for. This is precisely why the heritage of material culture is also the first thing – along with human lives – that gets attacked by particularly vicious and extremist regimes. And while the Notre Dame fire is most likely a horrid accident, the world has already lost some of its greatest cultural accomplishments to military and ideological warfare in just the first two decades of the 21st century. The outpouring of grief and support for the French architectural chef-d'oeuvre actually raises some barbed questions about international community’s double standards in dealing with heritage that is under threat. Decisions about what gets rescued, restored or preserved are undeniably political and, it appears, still marked by the nefarious legacy of colonialism.
When Afghanistan’s Taliban regime blew up the two ancient Buddhas in the country’s Bamiyan province on account of their supposedly ‘anti-Islamic’ nature in 2001, this became the first of the globally-televised and condemned acts of ideologically based cultural vandalism. But that stupefyingly inhuman spectacle was actually preceded by an immeasurably larger project of ‘cultural cleansing’ that began sometime in the late 1980s and was successfully finalized around 2005: Azerbaijan’s planned erasure of medieval Armenian cultural monuments in the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan, following the Nagorno Karabakh war. Though the Armenian government had issued numerous complaints to international organizations tasked with the protection of cultural heritage since 1998, these protests were met only by half-hearted efforts by UNESCO and the Council of Europe, which came to naught. Concerns were primarily focused on the destruction of the 10-16th century cemetery of Julfa – a unique site which at one time contained over ten thousand carved funerary steles known as khachkars (stone-crosses) and was one of the largest single repositories of medieval art in the entire Middle East. Despite irrefutable evidence, Azerbaijan not only denied any wrongdoing but claimed with a straight face that Armenians had never lived in the region in the first place.
As the newly published investigative report by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman revealed, the scale of this astonishing attempt to rewrite history was much larger. None of the documented 90 standing churches in the region – some dating back to the 5th century – remained, while the entire cemetery of Julfa was pulverized to dust and then cemented over. In addition, dozens of secular and archaeological monuments were ‘repurposed’ and in some cases rebuilt as illustrations to Azerbaijan’s fabricated narrative of ‘national history’. Despite the extent of this destruction Azerbaijan has comfortably navigated the international waters of cultural diplomacy ever since. Backed by its oil and gas pipelines and lucrative trade deals, it will be hosting the 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in June 2019 instead of being condemned for what amounts to cultural genocide.
The ignoble irony of the situation says much about the way cultural heritage is either instrumentalized or ‘removed’ in political maneuvers grounded in capitalism’s mercenary interests, neo-colonial expansion, religious or nationalist ideology, and the desire for power. Against this background, the operational rhetoric of international parties like UNESCO must be put under question. Whose interest does it actually serve? Does its ongoing policy of ‘convenient’ action and political correctness actually cloud the issues it is meant to address and resolve? How implicated is the mass media in turning our attention away from barbaric attacks on heritage when it is perpetuated by powers closely allied with the ‘democratic’ leadership of the West? Take for example the ongoing destruction of Palestinian heritage sites or the recent project of cultural ‘reformation’ undertaken in Kashgar province of China that has seen the Communist state destroy hundreds of mosques and other historical monuments as a pre-emptive stifling of supposed insurgency by the local Muslim population. Despite the alarms raised by international, non-government heritage groups, no major power has come forth to officially condemn these actions.
On another front, the ongoing wars in the Middle East have already seen a significant part of humanity’s ancient patrimony disappear under bombs, gunfire and targeted destruction by extremist Islamic groups, allied forces, Syrian army and antiquity looters. The enormity of this loss – including much of Aleppo’s historical center, several of the greatest Assyrian and Roman sites in the region, as well as hundreds of early medieval Sufi shrines – belies any financial estimations. In a crudely simplistic comparison, this is tantamount to dozens of Notre Dames being wiped off the face of the earth, with some not even having been properly studied or documented. In response to this devastation, an international fund called ALIPH, spearheaded by France, UAE and the American magnate Thomas Kaplan was launched in 2016, as an emergency measure to safeguard cultural heritage in war zones. As a 2019 Art Newspaper report states, the mission has thus far raised 60 million USD to fund various restoration projects in the Middle East. Though respectable, that number fades into insignificance when placed next to what has just been pledged to bring back the Notre Dame. The dubious morals of restoring mosques and Roman temples, while much of the local population is still under extreme duress and lacking basic means of survival is also confronting, leading some writers to question the motives behind such initiatives and rightfully ask: ‘Who is this reconstruction for, and for what purpose?’ Is it really intended for the good of the communities who live with those historical sites, or is it meant to allay the anxieties of those that dictate our understanding of the past, become yet another self-affirmative gesture of the ‘civilized’ world and placate the antiquarian pangs of Game of Thrones audiences?
The answers to these questions are so deeply entangled in the pernicious legacy of colonialism and the continual drama of global capitalism, that the reality of the matter may never be fully known. Decisions about what is saved for the ongoing narrative of human civilization are still integrally fixed in the largely Western disciplinary conceptions of artistic achievement and relevance, predicated as they are upon hierarchical structures associated with traditional knowledge production. And, as the Notre Dame potently illustrated, European civilization is still firmly on the top of that scaffold.
But the ultimate paradox in the matter is the fact that basic human indifference, ignorance, greed and economic development – rather than terrorism and armed conflict – are undoubtedly the worst causes behind the eradication of the historical past. Almost everywhere outside of the few European countries with very strict heritage control laws (France, Italy, Switzerland and Britain foremost among them), architectural relics are under incessant threat from governments eager to modernize old communities and make money from new construction projects. Only in the past decade, for example, Turkey has willfully sunk entire historical settlements, dozens of major archaeological sites and monuments pertaining to Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Armenian, Seljuk and Kurdish cultures during the construction of its massive dams on the Tigris River. Though this devastating scheme was supposedly initiated in the name of the region’s economic development, international NGOs have strongly contested its feasibility pointing to long-term negative impact, irredeemable erasure of communities and the pitifully short-term outcomes. A similar instance plagued neighboring Armenia. While continually decrying the intentional destruction of Armenian monuments by Turkish and Azerbaijani authorities, the ex-Soviet state has irreverently and enthusiastically supported the large-scale reconstruction of the country’s capital city, which has resulted in the almost complete annihilation of the precious remains from the 17th to early 20th century urban fabric in Yerevan’s historical center. By giving in to ravaging demands of private property developers, the Armenian state has not only condoned the disfigurement of the city’s architectural identity, it has also turned it into an unlivable jungle of featureless concrete high-rises choked by traffic, noise and dust.
This same scenario has plagued all major cities across the Asian continent from Moscow, Beirut and Tehran to Almaty and Shanghai. And what may escape the oligarchic appetites for investment capital due to its incontestable cultural significance often falls under the perpetually reluctant protection of less-than competent state bodies whose negligent view of patrimony as a ‘burden’ or simply a resource for the tourism industry usually leads to more disaster. Remember the 2018 fire that annihilated most of the 20 million archaeological, historical, archival, artistic and anthropological objects at Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum? Or the one million books and documents that were incinerated during the 2015 blaze at the Library of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow? Both incidents were the result of inaction from respective governments, which had withheld essential funds for renovating these institutions and keeping their collections safe. But both Brazil and Russia have somehow managed to channel billions of dollars into organizing their Summer and Winter Olympics, whose actual cultural or economical import is… highly debatable to say the least. Meanwhile the loss of knowledge and the damage to collective human memory embodied by the obliteration of the above-mentioned institutions is beyond any form of measure.
What the Notre Dame blaze momentarily spotlighted was this disturbing reality of skewed priorities. And it came to us in what the great German philosopher Walter Benjamin has described as the flashing self-appearance of ‘truth’ that belies any logic or intention. Benjamin often sought this truth in the disquieting aura of ruins, which for him stood as allegorical manifestation of history’s fallibility and the transience of humanity’s dreams. But ruins also had a constructive function for him, in that they allowed us to bring the present into a certain perspective and critically inform our evolving experiences. The tongues of fire engulfing the Notre Dame have also spewed forth some perturbing truths that are difficult to face, but essential to be grasped. They pointed to the universalizing function of art as an irreplaceable structure that binds humanity and helps it overcome its base impulses towards the achievement of mutual understanding and connection to the world. They clearly exposed the fragility of all cultural legacy and the immense burden of its continual protection. They also indicated the profoundly unbalanced ways through which the global community has come to evaluate the intellectual production of different cultures and nations. As the Notre Dame will slowly and carefully be put back together over the next decade, hundreds, if not thousands of lesser (and in some cases greater) objects of material culture will disappear due to ineffectual international policies, negligent government attention, discriminatory attitudes to non-European patrimony and our destructive, unsustainable drives for mindless financial gain. One hopes that it wouldn’t take another spectacular disaster to awaken us to this lamentable state of things.