As I have been reading (for a current project) a lot about the First Crusade, I have had in my mind the visions of bloody sieges and countersieges, with the flying of banners over heavily fortified cities. It is for this reason that I found so arresting the image of an ISIS (Islamic State) flag flying over a castle in Palmyra—as seen in this AP photograph at the head of a BBC article on the curious status of ISIS guards at a museum. The ironies of ISIS museum guards are not hard to find: as I have written about more than once on this blog, ISIS’s destruction of antiquities is clearly a key part of its aggressive militarist campaign—as is its propensity to sell off as many of the movable antiquities that they can in the desire to fund their nascent war-state. ISIS’s propensity to destroy certain artifacts and sites and its very active sales of plundered antiquities only seems incompatible if you see antiquity destruction as merely a religious statement—rather, it is a very effective propagandic act, conveying the image of a sect that does not abide by such limiting notions as “world heritage” and which is prepared to, and is indeed eager to break global taboos about preserving sites and objects of historical interest. As I have written about here before, ISIS is clearly focused on mastering symbolic modes of violence, with its cultural strategies succeeding in channels that have sometimes been thought the exclusive domain of the Hollywood-centered West.
It is the site of the flag that really struck me, as immersed as I am in in such wonderful, but horrific histories as narrated in Thomas Asbridge’s excellent The First Crusade. Much as, as Asbridge points out so well, history allows us to see that Crusaders could harbor both deeply held religious beliefs and be acquisitive, rapacious plunderers bent upon taking and sacking cities, so does ISIS spread its flags and banners on various sites throughout a Middle East destabilized by violence that few could deny was at least in very significant part (*at least in its current, post-Sadaam Hussein era phase), unleashed by the West.
While most of the museum goods have, the BBC reports, been transferred to Damascus, the image of an ISIS flag over a castle—a fortification designed to allow elites to maintain control over local territories, by offering defenses and barracks and a location from which to launch military campaigns, among other things—casts an eerie shadow over the fate of the Palmyra ruins nearby. Classified as a “World Heritage” site—a classification that would merely seem to invite the ISIS occupiers to unleash their destructive energies, since the world reaction they desire would be predictably large, with a massive shock and horror value delivered with a relatively small investment of force—the Palmyra ruins date back to the Roman era.
The Romans, of course, did their share of destruction—all of Carthage, for example, was burned to the ground, in what Ben Kiernan in Blood and Soil argues may be the first historical genocide—so it hardly seems unpoetic justice for anything Roman to come undone. Much seems to be coming undone in the Middle East these days—and that ISIS flag, reminding us of the blurred lines between the Crusading era and our own, flies hauntingly above that ancient castle.