Some interpreters of the Holy Quran say that the city of Iram, “which had lofty pillars, the likes of which had never been created,” is the city of Alexandria in Egypt. Others say that it was a tribe or city in the Arabian Peninsula.
Iram was a city with lofty pillars and towering buildings; the New York of its age. This city’s inhabitants deviated from God’s path. God’s punishment, as mentioned in Surah Al-Fajr, was the destruction of the entire city.
Several legends surround Iram, to the extent that the “lost city” became a source of interest for historians. Years have passed and big cities were constructed from Baghdad to Timbuktu, all of which are civilisational layers and astonishing monuments that capture hearts and minds.
These civilisations’ remnants stood as a witness to what innovators had achieved in bygone eras, which is not easy to accomplish nowadays.
The new generations of cities, with their architecture resembling the “lofty pillars” of Iram, were not fortunate. Invasion and wars led to the destruction of many of them. The Mongols were behind one of the worst civilisational catastrophes and one of the biggest instances of destruction of human heritage.
Again, years passed and the Islamic world became half-safe until terrorists came… the new Mongols.
Palmyra (Tadmor in Arabic) was one of the beautiful remnants of ancient civilisation that fell into the hands of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. Its ancient Roman amphitheatre was a symbol of joy and sophistication, but it became the backdrop of execution verdicts. Supported by a number of extremist groups and perhaps international parties, IS began what it called “cultural cleansing.” It carried out an operation of destruction against the fabulous civilisational monuments; deeming them “idols.”
The word Tadmor in Aramaic – the old Syriac language – means “the invincible city.” It was the capital city of the Tadmor Kingdom, one of the prestigious kingdoms of the Levant. It was also an important city along the Silk Road between Asia and Europe, and it flourished in the first century BC, rivalling Rome.
Mr. Khaled Al-Asaad, author, historian, researcher and curator of Tadmor monuments, was fluent in the old Tadmorian language and conducted several distinguished studies.
When IS entered Tadmor, the curator, who was over 80, refused to leave the city. He insisted on remaining to protect what he could of this magical historical city. The terrorists drove the elderly archaeologist to the heart of the archaeological site and a rabble was gathered. The criminals asked the scholar to guide them to the hoard of gold in “Ali Baba’s cave”. He replied: “There is no gold here. Here, there are monuments; pillars, arches, temples and amphitheatres.” After a brief discussion, the man was slaughtered.
IS bombarded Tadmor Castle with mortar shells and homemade rockets, then it headed to the Triumphal Arch, which dates back to 200 BC, and demolished the great hallway leading to it. It also transformed the National Tadmor Museum into a prison and chose the Roman Amphitheatre as the site for carrying out execution verdicts.
The entire city of Tadmor seemed as if it were the new Iram, “which had lofty pillars.” However, its destruction was at the hands of humans, who struck out against believers who had not committed any sin.
There is another “Iram” eastward… the city of Mosul. The ancient city and its museum were damaged in unimaginable ways. The Al-Nouri Mosque was demolished along with its minaret, which had survived for eight centuries. Following in the footsteps of their spiritual ancestors, the Mongols, IS burned down the Mosul library and destroyed thousands of books and manuscripts. They also demolished the statue of the great Abbasid poet Abu Tamam.
Mosul became the ruins of a civilisation. The destruction was coming from every place and every direction. In one month of the conflict, the US-led coalition forces in Iraq dropped more than 4,000 bombs. The UN estimates the weight of the debris to have been more than 8 million tonnes.
The criminals attacked the grave of the Prophet Jonah, may peace be upon him, and desecrated the Shrine of the Forty in Tikrit, which includes the remains of 40 soldiers of the Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab. The Green Church in Tikrit, which was built 1,300 years ago and endured the Mongols, did not withstand the new Mongols.
The city of Timbuktu in Mali is also a new Iram and without sin. In 2012, a terrorist organisation calling itself Jamaat Ansar Al-Din ("Defenders of the Faith") controlled the north of Mali. A terrorist named Abu-Turab, head of the Hesbah (the moral brigade), received permission from his superiors to demolish Timbuktu’s Islamic monuments.
The Yahya Mosque along with 10 other archaeological shrines and historical buildings were demolished. In the 14th century, the city of Timbuktu was a centre of science and trade, and in the 21st century it was transformed into a hub of ignorance and poverty.
The UNESCO filed a lawsuit before the International Criminal Court, accusing terrorists of destroying world heritage. Abu-Turab was tried in the Hague and he said: “I was a miscreant. I am really remorseful and I really regret all the damage that my actions have caused”. Timbuktu will not benefit from the imprisoning of Abu-Turab for nine years, for he has transformed a glorious history into a heap of dust.
The Hague Convention for the protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflicts guarantees trial for the attackers.
However, international law does not go beyond the moral role of condemnation, while the landmarks of civilisation have exited history. There is no use in dialogue with the new Kharijites, for with the death of every one, another one is born. After every extremist passes away, another emerges. Using force is the solution.
There are ways out of economic and political crises, but the crisis of state collapse has no way out.
In contemporary conflicts, a moment of collapse can wipe out tens of centuries. The most important fact of the 21st is: the present is history and the state is civilisation.