The Politics of Archaeology in Islamic Nations

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The Politics of Archaeology in Islamic Nations

"Who controls the past, controls the future.

Who controls the present controls the past."

-George Orwell, 1984

Archaeology is a subjective field of study, with myriad professional approaches and opinions concerning its role in global and national politics.  At its inception, archaeology was an imperialist innovation that often harmed the continuity of antiquity in colonized nations.  Therefore, as a science it must endeavor to discredit criticism and skepticism amongst modern communities.  Nationalist movements in the Middle East, descendants of imperialist ideology and its repercussions, affect both beneficial and detrimental influences on archaeological research.  These same nationalist groups often use their county's patrimony to legitimize their specific represented demographic, be it religious, ethnic, or national.  Determining the historical validities of varying approaches is exceedingly difficult, in that it requires political and historical neutrality beyond individual human capacity.  Indeed, this is a concern that can only truly be resolved by the collective understanding of future generations concerning current archaeological practices and conclusions.

One must consider a number of factors when attempting to understand the realities of practicing archaeological research in the Middle East.  Historically, there is the conflicting heritage of the science itself, which undeniably developed out the colonialist mindset of European nations during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Legally, there is cause for extreme sensitivity in dealing with excavations and artifacts in a manner that upholds national and international regulations.  Publicly, there is the consideration of local communities, some of whom look favorably on uncovering their patrimony and some of whom are either wary of or fully opposed to certain areas of research, especially when conducted by foreign teams.  Politically, there is the necessity of meeting governmental approval in order to excavate a site, a task that is vastly complicated and multi-faceted, and completely dependant on the policies of the individual country.  Finally, there is the religious concern.  Since Middle Eastern nations are primarily Muslim, whether officially or demographically, Islam informs scholarship on a variety of levels, in direct correlation with its overall position in relation to the region.  In areas where fundamentalist or militarist Islam is a political and social concern, there are invariably conflicts between these groups and archaeologists.

To further address the first issue, the history of archaeology in the Near and Middle East deeply reflects the general practices of imperialism.  Traditions developed directly dependant upon the early intervention of the colonialist states.  Within the last two centuries, archaeology developed and emerged as a completely new science, leaving recent generations to struggle with unprecedented dilemmas in international relations.  Repercussions of malpractices performed and innovations established have caused and will incur unforeseeable outcomes in the archaeological as well as the global community.  Politically, there might appear to be a correlation in approaches to government and archaeology in predominantly Islamic nations.  Those nations whose leaders seek to incorporate "Western" practices, or at least to present themselves as doing such, most often sustain an active and successful Department of Antiquities or other form archaeological program.  These governments include but are by no means limited to Egypt, Turkey, and Southern Cyprus.  In his interview with Archaeology magazine, Juris Zarins referenced that in his experience working in Yemen and other Gulf Arab states, his American colleagues often avoided excavating in those regions out of concern for the violent political situations.  He contests that the national governments and universities are largely encouraging of foreign assistance, even if the public may be wary of a Western presence.  (Zarins)

On the other hand, administrations with traditionalist Islamic foundations are critical of if not openly hostile towards the pursuit of archaeology.  To varying degrees, the Wahabbi movement of the nineteenth century formed the ever-increasing limitations facing historians worldwide.  These regions include Northern Cyprus, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States.  Their individual policies range from ethnically motivated prioritizing (present when excavating any native culture) to government mandated destruction of major sites.  There is no simple summary of any individual policy; therefore, this argument does not suggest a simplistic polar differentiation between the aforementioned categories.  Wording such a discussion can prove difficult, since it is complicated to interpret and express the immense dualities extant in any system, specifically when incorporating the upheavals and external interference affecting many Islamic countries and countries with large Muslim populations.  Instead, the focus must be to evaluate the development and current activities of each system, as well as their roles in the global archaeological community.

Personal experience indicates that when the average American hears the word archaeology, he may immediately envision one of two popularized cultural representations.  Some will envision a young Harrison Ford boldly venturing into savage territory to recover a magical artifact.  Others associate the word with pyramids, pharaohs, and the eternal image of the mask of Tutankhamun.  Archaeological research clearly extends beyond the realm of the Ancient Egyptians, both geographically and chronologically.  However, due to its disproportionate influence on the field of archaeology, it may serve as the primary example for those nations for whom it proves ideologically and financially beneficial to encourage excavations.  The realities of Egyptology, the term used for the study of Egyptian history and culture, are obviously far more complex than either of the aforementioned general misconceptions.  Firstly, the individual archaeologist undergoes obstacles far less fantastical than those encountered by Indiana Jones, although his prove no less politically charged or precarious.  Secondly, the range of historical patrimony far exceeds the pharaonic achievements first encountered in the field.  This second point, however, directly relates to the difficulties faced by modern Egyptologists, in that it reflects the historical baggage resulting from early excavations within a region rich with easily accessible evidence of antiquities from the Ancient period.

Interest in the archaeological wonders offered readily by the Egyptian landscape inspired Napoleon Bonaparte as a young soldier and scientist, and this later provoked his decision to invest vast resources in discovering and retrieving valuable artifacts.  He sought to incorporate the grandeur of the ancient empire into the philosophy of French expansionism, simultaneously presenting to the public their ability to conquer and absorb such an impressive heritage.  Bonaparte even went so far as to import, in addition to incalculable treasures and mummies, full obelisks that still stand in France today.  Many would argue that Bonaparte's programs, active around the turn of the nineteenth century, was the inception of the science of archaeology, and immediately thereafter archaeology became another means by which European countries could derive a profit from the Middle East, as well as compete with one another for predominance.  The latter motivation expressed itself in the race to decipher hieroglyphs after the accidental discovery of the Rosetta Stone, ultimately accomplished by the French man Champollion.  Modern experts herald this as the birth of Egyptology.  (Tassie)  Western powers emphasized this as an important task, so much so that it ascended from academic pursuit to nationalistic competition, each providing resources to leading scholars while pressuring them to unravel the ancient language as quickly as possible.

Despite the official role of the Ottoman Empire over Egypt after 1805, and the utilization of the local population in maintaining government affairs, Egypt was heavily indebted to Western powers, particularly England.  As a result, whether maintaining direct or indirect control, the majority of archaeological research in Egypt was funded, led, and conducted by primarily British or French individuals and teams.  The first incarnation of a domestic body responsible for the management of archaeology was the Department of Antiquities, founded in 1858, with the French Auguste Marriette as its director.  During this period, there were little to no regulations in place that defined Egyptian patrimony as belonging to its government, rather than the excavator.  Generally, the country itself retained only what the excavating team did not want to keep.  By this point, there was legislation limiting the number and potential historical value of artifacts that the excavator could retain.  Although these restrictions were liberal and still allowed the team the majority of their discoveries, many foreigners disregarded them either for profit or to enhance their personal or national collection.  For instance, there are the unfortunate realities that surround perhaps the most notorious moment in Egyptology, the famous discovery of an undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, which was the culmination of an enormously lengthy and costly series of excavations, was the combined effort of Howard Carter and his patron Lord George Canarvon, both Englishmen.  Carter's personal residence, a Western style house perched on a hill overlooking the site, reportedly displayed numerous invaluable treasures from the subterranean tomb, and there are documented cases of him smuggling certain objects back to England that were legally property of the state.  In the following decade, The Department of Antiquities passed reforms that further limited the artifacts belonging to the expedition rather than the Cultural branch of the Egyptian government.  As a result both of Carter's actions and government measures, there was a significant decrease in both physical archaeology and scholarly interest advancing the understanding of Egypt's heritage.  Still, both looting and illegal export threatened conservation.  (Tassie)

A major turning point in Egyptology came in 1952, with the military coup led by Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasser and other young officers from the Egyptian Army.  The outcome of this upheaval was that military authoritarianism under Nasser replaced the British-supported monarchy of King Farouk.  This was a major reversal for many factions of Egyptian life and state, including the realm of archaeology.  A new state ideology needed to develop to express to the Egyptian people the notion of reclamation and autonomy after generations of foreign intervention.  It was a period of intense social and financial reactions to the tenuous hold on independence in a system heavily inculcated with the institutions and archaeological conceptions of the external "enemy."  The matter was complicated further by the fact that it was an authority fabricated in accordance with the enormous influence of Hitler's theories on governance and ethnic pride as he presented them to earlier Egyptian leadership.  Nasser's ambition was to create an overarching Middle Eastern Arab nationalism, pan-Arabism, that superseded the legacy of the individual country or region.  Pan-Arabism was a popular and formative theory in the early development of many Middle Eastern nations, particularly Lebanon and Syria, emphasizing the common heritage shared by Arab peoples predating the introduction of Islam.  Nasser accomplished this under his administration by undermining the significance and relevance of Egypt's Pharaonic history in education, political statements, and research funding.  Additionally, he officially eliminated the use of misr, the historical name used for Egypt, and from 1958 until 1961, the region became the South Eastern Province of the United Arab Republic.  Subject matter dated before the revolution was dismissed as being from a dark age (Fassad) that could not compare to and therefore had no relevance in the modern state.  However, this period also saw the formation of an international group devoted to historical preservation and regulation that reconfigured the practice of Egyptology and redefined the reputation of foreign groups working in the field from invasive to supportive.  (Meskell: Hassan, 207)

There are efforts to counteract colonialist memory and represent Egyptology as a modern science belonging to the people and aware of threats to the patrimony, which currently appear to be both well implemented and largely successful.  The credit for these belongs to Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which emerged under the auspices of the Department of Culture in 1972.  The foundation of the SCA was in reality a reformatting the previous body, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization.  From 2002 until the present Dr. Zahi Hawass, a native Cairean educated at the University of Pennsylvania, serves as the Secretary General of this body.  Dr. Hawass is engaged locally and globally in many archaeological initiatives and reforms.  His primary activities include increasing the involvement of Egyptians in excavating and understanding their national patrimony, as well as engaging in high-profile legal disputes over certain artifacts that he asserts belong in Egyptian institutions based on national and UNESCO regulations.

Modern Egyptian archaeologists, as with most professionals in the field, must reconcile the conflicted history of advancements and detrimental activities with the current incarnation of the practice.  There is a level of mistrust founded upon earlier abuse, as well as preconceived conclusions that escape reevaluation due to political and ideological biases on both the local and global scales.  Yet this inheritance is only one factor in the overall realities facing those working in Egypt today.  There are certain obstacles, such as human expansion, looting, and the illegal antiquities trade.  The population is growing at a rate of one million people each year, and urban and farming communities constantly need to spread into previously unused areas to compensate, often utilizing well digging or irrigation systems for their livelihoods.  This means that potentially valuable sites become compromised by either development or flooding from the newly introduced water systems before experts have the chance to investigate them.  There are also extensive ongoing international negotiations intended to reclaim artifacts that officially belong to the government, but remain in the possession of foreign collectors and, most often, museums.

Yet despite these challenges, archaeology in Egypt is a vastly successful science, in terms of government support, the incorporation of native professionals, and public opinion.  In recent years, scholarship has almost invariably asserted the theory that the colossal monuments and edifices were built not by slaves, but by the Egyptian people under a system of corvée.  Ideologically, this endows modern Egyptians with a certain sense of empowerment and national pride, shifting the importance of the accomplishment from the individual ruler for whom it was built onto the collective of farmers who physically constructed it.  The actual practice of archaeology encounters certain criticisms among local communities based on the tendency for the Western teams to oversee the excavation, with local lower class men performing the actual rough excavations and carrying away the dirt and sand, both of which are intense manual labor.  Still, this also provides employment in an overpopulated region, and expeditions often boost the economy of towns surrounding remote sites.

Following the scientific evolution in Egypt, one can extrapolate the essential pattern of Arab nations with similar political and cultural developments towards independence.  Reactions to colonialist practices affect Western scholars even in the most accessible Middle Eastern nations, but fortunately such governments participate in the demystification of archaeology for reasons academic, financial, ideological, and any number of additional motivations.  As demonstrated throughout Egyptian history, often the most effective means for counteracting invasive archaeology is with this approach of direct involvement, creating legal channels through which the preservation of antiquities is monitored and any misconduct can be pursued.  Turkey created a precedent for this form legislation devoted to cultural conservation in response to the increasingly apparent detriment caused by foreign appropriation, both intellectually and physically, of Anatolian heritage.  In 1884 the Ottomans enacted the first antiquities law, declaring everything excavated to be the property of the state and banning the export of artifacts.  As with Carter and his contemporaries in Egypt, early European archaeologists in Turkey largely disregarded the latter proscription.  However, as the political situation in Turkey evolved, enforcement became more frequent and effective.  The 1884 law remained the national regulation until 1972, and largely informed the legislation currently in effect.  (Meskell: Özdogan, 115)

State historical policy under the Ottomans emphasized pan-Turkism, embracing the developing understanding of Turkic ancestry both within and beyond the national borders.  In October of 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atataturk became the first President of the Republic of Turkey, replacing the Sultanate that had governed the region for over six centuries.  Kemal accomplished this revolution without violence or intimidation, but rather by drafting a proposal to the Turkish National Assembly.  In addition to reforming the political situation, as President he redefined the nation's cultural affiliations.  He rejected the ethnic orientation of Ottoman pan-Turkism, preferring instead to support Anatolianism, the common heritage of the people in relation to the physical boundaries of the Anatolian Peninsula.  In this way, he incorporated Sumerian and Hittite history into Turkish nationalism. (Meskell: Özdogan, 117)  This model proved more accurate and realistic than focusing exclusively on the Turks, since Anatolian history is defined by exploitation by both Eastern and Western empires, the majority of which considered the region as strategically valuable in their inter-empirical conflicts.  The result of this was frequent cultural upheaval at each conquest, as well as forced immigration of alien nomadic tribes intended to pacify the region, eventually settling and integrating themselves amongst the extant population.  Anatolianism also established an indiscriminant archaeological policy in Turkey, since it asserts that the entirety of the regional heritage is relevant to the current incarnation of the state and its population.  The consequence of this is a welcoming atmosphere for scholarship and an egalitarian approach to government funding of excavations.  A cultural breakdown of the major excavations in 1995 shows that of the sixty-three active sites thirty  were from the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods; twenty-four belonged to the pre or proto-historic era; and nine dated from the introduction of Islam.  The first decade of the Republic was the only time in Turkish history when there were no foreign archaeologists in the region, working independently or alongside their native counterparts.  From the 1930's until the present day there have been European and American experts working in tandem with the government and its expeditions.  (Meskell, 118)

No region provides a more conspicuous and telling contradiction of archaeological practices than the island of Cyprus.  In studying this area, clear delineations between secular and religious practices in the field simultaneously express the vast differences between governmental approaches and the superficiality of these distinctions.  In 1963, three short years after Cyprus gained independence, the Department of Antiquities reformatted their legislation.  The revision proscribed excavating without a license, and stipulated that license holders must provide all of their discoveries to the national Cyprus Museum without receiving monetary compensation.  During the 1960's archaeological research flourished throughout the Republic of Cyprus, exploring sites from throughout the island's history and involving scholars imported from foreign nations, both Western and Arab, who worked closely with and trained a new generation of educated Cypriotes to be experts in their own national heritage.  Tragically, this open academic atmosphere encountered extreme limitations barely a decade after its configuration.

In 1974, tensions leading to open conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes enabled the Turkish government to occupy the northern portion of the island, declaring and maintaining control over 37.2 percent of the land.  Although never internationally recognized anywhere outside of Turkey, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" declared independence in 1983 and continues to occupy and govern their territory as a de facto independent government entirely separate from the official Republic, which nominally controls 97 percent of the island despite that their authority is recognized only in the southern two-thirds.  The ramifications of this political stalemate on archaeology and general historical understanding are drastically detrimental.  Since 1974, the Turkish occupation and subsequent Republic has not allowed excavations of any sites, to the extent that scholars are denied access entirely.  Under their authority, countless antiquities crimes have been perpetrated, including the destruction of both ancient and modern structures and the revitalization of illegal trade and smuggling.  In response, research in the South flourished and new sites opened to accommodate those teams displaced by the Northern government. (Meskell: Knapp & Antoniadou, 31)  Indeed, nearly the entirety of understanding of the rich and enigmatic Cypriote history derives from expeditions in the south.  Without even basic access to sites, it is impossible to determine the invaluable variety of cultural remnants that exist, nor those already destroyed, that would serve to inform historical perspectives on Cyprus.  An additional and arguably grander loss comes from the inability to explore further the island's impact on global history, based on current conclusions that it had constant interactions with cultures throughout the Mediterranean world from the earliest known societies through to the modern day.

There is often a correlation, as in northern Cyprus, between governmental bodies with a contentious claim to power and the mishandling of national patrimony.  The exact motivations vary with each individual political reality, yet there is the discernable overarching trend of ideological invention, through which the dominant group must redefine historical and philosophical trends in order to express a validation of their position to the public whom they seek to control.  For instance, in examining the Gulf Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman, rationalize negligent and even destructive policies with a system of opinions deeply entrenched in the public mindset.  Certain aspects of the nationalistic creed of Gulf nations are descendant from the Wahabbi movement, which influenced a cultural redirection towards traditionalism in the nineteenth century.  (Meskell: Potts, 195)  This shift largely obliterated earlier, more globally oriented awareness in favor of an archaeological, historical, and social emphasis on the supremacy of Islamic culture over the wealth of heritage offered by the numerous cultures that served in the formation of local and global development.

The repercussions of this narrowed perspective on individual understanding are perceptible in the rationale of eastern Arabian people in relation to their self-contextualization within regional heritage.  The population will justify the general neglect of pre-Islamic periods through their state-endorsed conception of socio-geographic trends.  According to popular theory, during the century prior to the inception of Islam flood cycles and dam failures forced a series of Arab migrations from Yemen into the northeastern region of the peninsula.  Therefore, average modern citizen believes himself to be the descendant of these immigrants, and consequently does not associate his personal lineage with the pre-Islamic societies that occupied the territory from prehistoric times through until the sixth or seventh century C.E.  An interesting archaeological application of this ethnic delineation, outside of the general disinterest of both government and individual in excavating pre-Islamic sites, is the dualistic approach to burials.  Regardless of the origin of a site, it is common to encounter strata with interred human remains.  On the rare occasion that there is active pre-Islamic research there is no objection by local Islamic team members against methodically yet promptly exhuming the skeletons in order to investigate the earlier evidence below.  Conversely, implementing the same procedure at an Islamic site would be abhorrent, and indeed is impossible in the context of Islamic archaeology.  (Meskell: Potts, 195)

An unforeseeable adverse effect of this ideological separation from the regional heritage arose in response to the exploration of the role of the gulf region in the cultural and commercial trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.  New discoveries of the earliest known architecture in modern Oman indicates its direct correlation with the established pattern of the Harappan civilization centered in the Indus.  As a result of these findings, Indians and Pakistanis in Oman, many of whom are second or third generation residents, now contest their inability to attain citizenship or equal status in the state.  Instead, many began to claim prior ownership of the region.  As evidenced in a variety of regions, most notably manifested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (ref. el-Haj), incorporating historical precedents of territorial occupancy complicates the political process and often negates any potential solution.  (Meskell: Potts, 196)  Should the Indian/Pakistani position continue to increase in popularity amongst the disenfranchised and politically malcontent minority, the state will face an interesting and potentially sociologically informative conundrum between maintaining the current Islam-centric ideology and combating the physically evidenced assertion that threatens to undermine the current leadership.

Although there is no legal proscription against excavating pre-Islamic sites anywhere in the gulf region, limitations enforced under the guise of religious and nationalistic preservation affect the extent to which researchers can further historical understanding in relation to the Arabian peninsula.  For instance, there has never been exploration into the eastern portion of Yemen, no foreign expeditions and only a handful of individuals have been permitted to excavate in Saudi Arabia since the national survey between 1974 and 1986, during which foreign groups worked for the government.  (Zarins)  The disadvantage of excluding foreign, primarily Western, archaeologists is that there are still very limited amounts of local scholarship possessing adequate training in their particular region or in the more general methods archaeological practice.  The nature of archaeological research actually rejects profiting off the discoveries in favor of the local, international, and scholarly consensus that findings belong to the abstract of cultural heritage rather than to an individual.  However, this results a profession almost entirely dependant on institutional grants or individual wealth.  Therefore, few citizens are willing or in many cases financially capable of disregarding the immediate potential of entering a developing industrialized profession in favor of devoting the time and resources necessary to establish oneself within academia.  The consequence of this unfortunate reality is that most archaeologists currently active in the gulf countries are imported from other Arabic-speaking regions, primarily Egypt and the Sudan.  These scholars, while well qualified to practice and instruct in the field, possess cultural and historical perspectives that relate to their training in the general shared trends of Arabic and Islamic histories more than to the particular events that relate to the host territories.  Additionally, their instruction may have certain adverse influences on the biases of the next generation of local scholarship.  (Meskell: Potts, 197)

Emphasis on local proficiency is the paradigm for reaction to foreign intrusion amongst independent states seeking to extend the sense of reclamation from imperialist powers into every aspect of internal affairs, including archaeological research.  In 1936, four years after gaining independence from Britain, the Iraqi government under King Ghazi enacted legislation restricting foreign expeditions in the attempt to replace these teams gradually with an Iraqi dominated scholarship.  The accompanying academic philosophy taught the importance of understanding regional culture and history to inform international understanding, rather than the opposite approach that was, and in some areas remains, the methodology for creating a more complete understanding of human history.  More recently, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, state ideology concerning archaeological research and its conclusions shifted to accommodate and ideally overcome the politically precarious situation of ongoing internal conflicts.  The Iraqi people were (and still are) religiously and ethnically divided along what may be viewed as essentially irrelevant party lines.  Hussein implemented a program that preferred the model of a common heritage, utilizing pan-Arabic theory as well as developing a strong association with the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.  As well as confronting local sectarian violence, Hussein's policies incorporated a vast range of regional and global historical ideology.

Although the purity of intention and overall outcome of Hussein's patronage of archaeology are subject to debate, there remains the undeniable legacy left by these initiatives on archaeological policy and historical suppositions within Iraq.  He established the State Organization for Antiquities and Heritage, funded the renovation of national museums, and the excavations and restorations of those ancient sites that correlated with his espousal of Iraqi heritage.  In investing an immense amount of resources in the restoration of Mesopotamian cultural affiliations, most notably the enormous rebuilding program of ancient Babylon, Hussein simultaneously sought to legitimize his rule, unite the people under a common heritage, appease international critics, and finally to demonstrate the chronological and perhaps historical primacy of Iraq over Iran within pan-Arabism.

Determination of the overall success of these activities will remain undefined until future scholars can evaluate them within their global historical context, which most likely extends up to and beyond the current moment due to ongoing international involvement in Iraq.  For instance, the central museum in Hussein's restorations was ransacked in the immediate aftermath of the original American invasion.  This was the direct result, accurately predicted by Iraqi historians, due to American non-compliance with international legislation.  According to the Hague Conventions from the first half of the twentieth century, it is the legal and moral responsibility of an invading force to actively protect local sites and institutions of cultural importance.  The American forces knowingly disregarded this commitment, as a result of which art thieves and common looters alike encountered no difficulty in openly entering the museum and stealing thousands of priceless and immensely significant artifacts, the majority of which have not been recovered.  Since 2003, there has been little archaeological activity in Iraq due to the potential danger involved.  On the other hand, constant warfare and the frequent use of indiscriminate bombings by both sides has damaged or destroyed countless sites of vast historical value both for Iraqi patrimony and as the "cradle" of human civilization.

While leadership on both sides of the American-Iraqi conflict may see their actions as unfortunate accidents, yet another casualty of what is an overall legitimate and necessary struggle, not all recent incidences of historical obliteration are defended as accidental.  In the Arab world, fundamentalist militant sects of Islam, whether politically dominant or revolutionary within their respective county, are responsible for some of the most tragic losses of antiquities in the last century.  To cite every example and its political inspirations and ramifications is too daunting a task to address in this context, yet the following instances represent the overall tragedy of these irreversible losses.  The first and perhaps the most puzzling Islamic anti-historical actions are those mandated by the Saudi government.  Because the Saudi monarchy relies in part on fundamentalist Wahabbi support from to maintain power, their policies reflect obsessive Islamic purification even though their personal beliefs and activities reflect an entirely secular attitude.

Since the Saudi Arabian government controls the earliest and most influential sites in Islam, it would seem imperative that they maintain these locations, which are religiously and historically essential.  However, due to the extremist interpretation of the Qur'anic proscription against idolatry, many pilgrimage destinations in and around Mecca and Medina are closed permanently to the public, to the extent that even stopping outside of one is considered heretical and forcibly prevented by military personnel.  This, however, is only the case for those locations which cannot be destroyed outright, for instance the gravesite of Mohammad's first wife, where desecration would also violate Muslim law.  There are numerous examples of outright methodical destruction, as well as locations intended for future demolition.  Saudi bulldozers erased nearly the entirety of the city of Mecca, reports indicating that approximately 95 percent of buildings remaining from more than a thousand yeas ago have been demolished in the last twenty years. (ref. Gulf Institute)  Currently, the Saudi government hopes to level the mountain in which Mohammad had his first revelation as well as his birthplace, and they are facing enormous opposition from religious and secular communities alike though such interventions have not been and are not expected to have any influence of these devastating acts.  Since the intellectual and religious communities do not have the ability to prevent these unthinkable acts, they must instead turn to the international political community to initiate an effective means by which to cease this senseless destruction.  The Saudis are a unique example in that the patrimony that they endeavor to erase is undeniably their own, but not in their practice of general cultural destruction justified by fundamentalist Islamic groups.  As previously discussed, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, polarized by their conflict with Greek Cypriotes, actively eliminates historical sites that belong to a heritage that is not primarily Islamic.

The Taliban government in Afghanistan also sought to eliminate non-Islamic heritage, claiming their actions as a legitimate prevention of idolatry.  Perhaps the most well publicized incident occurred in Bamiyan on the eighth and ninth of March of 2001, when the Taliban ordered the demolition of several Buddha statues from various periods, one dating to the third century.  Although incredibly culturally detrimental, this act cannot compare with similar, earlier actions by other governments, most notably the Saudis.  Still the Bamiyan Buddha incident sparked an enormous international outcry against this action, and two years later UNESCO issued the "Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage."  (Rose)  While vital to the process of preservation in extremist nations throughout the global community, as a document it cannot stand alone to prevent future crimes against human history.  Evidence of this fact came less than three months ago, when the illegal Pakistani group Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, currently at war with the government, used dynamite to destroy a 23-foot tall Buddha statue carved into a rock face in Swat in the seventh century.  This was the second attempt against the Buddha in two months, intended both as a pro-Islamic action as well as a means by which to undermine the Pakistani government in international opinion.  (Rose)  The destruction of antiquities is of universal importance, regardless of ones cultural or ethnic affiliations, and while academic outcries against such actions are vital to preventing future losses, the decision to act belongs to the international power structures and on individual determination to initiate change beyond the easily disregarded proposals and regulations.

D.T. Potts, a non-Arab archaeologist working in Gulf nations, understands the current situation in relation to historical context and modern reactions thereto as such,

"The goal of bringing up generations of Arab archaeologists is not to exclude non-Arab ones from working in the area…When British and European scholars undertook archaeological excavations in the era of empires and colonies, on could say that some of the work done was imposed on the region in which it was carried out, yet another arm of colonialism.  I argue that nowadays the same charge cannot be laid at the door of a non-Arab archaeologist wishing to work in an Arab country.  The planet is now the field of inquiry."  (Meskell: Potts, 198)

History is one of humanity's most valuable commodities, and therefore it is often at the mercy of those who seek to gain or maintain power.  It is the responsibility of the modern archaeologist not only to exhibit a separation between their practice and that of the earlier colonial prototype.  With our advantage of a more advanced understanding of the incalculable value of important buildings and artifacts, we must also be vigilant and act against any modern manipulation and exploitation, political or otherwise, that jeopardizes our understanding of the patrimony of our shared human ancestry.


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Ayadin, Mustafa. Turkish-American Relations: Past, Present, and Future. C. London: Rutledge. 2004 (Ch.3)

Galaty, Michael L. Archaeology Under Dictatorship. C. Library of Congress. 2004

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. C. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985

Meskell, Lynn. Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics, and Heritage in the Mediterranean and Middle East. C. London: Routledge.  1998

Renfrew, Colin. Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. C. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd.  2000

Rose, Mark. "Pakistan's Heritage at Risk." ARCHAEOLOGY Online. C. The Archaeological Institute of America. November 6, 2007

Tassie, G.J. "Background of the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation." C. ECHO. 2006

Zarins, Juris. "Conversations: A Yearning for Yemen."  ARCHAEOLOGY. 56(6) C. The Archaeological Institute of America. 2003
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