When the Spanish conquered Peru in the 16th century, they did exactly that. Kill the leaders; wipe out the traces of the existing culture; mandate the use of Spanish and the conversion of the natives to Christianity. By the time the last Inca king, Túpac Amaru, was beheaded by Francisco de Toledo's men in Cuzco, the downfall of the culture was already a done deal. There are still traces left -- the Spanish never were able to completely eradicate the Quechua language, for example, and there are still about nine million speakers today, mostly in Peru and Bolivia. But their actions broke the back of the rich culture that had existed, and the destruction of priceless artifacts -- such as almost all of the quipus, or "talking knots," a computational or archival system that no one now can decipher -- was so thorough we really know relatively little about the day-to-day life of the people who lived there only five hundred years ago.
So it goes. The suppression of the Bretons by the French, the Basques by the Spanish, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots by the English, and damn near all the minority groups in mainland eastern Asia by the Han Chinese, have all been followed by eradication of native languages and artifacts, and the subsequent cultural amnesia that follows.
I find the whole thing horribly tragic. Our cultural history is what makes us who we are; language and symbol define us as a people. And conquerors understand that. To bring a people to its knees, you destroy those pieces of the culture that are most representative of the conquered group, then let time do away with the rest.
Which brings me to ISIS.
As the members of the "Islamic State" sweep across the Middle East, they are doing precisely what the Spanish conquistadores did; they are killing the leaders and destroying the culture. And now, they have taken the Syrian city of Palmyra -- a treasure-house of ancient relics, some dating back to the second century B.C.E., declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1958 -- and are systematically destroying its artifacts.
The Roman-era Grand Colonnade of Palmyra [image courtesy of photographer Jerzy Strzelecki and the Wikimedia Commons]
"ISIS terrorists have destroyed one of the most important unearthed statues in Syria in terms of quality and weight," Ma'moun Abdul-Karim, Syrian Director of Museums and Anquities, said. "It was discovered in 1977 and dates back to the second century A.D."
While these acts have been characterized as the wanton acts of ignorant savages, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, got it right. "Violent extremists don't destroy heritage as a collateral damage," she said. "They target systematically monuments and sites to strike societies at their core."
I know that the loss of things, however beautiful, cannot be compared to the loss of human life. The depredations that the vicious evil of ISIS is visiting on the people they conquer -- the beheadings, rapes, beatings, and selling of women and children into slavery -- outweigh the destruction of stone and ceramic relics. But still, just reading about the destruction of Palmyra, and before it the destruction of priceless artifacts in every city ISIS has sacked, makes my heart ache.
And the worst part is that it's not over. ISIS is still pulling in new recruits, making headway, taking over village after village. Here we sit, in the 21st century, watching a group of people who take their directives from a book written in the 7th century sweep across the Middle East, and we are largely powerless to stop it. We are watching a huge geographical area that has, in less than a decade, been been plunged back into the Dark Ages by the adherents of a violent and disgusting interpretation of a medieval religious text.
I'm no expert in geopolitics. I have no idea what, if anything, the West should do to intervene, to try to stem this tide of religious extremism. All I can do is sit here, helpless, as irreplaceable archeological history that had survived for two thousand years is demolished.
And hope against hope that reason and sanity will eventually prevail against the horrible ideology of conquest and destruction that these people represent.