There is a common-sense view of time—it moves from the past (which cannot be changed), to the fleeting present (in which I am now acting), to the wide-open future (which does not yet exist, but into which I aim my projects). I am told that physics since Einstein has made this view quite obsolete and is being replaced by increasingly bizarre conceptions of reality, which I cannot understand or imagine. Specifically, the past may not be unchangeable at all but may be affected by events taking place right now (if possible by me; I have a list of priority items). However, even short of these mysterious possibilities, the past is not all that unchangeable. It is intermittently being “edited”, both by individuals (who re-invent their biographies) and by collectivities (who develop changing “narratives” of what supposedly happened in their past). Historically and even today, many of these editing projects are motivated by religion—the edited “narratives” are often what religion scholars call “myths of origin”: This is where we came from and, therefore, this is the direction that we should take.Thomas Berger, in his book War, Guilt and World Politics after World War II (2012), compares the way West Germans, Austrians, and Japanese dealt with the wartime atrocities committed by their respective countries (the author happens to be my son, but this should not prevent me from referring to a very interesting book). In each case the past was interpreted differently and a new national narrative was officially constructed. The Federal Republic (unlike Communist East Germany) confronted the facts, including the Holocaust, pretty much as an objective historian would (as defined by the 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke, an objective historian is a scholar who seeks to understand “wie es wirklich geschehen ist”—what really happened). There followed an official stance of profound apology (symbolized by Chancellor Brandt going down on his knees on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto), followed by a national narrative of democratic renewal. When Austrian independence was restored in 1945, the new state was based on what was at best a half-truth: Austria was “Hitler’s first victim”, did not exist as a state after 1938, and therefore could not be accountable for the crimes committed by the Third Reich (Berger quotes the joke that Austria tried to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German.) It was only some decades later that the new state formally acknowledged that Austrians had played an important role in Nazi crimes, including especially the Holocaust, and developed a national narrative of penitence (though nobody quite fell to his knees) and democratic renewal. The Japanese are still struggling with the issue today. On the one hand, the government has expressed regret over the many war crimes, but many prominent politicians have downplayed this, there have been disputes about the history lessons in school textbooks, and an (objectively rather surreal) narrative of “Japan as a peace nation” was developed. The issues of what Berger calls “historical memory” still cloud today’s relations of Japan with China and South Korea.The most radical form of editing history is to simply delete from the official narrative the elements in the past that one wants to deny (for example, Holocaust denial). A famous modern case is the way successive editions of the official Soviet encyclopedia literally edited out of the text individuals declared to have been traitors (including inking them out of group leadership photos). But this is not just a modern phenomenon. In the 14th century BCE, during the brief reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his consort Nefertiti (whose amazingly beautiful statuette now stands in a Berlin museum), a radically monotheistic religion was established in Egypt. It is very likely, incidentally, that this monotheism influenced the religion of the ancient Israelites. When the Pharaoh died the priests of the old gods returned to power. They eradicated every trace of Akhenaten’s new religion, deleted every mention of the royal couple from all written documents, and physically destroyed any depictions or statuary (they fortunately missed one).If there were a competition for the most ghastly regime on earth today, I suppose that it would be a close contest between North Korea and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The horrors keep piling up—genocide of entire religious groups, massacres, torture, systematic sexual slavery. There has just been a report that no one less than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called “Caliph” of the Islamic State, had repeatedly raped Kayla Mueller, a captive American aid worker, whose photos show a prototype of the open-hearted young idealist. (ISIS announced that she had died in a coalition air strike. There is no reason to believe this.) But recently there have been reports of another type of atrocity, admittedly less horrific—the physical destruction or dismemberment of pre-Islamic antiquities, deemed to be idolatrous. I suppose this practice could be described as the murder of history. In mid-August 2015, the “Caliph’s” forces tortured and murdered Khalid al-Assaad, aged 83, the curator of antiquities in the recently captured Syrian city of Palmyra. The latter was one of the richest archaeological sites in the Middle East. As in other, similar sites, ISIS had begun its practice of physical destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities, but, its fanatical faith linked with ordinary greed, it wanted to keep some valuable objects not yet destroyed for sale on the illegal international art market. It appears that al-Assaad, despite being tortured, refused to reveal where some of these objects were hidden for safety. Thereupon he was beheaded and his headless body was publicly exhibited together with the severed head. If there were such a title, Assaad should be called a martyr of civilization, a witness against barbarism.But there are many instances where archeology is not the enemy, but serves a positive function, sometimes in the service of this or that ideology, which need not be directly political. An early example is that of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), the scholar who first excavated the fabled Homeric city of Troy in what is now Turkey. Like many Germans, he had a romantic obsession with ancient Greece. I cannot vouch for the following story, but I cannot resist the temptation of telling it here: Schliemann was a bachelor and came to Greece to find a young wife who could speak classical Greek (he was appalled by what he considered the degenerate modern form of the language). He visited a girls’ secondary school in Athens where supposedly classical Greek was taught. Some girls were sent to him and asked to recite passages from Homer. He sat with his face to the wall—he didn’t care what they looked like—he listened attentively, and when he picked the one whose Greek was purest, he asked her father for her hand. It supposedly was a happy marriage, perhaps a folie a deux; she accompanied him on his digs, and was allowed to acquire some jewelry from excavated treasures.I just want to mention two contemporary examples of uses of archeology in “editing the past” for political purposes. (Whether one approves these uses will obviously depend on one’s view of the purposes in question.) In any case, there is no moral equivalence with the thoroughly evil project of ISIS.) The cases are those of Israel and Mexico.Israelis have been digging up their past ever since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948. Moshe Dayan, one of the greatest Israeli generals, was an archaeologist before he became a military leader. For religious Jews, of course, the Holy Land was given to Abraham and his descendants. (However, if one looks at the territory defined in the deed—in Genesis 15:18—it is “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” In modern terms, this means from Egypt to Iraq, with every country in between. Even Benjamin Netanyahu and others committed to the vision of a Greater Israel might think that this is bit too much.) But even secular Jews, originally the majority of the Zionist founding fathers, are convinced that they are returning to their ancestral homeland, understood as roughly consisting of the territory of historic Palestine, believed to have been ruled by the undivided kingdom of David and Solomon. Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, speaks of “the land of our fathers” (which is why some Arab citizens of Israel refuse to stand up when the anthem is played). Most Israeli archaeologists pursue a rigorously objective science, bracketing whatever their religious or political beliefs may be. In this they walk in the footsteps of their European predecessors, many of whom were pious Christians who (openly or not) hoped that archaeology would prove the factual truth of the Bible (both Testaments).If the political subtext of Israeli archeology is to show that the Jewish presence in Palestine was there from way back, one can say that it has been quite successful. The excavation of Gezer, dating from the 10th century BCE, uncovered the oldest text in early Hebrew. The archaeological exploration of Tel Arad, which was a town in the early centuries CE, came upon a reference to a “House of Yahweh.” To that extent archaeology does show that the Zionists were indeed “returning” to a country with an ancient Jewish past. The most dramatic expression of this belief was their revival of the Hebrew language as a modern vernacular. There is of course the inconvenient fact that there is a gap of about two thousand years between the last Jewish state in Palestine and modern Israel—and that in the meantime many other people have settled in that country. There is then a counter-narrative to the Israeli one, that of the Arabs (who now simply call themselves Palestinians). Israeli Independence Day is when Palestinians commemorate the naqba (“catastrophe”), which displaced hundreds of thousands of their fathers from their homeland. The Palestinians’ cause does not need archaeology to prove their presence in the land; most of them are still there. There is a history of genuine suffering behind both narratives, and it is well to keep this in mind in looking at their clash. Behind the Zionist dream are centuries of anguish caused by anti-Semitism, culminating in the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust. The Palestinian dream of statehood is rooted in more recent suffering, arguably less terrible, but more pressing because it is still going on.The Mexican Revolution in the first half of the 20th century had neither an exact beginning nor an exact end. It was a chaotic and bloodthirsty affair, which settled down into an authoritarian regime with radical, centrist, and liberal factions, under a party founded in 1929 under a different name, later (and still today) called rather paradoxically the Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI. Mexico has become more democratic in recent times, and PRI has lost its old hegemony. The PRI regime developed an ideology of Mexican nationalism, which downplayed the Spanish aspect of the country’s history and emphasized its pre-Colombian elements—from the powerful Aztec empire in the Valley of Mexico south through various ethnic communities to the large Mayan region, which spills over from the Yucatan into the countries of Central America (notably Guatemala). These were rich and variegated cultures, some of which (including some of their languages) have survived to this day. They also left behind wonderful archeological sites, from Teotihuacan near Mexico City to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Battalions of archeologists have been digging into these, with spectacular results. As in the archeological enterprise in Israel, many Mexican archeologists are motivated by apolitical scientific curiosity. Yet lavish government support for their work, not surprisingly, is politically motivated. The most impressive monument to this archeology is the splendid National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The well-known Mexican writer Octavio Paz, in his book-length meditation on the national culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1945), has a biting critique of the Museum; he calls it a celebration of the Aztec view of history. A more popular expression of the indigenous ideology is in the work of the so-called muralistas, who produced huge wall paintings depicting a version of Mexican history (Diego Rivera was the most famous), in the colorful style of “socialist realism.” The murals in the National Palace in Mexico City tell a straightforward story—the indigenous period is one of peace and tranquility, into which intruded the cruel Spaniards with their enslavement and rape of the indios, their violent religion, and their Inquisition. The Spanish part of this narrative is of course one-sided. The conquerors were indeed cruel, the huge mixed-race (mestizo) population is not just descended from consenting indigenous women who admired their Spanish conquerors. The Dominican Order did supervise the brutal machinery of the Inquisition, but it also produced the friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who vigorously protested the enslavement of the indios, with some real successes. But the indigenous portion of the ideological narrative is even more removed from “what really happened.” One of the main characteristics of most if not all Mesoamerican cultures was the institution of human sacrifice, based on the belief that the gods require ongoing offerings of human blood. The Aztecs were especially enamored of this theology, and practiced it with enthusiasm. One chronicle describes a huge ceremony in Tenochtitlan (the indigenous city that preceded the Spanish Mexico City), when several thousand captives lined up, waiting to mount the central pyramid to be killed on the sacrificial platform. The Aztec empire conducted military campaigns with the special purpose of collecting new sacrificial victims. This probably explains why a small contingent of Spaniards successfully conquered the powerful Aztec state: They got a lot of support from other ethnic groups who did not relish their assigned role in the Aztec liturgy.Editing the past is not an exclusively religious project. Much of it has been. Danièle Hervieu-Léger is a contemporary French sociologist in a scholarly tradition that goes back to a work by Maurice Halbwachs (The Social Structure of Memory, 1925, English translation 1992). She speaks of “a chain of memory”; every religious community holds on to such a chain, which unites its members with a (possibly fictional) shared past and guides them into an imagined future. In a recent book she ascribes the decline of French Catholicism to many in its community having “forgotten” the memory.
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Published on: September 2, 2015
Objective and Subjective HistoryEditing the Past
ISIS is destroying Palmyra in order to murder history, in a manner of speaking. The past is not all that unchangeable—whether by eliminating its physical remains or by rewriting the “narrative.”