Australian audiences watched in horror as images of the Notre Dame cathedral fire were broadcast over the airwaves. The collapse of the spire, and the destruction wrought by the fire and smoke evoked reactions of shock at the serious loss of precious archaeological and architectural heritage. Pledges of support and money to rebuild the damaged cathedral were swift and unequivocal.
There is no doubt that the loss of the Notre Dame cathedral is devastating for any person who values the archaeological and architectural heritage of humanity. Serious questions were asked as to why and how such a tragedy could occur. Certainly, the austerity agenda is being questioned, as consistent cutbacks to art, heritage and government regulations concerning safety have taken hold across capitalist countries.
Fire safety regulations and measures have been significantly reduced as the austerity agenda has been implemented. Cutbacks made in the name of removing ‘red tape’ have undoubtedly impacted public services and facilities. Archaeological artefacts and monuments are not immune from these measures, as public expenditure is slashed in the name of ‘balancing budgets’.
Cost-cutting has impacted fire safety measures, making catastrophic blazes – like the one that engulfed Notre Dame – more likely. It is interesting to note the alacrity with which the millionaires and billionaires pledged money for the reconstruction of the Notre Dame cathedral. The rebuilding of the cathedral is a worthy cause to be sure. If only such commitment was demonstrated by the ultra-wealthy towards the resolution of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and other serious social ills.
In the context of serious cutbacks to funding the arts, archaeological and heritage sites, one cannot help but contrast the vigorous response to the Notre Dame cathedral fire with the tepid and lackadaisical response to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Governments and corporations cry poor when the underprivileged ask for help in rebuilding their lives, but are at the ready to respond to what they see as a national disaster.
British Prime Minister Theresa May displayed her rank hypocrisy – calling the Notre Dame cathedral fire a heart-rending tragedy, but failing to meet with any of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. It is not only the huge disparity in the sums of money raised between the two catastrophic events that needs to be highlighted. The fact that Notre Dame is viewed as a ‘Western’ artefact, or at least a monument to ‘Western civilisation’ worthy of garnering tremendous support, is indicative of our attitudes to the heritage and artefacts of cultures we deem ‘non-Western.’
Notre Dame is not a monument to ‘white culture’ or ‘Western civilisation’, as the partisans of the conservative Right would have us believe. The cathedral, built between 1163 and 1345, was an assertion of French monarchical Catholicism over the fragmented and disparate feudal principalities that made up France in the Middle Ages. France was nowhere near a unified, strong state governed by an overarching royalty. Strengthening the power of the Catholic church and reinforcing the authority of the monarchy went hand-in-hand.
Indeed, at the time the Notre Dame cathedral was being built, modern notions of race and Western civilisation did not exist. The Western Europeans would not engage in the transatlantic racial slave trade until hundreds of years after Notre Dame was completed. Let’s avoid reading our modern responses into history – and avoid weaponising our history to suit modern political purposes.
For the moment, let us say that Australia is an extension of Western civilisation – being a product of British imperial capitalism’s implantation on the indigenous lands of this continent. We can certainly cry for Notre Dame, and also extend our support and sympathy to non-Western nations. That is the main thrust of an article by George Morgan, an associate professor at Western Sydney University.
Professor Morgan elaborates that over the last 25 years, there have been many treasures destroyed, damaged or stolen in nations outside of what we regard as Western civilisation. Morgan points out that the September 2018 fire that engulfed the National Museum in Brazil resulted in the destruction of 90 percent of its collection, much of which were indigenous artefacts.
The archaeological heritage of Yemen is being destroyed in the context of the Saudi-led war against that nation since 2015. The Saudi-Emirati assault on Yemen has the full backing of the United States and Britain. Yemen’s artefacts include some of the most precious heritage of humanity. Lamya Khalidi, an archaeological researcher, has written of the Yemeni archaeological treasures being damaged in the Saudi-Emirati war.
Yemen’s ‘Notre Dames’ include the palaces and temples of the Sabaean Kingdoms, relics from ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities resident in Yemen, and artefacts from the time of the Queen of Sheba. The Yemeni island of Socotra, with its ecological heritage currently listed as protected by Unesco, is being gradually annexed by Emirati forces. The UAE hopes to turn Socotra into a tourist destination and an economic colony. This creeping occupation is occurring while the Emiratis are attacking Yemen’s archaeological treasures.
Ramzy Baroud, Palestinian academic and writer, has elaborated how the ‘Notre Dames’ of Palestine, its mosques and churches, are being bulldozed and demolished by the Israeli authorities as part of their programme of colonisation and annexation of Palestinian land. Baroud writes of the contrasting responses to the Notre Dame and the destruction of Palestinian antiquities:
But the very media that covered the news of the Notre Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.
The Western nations that claim, in the wake of the Notre Dame cathedral fire, to be sensitive to the preservation of archaeological heritage, have a track record of damaging and looting the artefacts and treasures of nations considered outside the Western family. In 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, the National Museum in Baghdad was looted, resulting in the loss of thousands of artefacts from the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation.
The ransacking of that museum, done under the watch of the American military, stands as one of the great archaeological tragedies of the 21st century. While the staff of the museum did what they could to protect the artefacts, it was not enough to stop this act of cultural vandalism. Then US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, when confronted by evidence of widespread pillaging of archaeological treasures in Baghdad, contemptuously and laughingly dismissed the looting with the words ‘stuff happens.’
Indeed, the systematic looting of Iraq’s national treasures provided a tremendous boost to the black-market trade in stolen antiquities – a result of the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Artefacts are gradually being recovered and returned to Iraq, but the architects of the invasion which produced this archaeological catastrophe have yet to face the consequences of their criminal actions.
At the time of the national museum’s ransacking, there were numerous reactions by non-Western nations to the criminal negligence of the American military forces. They can be summed up by this statement from New Delhi’s Pioneer newspaper:
The sacking of the Baghdad archaeological museum- now home to smashed glass cases, broken pottery, torn books and mutilated statues-will forever remain a scathing indictment of this inexcusable and manifest indifference towards the very people the coalition claims to have liberated …. The theft of irreplaceable antiquities, some going back over 7,000 years, represents a loss that cannot be calculated in material terms; it is an assault on collective historical consciousness and, hence, a spiritual dispossession and desecration of identity.
There is no denying the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire. But let us not continue to obliterate the archaeological devastation wreaked by Western nations on the histories and cultural identities of peoples considered non-white. Making recompense for the damage caused by the imperialistic and cultural vandalism of the Western states would be an important first step.