Monday, June 16, 2014

Monumental Stupidity and Control of the Past

What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?
– Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (1993)
 Mesha Stele CC BY 2.0 
Henri Sivonen from Helsinki, Finland 
Uploaded by Pieter Kuiper 
(via Wikipedia) 

If you’re looking for strange and romantic stories of discovery in the 19th century Middle East, it’s hard to top the saga of the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone), one of the longest and most significant inscriptions from the Iron Age southern Levant. The first Westerner to discover the stele was the missionary F.A. Klein, who observed it in 1868 at the site of Dhībān (biblical Dibon) in what is now Jordan. Klein alerted a Prussian scholar in Jerusalem, Julius Heinrich Petermann, who made arrangements for the Berlin Museum to negotiate the stone’s purchase. Before negotiations were finished, however, word of the discovery leaked to other scholars in Palestine, including the Frenchman Charles Clermont-Ganneau. Clermont-Ganneau sent two men to investigate the stele: the first to confirm its existence, the second, named Ya‘qub Karavaca, to make a squeeze. As the story goes, while paper was drying on the stele to make the squeeze, a fight broke out among the Bedouin who owned the stele at the time. Karavaca was injured, and he and the two horsemen accompanying him were barely able to ride off to safety. Before they hurried away, one of the horsemen retrieved the paper from the stone, torn in pieces but able to be reconstructed. But in 1869, the stone was broken into pieces by the Bedouin, who distributed the fragments among different clans. Clermont-Ganneau managed to locate and purchase most of the pieces, and bring them to the Louvre where the reconstructed stele remains today.
 Charles Clermont-Ganneau (1846-1923), French orientalist. 
Paris, Sorbonne university, around 1905.
© CAP / Roger-Viollet

From the beginning, conflicting accounts and agendas complicated the story. As far as we can tell, the reason that the Arabs broke up the stele was in response to the hated local Ottoman authority – in this case, the governor of Nablus – who intervened in the middle of the Prussian negotiations and demanded that the Bedouin turn over the artifact. Other accounts, however, have suggested that the Arabs were motivated by greed, believing they could get more for the individual pieces than the stone as a whole.1 No less a figure than Christian David Ginsburg, an important British Hebraist of the time, suggested that Clermont-Ganneau had carelessly driven up the price (and that this may have contributed to the decision to break up the stele).2 

Recently, though, I was surprised to find an alternate version: the Arabs broke up the stele because they thought they might find treasure inside! As it turns out, this version has in fact been repeated in several places. For example, William F. Albright, the father of “biblical archaeology,” reports the incident as follows in his survey The Archaeology of Palestine: 

This stele was discovered in 1868 and was brought by Clermont-Ganneau to the Louvre, though not until local nomads had broken it in order to find the treasure which they fatuously expected to find inside the stone.3

This version also appears in A.H. Van Zyl’s scholarly 1960 account of The Moabites, and more recently in Victor Matthews’ and Don Benjamin’s translation of ancient Near Eastern texts.4 I have only been able to trace this version, however, as far as Harold Hunting’s The Story of Our Bible, originally published in 1898. Notably, this version does not seem to appear in any of the earliest accounts of the recovery of the stone, whether scholarly or popular.

But the destruction of antiquities to find treasure inside appears to have been a popular trope in Western writing on the exploration of Palestine, whether in popular literature or in scholarly accounts. In surveying the Lebanon for the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1869, Charles Warren reported on the relief of a human face, possibly a deity, on a temple at Rakhlah, Syria: “The upper part [of the face] has been blown away with gunpowder, probably in hopes of finding treasure inside.”5 Meanwhile, there is a story that a famous statue in Babylon, the “Lion of Babylon”, is missing its nose because Turkish soldiers tried to blow up the statue in order to find gold, although I can only find this in travel writing since 2002.6
Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope
by Robert Jacob Hamerton, 
printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, 
published by Richard Bentley
lithograph, 1830s?
                 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps the most interesting example is another fascinating incident in the 19th century exploration of Palestine: Lady Hester Stanhope’s excavations at Ashkelon. Stanhope was a British aristocrat – William Pitt the Elder was her grandfather, Pitt the Younger her uncle – who lived in the Levant for many years. Coming across a map claiming to show the location of treasure in ‘Asqalān (ancient Ashkelon), she set out on an expedition which involved a two-week excavation at that site in 1815 – one of the earliest modern “excavations” in Palestine – employing Arabs from the neighboring villages as workmen. Stanhope’s excavations uncovered no treasure; instead she found building foundations, granite columns, and pottery, none of which was illustrated or recorded in any real way. The only illustration made was of the most spectacular find, the torso of a statue of a Roman emperor – which her workmen then smashed to pieces and tossed into the sea.

 Meryon's sketch of the statue
(Travels of Lady Hester Stanhope, vol. 3, p. 162)

Why did the Arab workers smash the statue? According to the official account, by Stanhope’s doctor Charles Meryon, they did it on the initiative of Stanhope herself. Stanhope (at least according to the doctor’s admittedly apologetic version) always insisted that she was acting on behalf of the sultan in Istanbul and not merely treasure-hunting for personal gain. She therefore did not want to carry off the statue from Ashkelon herself, but refused to let it remain for fear that someone else might carry it off. As Neil Asher Silberman has pointed out, Stanhope’s actions, while perhaps puzzling to us today, must be seen in the context of the times: Stanhope’s excavation took place a mere three years after Lord Elgin had finished removing sculptures from the Parthenon – the (in)famous Elgin Marbles – and the British Parliament was now discussing the purchase of the sculptures. The status of the Elgin Marbles a much-debated issue in England, and to some extent Stanhope’s position was a progressive one: she did not want the cultural heritage of Ashkelon (or the Ottoman Empire) to be removed.

As the official account was not published until three decades after the excavation (in Meryon’s three-volume biography of Stanhope), however, all sorts of rumors and false information spread in the meantime about the statue and the excavations in general. One of the claims circulated was that the workmen hoped to find gold inside the statue. According to Johann Scholz, traveling in Palestine in 1820-21:

Two years ago Lady Stanhope employed workmen to dig, but the only fruit of her great expences, was some statues of the times of the Romans, and these she had broken, to remove a prejudice of the inhabitants, who thought that treasures were hidden in them.7 

Nor did the publication of Meryon’s account did not silence such rumors. They continued to be repeated, even by the most careful surveyors and explorers of 19th century Palestine. For example, Claude Conder, co-director of the Survey of Western Palestine, claimed that the statue “was unfortunately broken up by the workmen in search of treasure supposed to be concealed within.”and others.8 As late as 1978, the then-authoritative Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land was still repeating it. Meanwhile, there was another rumor that Stanhope herself hoped to find treasure inside the statue.

Lady Stanhope has been defended by Silberman, who insists that she knew “as well as anyone that solid marble statues do not usually contain gold.” But the native population has not been so lucky. This trope was quite popular, even though for the two examples best known to me, the Mesha stele and the Ashkelon statue, it is demonstrably false. And almost all examples of this motif – found in Western writing, we must remember – attribute the idea of finding treasure to non-Western Arabs (or Turks). Why is this the case? I think that, to put it simply, the motif existed to show how stupid the “natives” were. It was a ready-made trope for any report of destroyed monuments. This should not be surprising, since this motif is merely one of many examples from 19th century Western accounts presenting negative stereotypes of Arabs, usually as stupid, lazy, dishonest, or violent. Travel guidebooks, travelers’ accounts, and scholarly publications all share such condescending attitudes.9 

But is there something more going on here? On one level, it is true, these stereotypes look simply like examples of making fun of the other; but on another level, I would suggest that they look like an integral component of imperialism.10 Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. This knowledge could sometimes be very practical, as in the case of the direct and deep connections between map surveying and empire: from Jacotin’s survey during Napoleon’s campaign, through British Royal Engineers in 1840 and the Survey of Western Palestine in the 1870s, to Leonard Woolley’s and T.E. Lawrence’s “Wilderness of Zin” survey as a front for military reconnaissance on the eve of World War I.11 In other cases, this knowledge could be symbolic. It could demonstrate the supposed superiority of Westerners over the local residents, including superior knowledge of their own lands – serving to impress the “natives,” or to justify imperialism back home. This is part of the historical context of Western travelers’ accounts of Palestine, but a context that still echoes today, as we lecture residents of war-torn Middle Eastern countries how to look after their own past. Cultural heritage can be pursued and protected with humility – it doesn’t have to be the “white man’s burden.”

Take up the White Man’s burden--
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

–Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899)

1Christian D. Ginsburg, The Moabite Stone (1870), p. 10.  Ginsburg may have been biased against Clermont-Ganneau, however, and in any case he still makes clear that it was the governor of Nablus’s demands that ultimately led to the destruction.

2For discussion of this point, see André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3 (May/June 1994). See also Siegfried H. Horn, “The Discovery of the Moabite Stone,” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday (1983). These two sources (especially Horn) provide a good overview of the recovery of the stele. I have also relied on three 19th-century sources (all from 1870): F.A. Klein, “The Original Discovery of the Moabite Stone”; William Hayes Ward, “The Inscription of Mesha, King of Moab”; and Ginsburg, The Moabite Stone.

3William F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (1960), p. 132.

4A.H. Van Zyl, The Moabites (1960), p. 30; Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (3rd rev. and expanded ed., 2006), p. 167. See also Immanuel Benzinger, “Researches in Palestine,” in Explorations in Bible Lands during the 19th Century, by H.V. Hilprecht et al. (1903), p. 611; G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1962), p. 156.

5Charles Warren, “Our Summer in the Lebanon. 1869,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 1869, p. 219.

6David Blair, “Iraq seeks to restore glories of Babylon,” Telegraph May 4, 2002; Bartle Bull, “Saving Babylon,” Travel + Leisure, February 2007; Justin Marozzi, The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History (2010 [2008]), p. 126.
Similarly, Philippe Tailliez referred to Greek divers “who broke the legs of statues hoping to find treasure inside” (To Hidden Depths (1954), p. 91).

7Johann M.A. Scholz, Reise in die Gegend zwischen Alexandrien und Parätonium, die libysche Wüste, Siwa, Egypten, Palästina, und Syrien in den Jahren 1820 und 1821 (1822), pp. 146-147); translated as Travels in the Countries between Alexandria and Paraetonium, the Lybian Desert, Siwa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, in 1821, p. 60. Note that in this one sentence Scholz, writing well before any official account was published, is mistaken on several points: the motivation for the destruction; the year of the excavation; and the number of statues found. Jean-Joseph-François Poujoulat (Correspondance d’Orient [1830-1831], Tome VI [1841], p. 84) reported a similar version. Meanwhile, according to James Silk Buckingham (Travels among the Arab Tribes inhabiting the Countries East of Syria and Palestine [1825], p. 103), Turks and Arabs smashed the statue because they took offense to “graven images.”

8C. R. Conder, Syrian Stone-Lore (1886), p. 217; K. Baedeker, ed., Palaestina und Syrien: Handbuch für Reisende (1st ed., 1875), p. 330. See also Victor Guérin, Description géographique, historique et archéologique de la Palestine, Judée, tome deuxième (1869), p. 147; C.R. Conder and H.H. Kitchener, Survey of Western Palestine: Memoirs of the Topography, Orography, Hydrography, and Archaeology, vol. 3, Sheets XVII-XXVI, Judaea (1883), p. 142; Mary Eliza Rogers in Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt, division 3 (1881), p. 164.

9Take for example Baedeker’s guide (1st edition, 1875), where we learn that the Bedouin are the “direct descendants of the half savage nomads who have inhabited Arabia from time immemorial”; that “war occupies much of the time of these tribes, the occasion being usually some quarrel about pastures or wells”; and that “they are notorious thieves, and have little respect for the property of others” (Baedeker 1875, 83). The Turks fare even worse: they are “intellectually inferior to the Arabs, but generally good-natured.” About the Young Turks, we find out that they 
       profess to imitate European manners, [but] do so in a purely superficial manner. They generally begin at the wrong end, many of them fancying that the proof of a modern education consists in wearing Frank dress and in drinking spirituous liquors. Throughout Turkey, indeed, the whole race is in a decaying and degenerate condition. (Baedeker 1875, 84) 
Meanwhile, in the mind of authors like Herbert Kitchener (later Lord Kitchener of Khartoum,British imperialist extraordinaire), one of the directors of the Survey of Western Palestine, Arab Muslims are viewed more negatively than Christians:
       A Christian village can be known from a distance by the greenness of its vineyards and fields, in striking contrast to the barren desolation surrounding most Moslem villages. The terrible fatalism of their religion destroys the country. “If God wills that fruit trees or vineyards should grow they will grow,” says the Moslem, as he sits and smokes.– Herbert H. Kitchener, “Survey of Galilee” (1878), p. 169
10The classic statement of the relationship between racist images of the (Middle) East and imperialism is of course Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978).

11For instance, Haim Goren (“Sacred, But Not Surveyed: Nineteenth-Century Surveys of Palestine,” Imago Mundi 54 [2002]) has emphasized that the Survey of Western Palestine map – long seen by scholars as motivated by the primarily biblical interests of the Palestine Exploration Fund – was only made possible once the British government determined that it was of military interest.

1 comment:

Jean said...

It's better to piece the stones back together than break them apart with bombs.