Back from the Future: ISIS and the Impact of the Present on the Past in the Present

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Back from the Future: ISIS and the Impact of the Present on the Past in the Present


Oswald, Simon

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Palimpsest Media LLC

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History is a curious thing. It can be a source of great pleasure, pride, and sadness. It is the great guardian of memory, full of contradictions, and mystifying in its depth and extent. Then there is the Present. Modern, delightfully decadent, paradoxically always inferior to the good old years, but never a greater time to be alive. And now there is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has married the Present and the Past together in a terrifying way that calls into question their status as discrete categories.

As is now well-known, ISIS, a self-proclaimed (though aren’t all independence movements in the beginning?) caliphate, has embarked upon the systematic destruction of material culture. Islamic sites are among the hardest hit. One such site is ancient Sāmarrā, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century CE and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caliphate-on-caliphate: one illegitimate and terrible, the other legitimised via conquest and recognized as such by history.

But who is to say that Raqqa, seat of the ISIS capital, will not also become worthy of UNESCO attention in 1000 years (hopefully 1000 years after its downfall)? While ISIS is issuing in no new Golden Age, it is certainly undertaking events of historical importance, terrible as they are. The material remains represent a tangible history caught up in a present history wrapped in a palimpsest of caliphates. Conceptually, it is interesting to consider why one history gains a UNESCO mandate, while the other, present history is entirely denied: after all, both caliphates came into existence via violence and were/are maintained by violence. Where is the line in the Syrian sand?


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