Saturday, 21 November 2015

England's Nimrud

England's Nimrud

ISIS use power tools to destroy 3000 year old monuments before
blowing the entire site up.
*Written back in April on a previous blog. Still relevant today.*

Today is a sad day for world history as it appears that ISIS have attacked and destroyed the ancient city of Nimrud in an act of pure religious fanaticism. In videos shown across the world, images showed Islamists attacking the Assyrian city ruins which still contained priceless artifacts, some of which were over 3000 years old. 
Those taking part are apparently inspired by their prophet Mohammed's violent behavior as documented in the Quran, in tales where he is said to have torn down pagan idols in Mecca "with his bare hands". (I know right, this guy must have been strong, huh!)

The issue seems to be more widespread than just ISIS though, so this isn't an issue of just one group of extremists. It seems that there is an inherent issue within Islam over protection of historically important sites. In Saudi Arabia for example the Government there has completely turned a blind eye to even Mecca's heritage, with one Time Magazine article saying as much as 98% of the heritage sites there have been bulldozed for modern development. 

There were even calls last month from ISIS and extremist Islamic preachers to destroy what is left of the Sphinx and the pyramids in Giza. Of course this wouldn't be the first time as the nose of the Sphinx and many statues across Palestine and Turkey were defaced (quite literally) by religious nutters throughout history. They weren't just Muslim though, as Iconoclasm has been used quite extensively across history as a method of erasing the cultural stamp of a previous civilization when conquering land or subjugating a group of people.

Whilst the practice has been used since the dawn of time, the main offenders across history have tended to be those from an Abrahamic religious persuasion, and although we might think of these acts as occurring in exotic locations in the middle-east or on some isolated Mediterranean island, it may shock some to hear that similar practices happened in England. And fairly recently too.

There is also a fairly lax account of that religious extremism that occurred in England too, the last bout started during the reign of Puritanism. From as far back as the late 1500's during Elizabeth I's reign, Puritans had tried to steer the Church of England in a certain direction. For around hundred and fifty years or so they pushed for extreme reform. Although they never appeared to achieve full domination of the religious and political fabric of the nation, they got pretty close to it with the Parliamentarian victory of the second Civil War. Cromwell was an unabated Puritan who even sought to ban Christmas celebrations. Because of histories bias towards Cromwell (the reasons of which must wait for another time,) most of this has been mostly forgotten.

Whilst the overall story of Puritans and English-come-British history is obviously a little too complex for a few paragraphs, the overall image is of a fragmented society split between three pillars of Traditionalism, 'Enlightenment' and Religious Extremism expressed by some elements in English society.

So what is it that I've dubbed "England's Nimrud"?

Well it sits approximately twenty-odd miles north of Stonehenge and despite being a World Heritage Site (and the entire area being in the region of twenty times the size of stonehenge,) its actually fairly unheard of. Avebury: a neolithic monument of such epic proportions that it pretty much contains an entire village quite comfortably within its ditches.

Like Stonehenge, nobody is one hundred per cent sure of its purpose (I have my own theories like every other Tom, Dick and Harry,) but one thing that we do know is that throughout the years the huge sarsen stones were broken up for use in construction on farm walls and buildings. Now despite what I've suggested previously about the Puritans, the method of using the stones for building material was not something new, and this is obvious when you look at the villages architecture. The sites destruction seemed to accelerate around the late 1600's though for a brief time.

That been said, a vast amount of damage had already been done to the monument through the 14th century when the population was more or less fully converted to Christianity. The population were brainwashed into associating the once sacred monuments with the Christian concept of Satan, and this is still evident today with many neolithic sites bearing a daemonic name. This ideological obsession (spurred on by clergy) convinced men to go out and dig the stones foundations out, and bury or burn them. Fortunately (or perhaps with some divine influence from the land wights) one man taking part in the destruction of the henge was crushed under a falling stone and may have been the reason why the destruction stopped for some time. The tales have it that he was a barber by trade, and his death was seen as an omen by many so the sarsens were left alone. As it happens, an excavation in the early 20th century actually proved this old tale as being historically correct, when a skeleton was found under a buried sarsen with a coin dating to the 1300's and with his scissors still in a pouch. 
Today, a fair amount of the monument still exists, however the magnitude of its grandeur would not be possible today without the illustrations made by John Aubrey and by William Stukeley during the 17th and early 18th century. The full extent and size of the monument far exceeded what we see today, as much of the existing stone avenue was destroyed, along with two inner-rings and a large 'phallic' monolith which was destroyed apparently when Stukeley was present. Credit where it's due, there would be nothing there today at all had it not been for John Lubbock who purchased the estates in 1871 an attempt to preserve the site, or had it not been for the efforts of Alexander Keiller during the 1930's to dig up and re-erect the buried stones. 
Artist impression of the henge in it's original state

One of the 'accepted views' about the destruction of this site during the 1600's is that this was not religious in nature, and was merely due to an increasing population in the village. They support the theory that in many cases, villagers wanted the stones removed in order to make ploughing fields easier, or to use the huge stones as building material for new homes. The main reason that I would object to this idea is because of Stukeley's own words:

Just before I visited this place... the inhabitants were fallen into the custom of demolishing the stones, chiefly out of covetousness of the little area of ground, each stood on. First they dug great pits in the earth, and buried them. The expence of digging the grave, was more than 30 years purchase of the spot they possessed, when standing. After this, they found out the kanck of burning them, which has made most miserable havock of this famous temple. One Tom Robinson the Herostratus of Abury,* is particularly eminent for this kind of execution, and he very much glories in it. The method is, to dig a pit by the side of the stone, till it falls down, then to burn many loads of straw under it. They draw lines of water along it when heated, and then with smart strokes of a great sledge hammer, its prodigious bulk is divided into many lesser parts. But this Atto de fe** commonly costs thirty shillings in fire and labour, sometimes twice as much. They own too 'tis excessive hard work, for these stones are often 18 foot long, 13 broad, and 6 thick, that their weight crushes the stones in pieces, which they lay under them to make them lie hollow for burning, and for this purpose they raise them with timbers of 20 foot long, and more, by the help of twenty men, but often the timbers were rent to pieces. 

Stukeley goes on to write that a single stone could provide enough pieces to build an ordinary house, but that because of the nature of the stone, such a house "is always moist and dewy in winter, which proves damp and unwholesome, and rots the furniture. The custom of thus destroying them is so late, that I could easily trace the obit of every stone; who did it, for what purpose, and when, and by what method, what house or wall was built out of it, and the like."

Now reading that passage, to me it looks like the method is out of date for even the 1600s. It is clearly labour intensive, expensive and produced homes of inferior quality which remained cold and damp. Religious reasons have to come into this in some way or another. Lets not forget that at the same time that this was occurring, we had issues with the puritans in Government and even the Witchfinder General wandering around the land in search of commission. They gained very little land in destroying the stones, and as Stukeley states, this has more to do with Tom Robinson'sideological beliefs than for any practical reasoning.

In any case, I think its safe to say that the monument at Avebury has received a second wind. It is now a vibrant place to visit with a deep spiritual and cultural connection for hundreds of thousands of people. It receives a huge number of visitors, and is a destination for a worldwide pagan pilgrimage, which is something we can only dream of for Nimrud which was spectacularly blown up with plastic explosives in the last few weeks.

Avebury today.

Whilst there are calls to judge Islam and its more extreme elements for the damage done to historically invaluable monuments across the Middle East, we have to remember that it is only through the chance of time that the same fate did not also befall some of Europe's most treasured sites. The true enemy of civilization and culture is unshakable religious dogma. It has been shown time and time again to turn back humanities development, and ISIS is just another reverberation of that repeating history. Avebury survived by the skin of its teeth and through the hard work of conservationists spanning a hundred years or more. It's new position as a culturally important destination today is good luck. Unfortunately, Nimrud's ran out.

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