Religion and Cultural Cleansing (2019)
Traditionally, the transmission of knowledge across generations happens through spoken and written words. Both methods have their disadvantages: spoken words get distorted, whereas written ones are often destroyed. In this essay I will discuss the willful, ideologically guided destruction of religious and cultural heritage by representatives of competing religions. Other targets of religious bigotry are documented in Daniel Kramer and Michael Moore (2002) and Moore (2013, 2015, 2017).
An early example of violent religious intolerance appears in the Hebrew Bible. There we read that when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he found that in his absence his people had turned to bull worship: “And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” (Exodus 32:20). It is then told that he commanded members of his tribe to “slay every man his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” Three thousand men were killed in the narrative (Exodus 32:27-28). Though not a historical event, Moses’ reported response to the encroachment of another religion may have set the stage for future instances of violence in the face of a competing faith. The following examples serve as illustrations.
The Library of Alexandria, built around the 3rd century BCE, stored tens of thousands of papyrus scrolls. It is unclear who actually set it on fire, but both Julius Caesar’s army and the emperor Aurelian have been accused of burning it down. More to the point is the decision in 391 CE by the Coptic Pope Theophilus to burn as “pagan artifacts” whatever had been saved from the previous damage (Haughton, 2011).
Nalanda, established about 1500 years ago in the Indian State of Bihar, was described by Justin Rowlatt as “one of the world’s first universities and—at its peak—one of the greatest centers of learning on the planet, with some 10,000 students” (Rowlatt, 2018). Around 1200 CE Nalanda was destroyed (along with the university of Vikramashila) by an army of the Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji (Scott, 1995). According to Rowlatt, when Nalanda was razed to the ground by the Muslim invaders “the libraries were said to have burned for three whole months” (Rowlatt, 2018).
Jewish texts have also fallen victim to religious fervor. Several Popes from the 13th to the 16th century have deemed the Talmud blasphemous and ordered that it be burned: “In June 1242, 24 wagon loads of books totaling thousands of volumes were handed to the executioner for public burning. Copies may also have been seized and destroyed in Rome…. [I]n Venice over 1,000 complete copies of the Talmud, 500 copies of the code of Isaac Alfasi, and innumerable other works were burned [in 1553]” (Glikson, 2018).
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) under the reign of Henry VIII, monastic libraries in England were systematically destroyed:
Worcester Priory (now Worcester Cathedral) had 600 books at the time of the dissolution. Only six of them are known to have survived intact to the present day. At the abbey of the Augustinian Friars at York, a library of 646 volumes was destroyed, leaving only three known survivors. Some books were destroyed for their precious bindings, others were sold off by the cartload (Norman, 2019).
The Protestant Reformation that swept through parts of Europe in the 16th century encouraged literal iconoclasm—statues in churches were disfigured or destroyed:
Sixteenth-century Geneva witnessed one of the most devastating waves of religious image-breaking in history. Incited by a group of charismatic theologians—among them John Calvin himself—mobs raged against objects associated with miracles, magic and the supernatural, destroying some of the city’s most precious pieces of Christian art. Invoking the Second Commandment, they denounced these works as idols, and as remnants of a rural, feudal and superstitious world, a world corrupted by Satan (Motadel, 2014).
Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Brenn-Kommandos were formed and given the task of destroying Jewish synagogues and books, among them the Great Talmudic Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Lublin (UNESCO, 1996). This is how a Nazi witness described the event:
For us it was a matter of special pride to destroy the Talmudic Academy…. We threw out of the building the great Talmudic library and carted it to market. There we set fire to the books. The fire lasted for twenty hours. The Jews of Lublin were assembled around and cried bitterly…. [W]e summoned the military band, and the joyful shouts of the soldiers silenced the sound of the Jewish cries. (Turku, 2018, p. 35)
Timbuktu was once an important scholarly center in Africa, housing in various collections thousands of books and manuscripts. In 2012 Islamic extremists destroyed its shrines as idolatrous; when fleeing from French-led troops, they torched entire libraries. A Mali official’s reaction: “I’m absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be. I can’t imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent. They could not be in their right minds” (Harding, 2013).
The most recent crimes of cultural genocide have been perpetrated by ISIS/Daesh. This Salafi jihadist terrorist organization has forced its extreme version of Islam on the populations it conquered and attempted to destroy all traces of previous worship. According to David Keys, the well-publicized destruction of the Syrian city Palmyra is “only a small percentage of the total cultural destruction wrought so far by the organization. In Iraqi, Syria and Libya, Isis has systematically destroyed more than 30 major historic churches, mosques and tombs—some of which date as far back as the seventh century. Muslim monuments damaged have included some Sunni as well as Shia ones” (Keys, 2016; cf. Turku, 2018).
The above illustrations are only a small selection of religious vandalism. The list of libraries destroyed by human action published by Wikipedia (2018) is 60 items long, covering five continents and some 2200 years; 35 of these have been attributed to inter- and intra-religious motives. The need of many religious authorities for exclusiveness is not surprising: For your religion to be true, all others must be false (see Moore, 2018). It then follows that the latter’s written documents ought to be destroyed, lest some sceptics read them and stray away from the true faith. The use of fire is significant; apart from its utter efficiency, its virtue lies in the purification it creates (see Moore, 1977, 1979).
The account given by the Franciscan conquistador bishop De Landa of the burning the Mayan codices of the Yucatán serves as a fitting conclusion to this sad tale of religious cleansing: “[A]s they contained nothing which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all” (Russell, 2016, p. 60).
Glikson, Yvonne. (2018). “Talmud, Burning of.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. Vol. 19 (pp. 481-483). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference.
Harding, Luke. (2013, January 28). “Timbuktu Mayor: Mali Rebels Torched Library of Historic Manuscripts.” The Guardian.
Haughton, Brian. (2011). “What Happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?” Ancient History Encyclopedia. <https://www.ancient.eu/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/>.
Keys, David. (2016, March 28). “As ISIS is Driven Out, the Extent of Damage to Palmyra Becomes Clear.” The Independent.
Kramer, Daniela and Michael Moore. (2002). “‘Women are the Root of all Evil’: The Misogyny of Religions.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/quotwomen-are-the-root-of-all-evilquot-the-misogyny-of-religions-203.html>
Moore, Michael. (1977). “Symbolic Burning and the Modern Sacrifice.” International Journal of Symbology, Vol. 8, No. 3 (November): 94-102.
Moore, Michael. (1979). “The Public Use of Fire.” Archivio di Psicologia Neurologia e Psichiatria, Vol. 40, No. 4: 425-430.
Moore, Michael. (2013). “‘They’re No Better than Animals’—Dehumanization by Religions.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/theyre-no-better-than-animalsdehumanization-by-religions-877.html>
Moore, Michael. (2013). “Religious Attitudes toward the Disabled.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_moore/disabled.html>
Moore, Michael. (2017). “Religion and Violence.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_moore/religious-violence.html>
Moore, Michael. (2018). “Religion and Prejudice.” The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_moore/religious-prejudice.html>
Motadel, David. (2014, June 14). “Broken Idols.” Times Literary Supplement.
Norman, Jeremy. (2019). “Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries Brings Destruction and Dispersal of Libraries.” History of Information website. <http://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=1849>.
Rowlatt, Justin. (2018, March 13). “The Ancient Wisdom the Dalai Lama Hopes Will Enrich the World.” BBC News. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43208568>
Russell, Philip L. (2016). The Essential History of Mexico: From Pre-conquest to Present. New York, NY: Routledge.
Scott, David. (1995). “Buddhism and Islam: Past to Present Encounters and Interfaith Lessons.” Numen, Vol. 42, No. 2 (May): 141-155.
Turku, Helga. (2018). The Destruction of Cultural Property as a Weapon of War: ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave.
UNESCO. (1996). Memory of the World: Lost Memory—Libraries and Archives Destroyed in the Twentieth Century. Paris, France: UNESCO. <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000105557>.
Wikipedia. (2018). “List of Destroyed Libraries,” § “Human Action.” <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_destroyed_libraries#Human_action>
Copyright ©2019 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.