Monumental heritage privileged over human life

Yesterday evening came the news that Tadmur (ancient Palmyra) has fallen to Isis.

This article written by The Guardian addresses the disaster by explaining within the first paragraph that the ancient ruins in the city will face near-certain destruction. To be sure, this is an awful consequence and the meanings associated with the ruins will touch the lives and heritages of many people local and distant.

However, it seems to me far clearer that the greater tragedy of Isis’ victory will be for the people who live in Tadmur. Although Syrians living under Assad’s regime do not live peaceful lives, the victory of Isis is a dark event for the people of Tadmur. It is surprising that the above news article refers to the civilian population only in terms of acknowledging an evacuation and the UN’s cultural agency statement. The harrowing change of circumstance for the evacuated people of Tadmur, and for those who were left behind, is not explored in a breaking news headline. A monument may be in danger, but I imagine that any evacuated civilians may be most concerned about their homes and communities.

It is difficult not to see the fetishisation of heritage in the treatment of this news event. Monumental heritage may still be privileged over intangible and subaltern forms of heritage, but the privileging of a monument’s potential destruction over the death and destruction of human lives speaks of something more disturbing about Western values.

The news about Tadmur’s fall was brought to my attention via a news app on my phone. A notification dropped from the top of the screen with the headline “Syrian city of Palmyra falls under control of Isis”. The experience reminded me of the computer game, Civilization. Civilization has the player rule a nation against opposing nations. The player is made aware of world events, which include the fall of cities and city states, through notifications displayed at the side of the screen. These events are of interest to the player because they may affect the distribution of resources (natural or cultural). The game does not inform the player of any cost to human life.

Of course, Civilization is a game. If the dominant news issue of a war event is the danger to monuments rather than the death of civilians and the threat to survivors’ lives, what does this tell us about the cultural hierarchy we have constructed and the role of heritage within it?