This was Schama at his best: assertive, reflective, utterly righteous, and able to make you look differently, if not sympathetically, at the folly of humankind.
“It’s been a bad year in that part of the Middle East we refer to, without irony, as the Cradle of Civilisation,” said Simon Schama in Radio 4’s The Obliterators, to the sound of exploding masonry and shattering glass.
There was nothing casual or objective about the historian’s introduction to this documentary about iconoclasm in Syria and Iraq, and nor did you expect there to be. Schama is best known for gliding around draughty castles and historic houses dishing the dirt on dead aristos on television. But lately he’s been more concerned about contemporary events.
Here his anger was directed at the smashing, bulldozing and looting of precious antiquities “on a scale unprecedented in modern times, and certainly the largest mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War”.
It’s hard, right now, to feel much more than a defeated sadness at the seemingly petulant actions of Isis militants towards Middle Eastern treasures when one looks at aerial shots of the war-ravaged Aleppo, or hears about the starving residents of the besieged town of Madaya, or the scores of refugees still drowning at sea.
But Schama was careful to acknowledge the terrible human toll of the Syrian conflict. He also pointed to the heartbreak felt by local people at the destruction of their heritage, and those who have risked their lives trying to remove what they can before the arrival of Islamic State.
Among those trying to salvage smaller, more mobile items was 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, a scholar in Islamic art and the former director of antiquities in Palmyra. Last summer, refusing to reveal where the rescued antiquities had been hidden, he was beheaded outside the town’s museum.
Schama was keen to get into the mindset of a jihadi who wilfully demolishes his own history. He spoke to Dr Usama Hasan, a part-time imam and senior researcher in Islamic Studies at the Quilliam Foundation, who observed the “puritanical fringe insistent on wiping out what they see as idolatry, even if ancient statues and idols are not being worshipped any more. They haven’t realised that such ancient sites are of immense historical and spiritual education. There’s really no need to get iconoclastic about it.”
Schama also drew parallels with the Protestant Reformation in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of “state-sponsored assault” on images that were equated with idolatry. He looked at historical precedent, changing belief systems, the nature of theological radicalism and the human desire to replace old with new, and in some cases to dispense with the past entirely.
None of this was meant to excuse the actions of Isis, merely to put them into broader context. This was Schama at his best: assertive, reflective, utterly righteous, and able to make you look differently, if not sympathetically, at the folly of humankind.