In Egypt, west of the Nile and not far from the town of Luxor, is a lesser known temple called Medinet Habu, named after the area around it. In fact it was the mortuary temple of Ramesses III and is known for, among other things, its inscribed reliefs depicting the advent and defeat of the Sea Peoples during the reign of Ramesses III and so on and so forth and some old guff about the afterlife and what have you.
Fact is, the most interesting space within the temple walls is a hidden little recess to the right just as you enter. Interesting why? Interesting because its walls are covered in graffiti. I spent far longer in there than in any of the other – undoubtedly fascinating – chambers and courtyards of the temple complex, reading the names of travellers and adventurers – some of which had been beautifully carved into the stone. I think the earliest example I found was 17th century. It would probably have been frowned upon if I had added my own “tag” in felt tip pen or spray paint, so I didn’t, but if I’d had a stone cutting tool on me…
Further north in the same country the Sphinx, or more precisely its missing nose, is cloaked in myth. One version has it that Napoleon’s troops fired shells at it for target practice. Others will tell you they didn’t but that the earlier Mamluks certainly did. Others again will cite references to the missing nose from as early as the 15th century attributing its removal to the disgust of a Muslim iconoclast. Whichever is true, someone has gone and broken the nose off the bloody thing and through this and other tales we are all familiar with the idea of history’s vandals, be they the raging tribe that sacked Rome or the Napoleonic footsoldier taking potshots at a pyramid.
We so often seem to reserve the term – vandal – for the powerless; those on the outside – not having – looking in at the having, and causing some negligible bit of damage out of spite. Graffiti or some such. At times we acknowledge that the powerful can vandalise too, but only at the margins. Never Napoleon or Caesar – always their men; the damage done always put down to indiscipline at the edge, never an inevitable result of the central project itself.
The modern term is collateral damage.
What we very rarely acknowledege is that the powerful can be the vandals, and the central acts of history acts of vandalism, on a wholly other level. When these people do it they don’t mess about. We’re not talking about spraypaint or smashed glass or missing noses. We’re talking disappeared cities in South America, plundered treasures in Africa, looted Iraqi museums and libraries and, once in a while, a cathedral.
Andalusia’s Córdoba is home to one of the great mosques, a mammoth edifice built by the Moors in the capital of their Al-Andalus. This was the most vital city in Europe and Islam was still young. The Arab empire had prospered and expanded till near the Pyrenees; so the building is not easily compared with Granada’s altogether more ornate and gilded Alhambra, built by effete rulers in the decadent, dying days of Iberian Islam. It is no pleasure palace; it is an engine room built by a world power at the height of its confidence and ambition, and it is horribly damaged.
This place opened for business in 785, a mere 153 years after the death of the Mohammed, although with the flourishing Muslim population continuing to increase, extensions were added as late as the 10th century. It is massive. The rows of orange trees which fill the courtyard are echoed inside by the arcades and columns which stretch away from the eye into the dimness – a forest of stone, the columns supporting double arches of white and red.
It was considered a wonder of the Medieval world by both Christian and Moor and became a model of Islamic art and architecture. The space couldn’t be more different to a Christian place of worship – it is vast, egalitarian, adorned only along one wall with an ornate Mishrab, or prayer niche. The eye is drawn in every direction through the endlessly receding candy stripe arcades. Or would be, if not for the damage.
There’s a f**king church in the middle of it. Córdoba cathedral, no less. Built by the nephew of a regretful Carlos V in the 16th century, it is vandalism writ large; ruin in the form of chapel, transept and nave. Nowadays we are afforded only an impression of the what the great mosque – no longer intact – must have been like.
To sift through history and sort out the good guys from the bad. We’d all like to do it. Some of us might even claim that we can. But we can’t. Mourners of the ex-mosque might note that it itself was built on the site of a Visigothic basilica and all of them – cathedral, mosque and basilica – on the site of a Roman temple. Materials for the mosque were pillaged from destroyed Roman buildings, which we might still be able to see and wander around if not for the Moorish construction.
There are those who point out that we might even show some gratitude for the building of the Cathedral here, which may well be responsible for the preservation of what is left of the Mezquita – protecting it from the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. Creation, destruction, preservation; not always all that distinct – who knows how much any of us will destroy in the process of building whatever it is we will build? Or how we will be judged?
At least we’re trying.