When Rudyard Kipling’s British soldier caught his first glimpse of Burmese beauty, on the road to Mandalay, "I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,/An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:/Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud–/Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd–/Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!"
The lines came back to me when I read the recent statement from the architectural and cultural spokesman of the Taliban, who dismissed all the fuss about the destruction of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage by saying that images made of mud were a blasphemous insult to the one true faith. He probably doesn’t care much for reading (and the Bamiyan sculptures were cut from the standing rock, not fashioned from terra cotta, like some of the exhibits in the despoiled national museum), but he would undoubtedly have been surprised to know that he was quoting Kipling, who also had some harsh words to say about the cruelty of Afghan women in wartime. An Afghan woman today, mind you, would not need to be caught kissing a whiskery British conscript in order to be publicly flogged, or stoned to death. Leaving her home unaccompanied would be enough, or failing to adjust her shroud so that it covered every part of her face and hair.
And it is true that there has been less emotion about this than about the desecration of the ancient statues of the Buddha. On the face of it, such pseudo-aestheticism is grotesque. However, I freely admit to feeling worse–more desolated and more drained–at the destruction of the Old Bridge at Mostar, and of the National Library of Sarajevo, than by any other events in the Bosnian war. A number of Bosnians felt even more intensely, and risked or gave their lives in an attempt to prevent those cultural obliterations. During the Greek war of independence, Turkish troops occupying the Parthenon were surrounded, and began to break open the walls to get hold of the lead shielding and melt it down into bullets. The appalled Greek besiegers offered to send a supply of ammunition if the Turks would refrain from damaging the temple.
In these cases, as with Afghanistan, there is no real contradiction between asserting the value of artifacts and the value of people, because the desecrators of the first are the murderers or the oppressors of the second. But the question is not always as seamless as that. The vile dictatorship that now rules Burma is never happier than when opening another vast Buddhist temple, testimony to its own piety and nationalism. Saddam Hussein, when he is not sponsoring giant new mosques, is engaged in reconstructing the ruins of Babylon nearer to his own heart’s desire. In the underdeveloped interior of the Ivory Coast, at Yamoussoukro, I once saw the monstrous basilica, modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome but slightly larger, that President Houphouët-Boigny raised as an exorbitant monument to his own sanctity. There seemed nothing wrong with it that a few tons of dynamite would not have put right.