After watching (helplessly and in anguish) ISIS destroy the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud last week, I thought: ISIS remind me of the thirteenth-century Mongols. I realize they are different, very different. Certainly, the Mongols weren't Muslim (until much later when they converted and became urbanized), and were known to poke fun at Islam as they slaughtered its adherents. They seemed to believe in nothing beyond thier own power to destroy. In my book, I write in part:
Certainly in the thirteenth century, it was the Mongols, that century’s atomic bomb, who decimated Central Asia and the Middle East: Jerusalem, Herat, Bukhara, Nishapur, Merv, Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus. In Nishapur, after Toghutshar, a favorite son-in-law of Genghis Khan’s, was mortally wounded by an arrow while sitting on top of his horse under the city walls, Genghis Khan ordered that Nishapur be left with no living thing when the siege resumed the following spring under his son, Tolui. This was in 1221. Mongol raiders returned to slaughter even the stray dogs and cats. It is hard to know the truth about the number of casualties, but the city had been the flourishing capital of Khorasan. It was founded by Sassanid Persians, on the Silk Road between China and Asia Minor, and the Mongols may have slaughtered more than one and a half million people there, and perhaps another 700,000 in Merv in present-day Turkmenistan. Toghutshar’s grieving widow also demanded that everyone in Nishapur be beheaded to ensure that they were dead. The Mongols piled the bodies in pyramids, an image that evokes the Holocaust, and, finally, ploughed the city into nonexistence.
It is this ploughing into nonexistence that reminds me of ISIS. As I wrote about last week, people convinced of their moral righteousness will always justify their violence, and as the anthropolgist Adam Smith wrote this week, "ISIS is thrilled by the moral condemnation directed toward it." What is even more aggravating - and ISIS members know it and relish it, for it's a power they possess as long as they have access to those historic sites and the rest of us do not - is that Nimrud is history that belongs to humankind, no matter its location. It is all of our story.
I used to think that peoples (such as the Mongols) who destroyed so completely for seemingly no other reason than that they were able to represented human nature at its most nihilistic. But now I'm not sure. Using religion as an excuse for the same kind of barbarity seems worse, because it requires that you believe that you are morally upstanding, or, as I wrote in a previous post about a different form of violence, that you believe in your own goodness.