Western Civ 101: Where We Come From

WC was privileged to have a Western Civilization professor who was passionate about the roots of western civilization. And he decried the tendencies of the deeply religious to deny those historic roots. Prof. Schneider came to mind recently when WC was reading commentary about the Pakistan National Museum by Pakistanii novelist Kamila Shamsie:

The Prehistoric Room is closed for renovation, but that only means I can arrive more quickly at the Late Harappan (or Indus Valley Civilisation) Room, un-air-conditioned and with a far stronger whiff of neglect than the one downstairs. In the centre of the room, on a podium of his own, is that most iconic of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s artefacts: the priest-king. Unlike many of the other objects in the museum, there’s an approximate date attached to the soapstone figure: 2500-1500BC. I look closely at the priest-king’s combed-back hair and cropped beard, his patterned cloak, the circlet at his brow. For years a replica of this figure looked out from one of the bookshelves in my family home, mysterious and distant, and now that I’m standing in front of the original I feel…quite certain it’s another replica. At this point the director of the museum, Mr Bukhari, walks in and I ask him straight. “The original is kept somewhere,” he says, smiling a little sadly. “It’s a national symbol. We can’t take risks with it.”

The priest-king sculpture is usually identified as Mohenjo-daro, and the piece (or its replica) is compelling.

Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan National Museum, via Wikicommons

Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan National Museum, via Wikicommons

European people, in all their nationalities, arose in the Indus Valley, likely through the Indus Valley Civilization. This is our history, too, not just Pakistan’s, not just the Muslim world’s.

But the original is concealed, hidden some place secret. Because religious elements of that Muslim world want to deny history prior to the birth of Mohammed. And part of that denial is to destroy graven images, even of historic figures. The Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha sculptures at Bamiyan in 2001 is just one example of the intolerance of Muslim zealotry for its own history. And why Pakistan National Museum Director Bukhari hides the original.

What remarkable insecurity of place and identity the Taliban and their ilk reveal. So afraid of the old world that they must destroy historic artifacts to prop up their own self-confidence.

Of course, religious barbarism is hardly confined to Islam. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, lopped the heads off of statues of saints in the cathedrals of England to express his dissatisfaction with idols. Other than happening in the 1640s, not the late 20th century, Maybe progress is slower than we thought.

Perhaps to the dismay of WC’s roommate – who went on to become a distinguished professor of cultural anthropology – WC was never really that interested in the subject. But the photo of Mohenjo-daro stuck with WC all those years since Prof. Schneider’s Western Civ. Some of WC’s college memories have drifted from the reality. But the serenity and power of this piece is just as WC recalled it.

May it endure even the latest religious barbarism.



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