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Gonzaga University instructor troubled by Trump’s threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 7, 2020

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers celebrate around a statue of Kawa, a mythology figure in Kurdish culture, after they  destroyed it in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria,  on Sunday, March 18, 2018. (Hasan Kirmizitas / AP)
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers celebrate around a statue of Kawa, a mythology figure in Kurdish culture, after they destroyed it in the city center of Afrin, northwestern Syria, on Sunday, March 18, 2018. (Hasan Kirmizitas / AP)

The stone cherubs outside Ain Dara were guardians meant to welcome protective spirits. Footprints more than three feet in length and carved in stone pointed inward sent a clear message to the gods: Welcome, stay awhile.

Major airstrikes by the Turkish Air Force in January 2018 destroyed the more than 3,000-year-old temple in northern Syria.

President Donald Trump returned Iran’s threats of vengeance for the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani with the threat of destroying dozens of Iranian sites of cultural significance.

“It’s not just sand and dirt,” Scott Starbuck, Gonzaga University religious studies lecturer, said. “It’s a big deal.”

“We have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!” Trump tweeted Saturday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to negate the president’s threats on ABC’s “This Week” in saying that the U.S. would follow the law – targeting cultural sites is against the law. This was established with the adoption of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, an international treaty.

But Trump reiterated his threat in an interview with journalists on Air Force One on Sunday.

Starbuck said he thinks the purposeful destruction of cultural sites is a crime against humanity that has two main results, stealing away the cultural history of a people, and erasing the cultural DNA – or historical link to the past – for all people. Destroying this history is a violation, he said.

“When someone has been personally violated, one of the key things that the person has to figure out how they can reinhabit the violated space,” Starbuck said. “When this is done culturally, and it cannot be recovered like Ain Dara, it’s hard to imagine how there can be a cultural recovery.”

Starbuck said there are many sites that could be on the list, though he immediately thought of the Tomb of Cyrus, Susa, Persepolis and Bisotun. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization lists 22 cultural sites in Iran, as well as two natural sites.

Starbuck teaches a class called “Hebrew Bible and ancient Middle Eastern context,” and he said that through studying the ancient world, his students discover we are the same people.

“In fact, they understand better political situations, sociological situations, even relational situations today by looking at those things,” Starbuck said. “Through sort of a strange lens of the ancient world, it’s often repletory of what’s happening today.”

Starbuck said when these sites disappear, there will come a day that his students doubt their very existence.

“As technology advances, there will be a time – probably in my lifetime – when I put up the slides of Ain Dara and people will go, ‘Well, wait a minute, are those doctored slides? Are those really pictures? Can we go see it? Can we measure it?’ ” Starbuck said.

Starbuck said by learning about human beings in the past, we find empathy and kinship. Over winter break, he went skiing with his daughters at Silver Mountain, and they were having a bad day. They had been studying the Oregon Trail in school, and Starbuck took that as a moment to put things into context.

“What was it like to be in a covered wagon in this weather?” Starbuck said. “And just that little piece right there helps them understand a little bit more of, not only what they’re part of in terms of the human condition, but maybe even what they could do if they were forced to have to do it.”

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