HAS ISIS SET ITS SIGHTS ON OCCUPYING THE VATICAN?
In October 2014, an arresting image appeared on the cover of Dabiq, ISIS’s slickly produced, English-language magazine. The publication features interviews with jihadis and photos of their brutally slain victims, together with other material calculated to entice the devout to join the cause of world domination.
The Photoshop job in question shows the ISIS flag flying in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, hoisted atop the Egyptian obelisk that marks the center of the piazza. The accompanying headline, “The Failed Crusade,” imagines a reversal of the West’s medieval crusades, launched against the Muslim world from the Holy See.
It also reverses the West’s more recent dispensations in the Middle East, from the divisions of the former Ottoman provinces after World War I to the results of the 2003 Iraq War.
ISIS is expert at representing its aspirations in prankish, media-friendly terms. Its black-and-white flag, inspired by ancient descriptions of Mohammed’s own banners, also coincides in color and general design with the Jolly Roger. It flutters in the image like a skull-and-crossbones raised over a captured vessel, the flagship of Western Christendom reduced to pirate’s booty.
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera was quick to take notice of the image, while in the International Business Times, Umberto Bacchi pointed to the gloss provided by ISIS spokesperson Mohammed al-Adnani: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”
On one level, he is trolling us with a cartoonish Orientalist stereotype (like Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu urging his Asiatic hordes to “kill the white man and take his women!”) with the phallic obelisk mischievously restored to Eastern ownership. But al-Adnani is also quite serious.
ISIS often airs its threats to conquer Rome and convert St. Peter’s into a mosque (“as everyone knows,” warns Donald Trump , Vatican City “is ISIS’s ultimate trophy”). These aspirations go all the way back to the early years of Islam, when Constantinople — capital of the Eastern Roman empire and bulwark of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean and West Asia — was an early target of Arab ambitions, although it was only finally conquered for Islam by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
The Crusades gave Rome a similar meaning. Rome, once a center of empire and subsequently a center of Christianity, is a synecdoche for a whole complex of oppositions and identities, for Christian Europe as well as for the Muslim East.
There are different ways of dealing with this complex, of course. Muslim history possesses important precedents for a model of conquest that accommodates and appropriates the culture of the conquered, preserving it at least in part, and even finding common ground. The “clash of civilizations” has more often been a meeting of the minds, with irenics following hard upon the polemics of the battlefield.
Nancy Khalek has discussed how the rigid intolerance imputed to early Islam by ISIS (and some of its opponents) is easily exposed by the historical evidence as a myth arising within the new conditions of the post-colonial world. Recent books have familiarized the general public with the incalculably intricate cultural exchanges that occurred between Christians and Muslims during the first Arab conquests and in the later Middle Ages.
In Istanbul, the former Constantinople, obelisks from the later Roman and early Byzantine period still stand outside the Blue Mosque and its architectural inspiration, Hagia Sophia. The ancient church was converted into a mosque upon the Ottoman conquest, but with much of its iconography intact and repurposed. “Sacred Wisdom” was found relevant to both religions (though the mihrab is slightly off kilter, the emperor Constantine naturally not having thought to align the nave with Mecca).
Mehmet the Conqueror mobilized the mythical Trojan ancestry of the Romans to legitimize his wresting of the empire from the Greeks: the advance of the Ottomans, in his view, righted a historic wrong committed by Achilles, Agamemnon, and the rest against Priam and Aeneas. By accepting his opponents’ ancient ideology and lines of ethnic identity, he made himself, not the Byzantines, the true Roman. In a sense, he beat them at their own game.
This style of conquest aided by cross-cultural dovetailing is hardly to be found among the hard-line theologians of ISIS. What makes the Dabiq image especially striking is its contrast with ISIS’s usual treatment of antiquities: to bulldoze into rubble whatever can’t be hammered into powder.
Ruins — protruding, reminding, refusing to stay consigned to the past — have a special significance. The past’s potential for irony and tacit adversarial commentary on present circumstances remains too real in them.
The Jewish and Christian traditions also have an uneasy relationship with objects of (pagan) worship, as seen in the commandment against “graven images” or in the injunction against making “pillars” (Leviticus 26:1), which might refer to obelisks — conspicuous in the Egypt of the Israelites’ captivity — as well as other such sacral monuments.
Ömür Harmanşah has observed how ISIS’s usual mode is to turn destruction into a reality-show-like spectacle, avidly consumed by outraged Western audiences: By deploying an iconocentric media culture (first developed in the West) to stage the very obliteration of icons, the group has gone a stage beyond Mehmet and his ilk.
But in Dabiq’s cover image of Rome, perhaps unwittingly, ISIS adds only another layer to a long series of appropriations, preserving them all with something like reverent imitation.
An obelisk is an overtly ancient, pagan object. It is immediately associated with ancient Egypt; it has no evident purpose other than to aspire toward the sun god and assert the pharaoh’s devoutness and worthiness to rule. Of all antiquities, an obelisk most of all lends a skyline a pagan thrust, pointing uncompromisingly toward an older ideology and calquing modern aspirations onto it.
The city of Rome, in fact, is full of ancient Egyptian obelisks — eight in all (as well as later ones commissioned by the Roman rulers themselves and some created in modern times). The first ones were brought over by Augustus Caesar in the years after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, ancient Egypt’s last native queen, in 30 BCE.
Augustus not only became the effective monarch of Rome, the “first emperor” as we say (although he made sure to rule under the slogan of the “restored republic”); he also possessed Egypt as a personal realm, succeeding Cleopatra there as its legitimate sovereign — though ostensibly sharing the sovereignty and credit for the conquest with “the people of Rome.”
He had the latter sentiment inscribed on the bases of the two obelisks he imported, one of which stood as the gnomon of a gigantic sundial on the Campus Martius, while the other punctuated the spine of the Circus Maximus, marking the laps of racing charioteers. The latter position has as much to do with the sun as the former: The Circus was dedicated to the god Sol, whom Augustan mythology made an ancestor of the Latin people. Augustus’s own tutelary deity, Apollo, was associated with the sun.
Augustus’s obelisks are more than a sign of Roman conquest and the power to despoil Egypt of her weightiest, pointiest architectural distinctions. He gives Rome a little of Egypt as if Egypt were the original empire and its icons the heraldic language of empire, one that Romans learned to speak as Rome transitioned from an oligarchic republic to an autocracy in control of the whole Mediterranean. This is cultural syncretism.
The message is not a wholesale replacement of meaning, but a careful translation that adds new meaning to older cultural terms. The monuments of the pharaohs — co-opted into what Diana Kleiner sees as Augustus’s studied, ongoing response to Cleopatra’s own cultural program — serve the entertainments of the Roman people and the glory of their emperor.
Renaissance popes began to restore the obelisks left by Roman emperors, re-erecting those that had fallen and relocating them all to places of significance as a visible public statement of the rebirth of ancient glory in the global ambitions of the Catholic Church.
The one in St. Peter’s Square, moved there on the orders of Pope Sixtus V in 1586, makes this statement most clearly. It had stood
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