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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

The never-ending(ness) of culture wars

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

There has always been much discussion round history, culture and historic portrayal, but over the last few weeks it has exploded.

The discussion has come with a varying mix of anger, pride, indignation and sadness and is usually observed with the insight that those in control at any particular time in history tend to dictate what goes on the record and into the mainstream history books and journals.

However, it is not just the history books that tell the stories. I am sure that Henry’s readers have had those experiences, often when travelling, that provide unforgettable insights.

When in Mexico City’s Zócalo in 1994, I was intrigued to know that the beautiful Cathedral of Mexico City and other impressive colonial buildings were built over the Aztec Templo Mayor (excavated in Mexico City in 1978). While we all know this physical ‘layering’ of significant cultural institutions has taken place globally, I was also fascinated to hear about those other tools and symbols of change so cleverly used by the Spanish. For example, there was the miraculously well-timed ‘sighting’ of an indigenous Madonna (Our Lady of Guadeloupe) by a young Aztec convert to Christianity … and the strategically leveraged insight by the Jesuits that a tradition of blood sacrifice could definitely pave the way for acceptance of the bloody Christian story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A clever superimposition of one faith over another definitely got Christianity well on its way to successful colonisation.

image: Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Michoacán, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Maximiliandrake

Possibly the most seamless visual handover of one culture to another I gleaned when in Balbeek, Lebanon in 2009. The sprawling Baalbek complex is layer upon layer of historic wonders, starting with the Phoenician temple of Baalbek (dedicated the Sun God Shamash-Baal-Haddad), and evolving through Greek, Roman and Ottoman influence. The Roman ruins are the best preserved, and Emperor Octavius Augustus’ construction of the Temple of Baal/Jupiter is the largest religious edifice ever constructed by the Romans (completed in 60AD). The Roman Heliopolis was added to by successive emperors – Nero, Trajan, Antoninus, Philip the Arab all making additions; with Septimius Severus building a Temple to Venus. When Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313AD the fore-mentioned Temple of Venus became the Church of Saint Barbara, and though many significant buildings are now in ruins, you can trace the moment that expansion of the Heliopolis dedicated to the Roman Gods was literally stopped in its tracks and replaced by Christianity and its accompanying imagery; a repeated architectural detail of naughty little cherubs running round a facade suddenly morphing into a string of more saintly angels!

image: earthy cherubs at Baalbek, Lebanon

Closer to the 21st Century, the National Museum in Lebanon became a demarcation point during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. The museum workers diligently buried the museum treasures but they were not fast enough and some irreplaceable artefacts were destroyed. Now, as you make your way through displays of ancient coins, jewellery, ornaments and architectural elements there is also a ‘blob’ on a display pedestal that is a mess of gold, glass and metal. The signage describes it as the casualty of a 1975 bomb-blast. It is a fitting exhibit to mark the period of civil war in Lebanon’s national museum and sadly, maybe it will be joined by similar exhibits, given their present famine-induced riots.

I’m sure everyone has stumbled over marvels equal to mine while travelling, that illustrate the permutations of history as lucidly as any history book and possibly even more memorably. My recollections are of course from my own travels and much came from tour guides and conversations with locals. In the catacombs in Egypt’s Alexandria (when there in 2010) I saw an image of what is believed to be Octavian Augustus in a pharaoh’s headpiece, the exotic millinery probably because the Egyptian artisans charged with creating the image knew no other way to depict a king! Another moment for me occurred In a bar in Cambodia when some students told me that their entire generation only learnt through their university studies what a political football their nation had been during the Cambodian Civil War, parents and grandparents generally having only a local and experiential insight of what occurred. Some were still coming to terms with this tragic insight.

And who can forget the televised account of Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989? I viewed the protest on a split screen while visiting my parents in my home-town in regional NSW; one narrative coming from the national Chinese Communist Party on one side of the television screen, while a distinctly different narration was being presented by a free international press on the other?

image: Students at Tiananmen Square - so young and brave

I wonder what will be put on record about our own significant period in history and what will be the source of these records…oral history, mainstream press, blogs, videos …?

Interesting times.

A fabulous response from Dave B:

"Interesting article. Expansion always seems to be economic (trading), followed by cultural exchange (where one party is normally more ‘energetic’) ,and then military for the full imperial/colonial phase. This seems to hold true for most expansions; in modern times Ottoman, European (incl. British), American and now Chinese. It always amuses me that the Chinese Government go on about Western Imperialism, having invaded Tibet and set about filling it with Han from northern China – imperial and colonial! These are dangerous times and we have all aided and abetted the economic rise of China: this house cat is now a tiger that is ready to bite us! It is a time for all with liberal democratic values to act with integrity (with what?) and be ethical rather than follow the economic pragmatism (and greed) that has put us where we are. In the eighteenth century, people like Adam Smith placed weight on ‘virtue’ in economic matters. ‘Virtue’, in the classical sense, is sadly neglected as having value in our modern western culture, perhaps we should revisit the semiotics of virtue, as with the spiritual examples you cite in your article. A new way of being requires new symbols, and the new symbols are usually recycled old symbols which have become relevant again. The Tudors are a splendid example of how to manage the aesthetics of regime change.

Thanks for making me think!

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