Heritage for Emancipation: Borders, Abolition and Resistance to the Logic of Elimination

José Antonio González Zarandona

Iran and Armenia represent two countries, one Muslim and one Christian, with a political relationship that crosses cultural and religious boundaries. Iran has implicitly backed Armenia in its ongoing conflict with its other Shi’a Muslim neighbour, the Republic of Azerbaijan, despite Tehran’s declared support for Muslims worldwide. Armenia conversely has pursued strong ties with Iran despite Western pressure to do otherwise. The extent of the cooperation between Iran and Armenia extends into the heritage sphere. The two countries share a long history of interaction that dates back to antiquity; modern Armenia was under Iranian control until the 1820s and a sizable Armenian community lives in Iran until the present. Consequently, there are many sites of shared heritage in each country. However, unlike other nations in the region, Iran and Armenia have actively cooperated in managing this shared heritage.
In this paper, I focus on two sites of heritage in particular: the eighteenth century Blue Mosque in Yerevan, and the thirteenth century St Thaddeus Monastery in North-West Iran. The Blue Mosque is under the direct control of the Iranian Mosque Affairs Regulating Authority, having been given a lease in Armenia’s post-independence era as a sign of trust to their Muslim ally. This is an unusual ceding of sovereignty for any country; however, it is beneficial to Armenia as a means of de-legitimating Azerbaijani claims over Armenia territory, although the Iranian government has not answered requests to take over other mosques in occupied Karabakh. The St Thaddeus Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site and is managed jointly by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation of Iran, a government ministry, and by the Armenian Church leadership in Iran. It is a site of an annual pilgrimage that draws thousands of Armenians to Iran every July, and is a symbol of diplomatic cooperation between Tehran and Yerevan. Using these two sites, I will argue that Iran-Armenia cultural exchanges regarding heritage are important vehicles in fostering new myths of cultural identity to meet the political needs of these two nation-states, in spite of their obvious ethnic and religious differences.

The recent characterisation of the Palestinian-Israeli question as settler colonialism brought to sharp light the enduring ‘logic of elimination’ (Wolfe 2006) through which the history of the Holy Land is being destroyed and rebuilt. Essentially, settler colonialism destroys to replace, and this is done through founding structures and processes rather than an event. My argument here is that logic of elimination, as a racial regime, target and weaponise the past in order to silence, or even to ‘socially kill’ (Mbembe 2003), particular versions of the past. The violent foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the continuous expansion of its occupation since then has entailed a systematic process of targeting places that symbolise the Palestinians’ collective memory and identities, in acts of de-signification (Falah 1996; Masalha 2007). Since its foundation, ‘archaeology’ has performed a key service to the state of Israel, to reproduce the past and efface the colonial dimension of Zionism (Abu El-Haj 2001, Ben-Yehuda 2002). Reflecting on the past 70 years of the Israeli colonialism of Palestine, it seems that the ‘logic of elimination’ has become an ‘intangible heritage’ that not only fuels up the Zionists’ settlement project, but also annihilates all initiatives for ‘peace’ talks.
Inspired by the new forms of resistance that have emerged in the West Bank since the Second Intifada of 2000, in this presentation I will investigate imaginations and practices of resistance to the Zionist logic of elimination as regimes of racial nationalism. Notions of ‘abolition democracy’ and ‘heritage as resistance’ are used to emphasise struggles over territoriality and sovereignty. This is done within the context of settler colonialism in the City of Hebron, Palestine. I will explain how the fragmentation of the city has given rise to a Zionist ‘new Jew’ as well as to new forms of resistance that seek the abolition of the racial national regimes that employ logic of elimination from behind democratic veils. While explaining these forms and processes, I place the present historical conjuncture in the broader history of colonialism, and argue that heritage has an emancipatory role to play but only when its uses in the production of and perpetuation of racial geographies are exposed and challenged.

Heritage Cooperation between Armenia and Iran: The Blue Mosque of Yerevan and the Saint Thaddeus Monastery of West Azerbaijan

Persistent tendencies seek to fix authoritative meanings about the past through the production of monuments, heritage districts and museums. At such spaces, the ambiguity and multiplicity of the past is banished through the compilation of potted stories and selective knowledge. In contrast, Michel de Certeau explains how ‘the debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city. They burst forth within the modernist, massive, homogeneous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language’. In illustrating de Certeau’s contention and attempting to decentre the authoritative and selective production of heritage, I will discuss how a short journey from my home to my local shop summons up multiple traces of the past, some obscure, some identifiable.

Cultural Stability or Conflict: the Chronotopic Materialities of Assyrian Heritage in Iraq and Syria

West Asia is a volatile region. It is at once the hotbed of linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity and often politically violent ideologies that intend to eradicate such differences. In addition to its internal dynamics, the region is caught in geopolitical and economic rivalries and exchanges of various, competing world powers and engaged in globalising projects such as modernisation and development. In this highly volatile context sudden, abrupt socio-historical change, discontinuity rather than historical continuity become familiar patterns, almost the expected cultural norm. The result is, ironically, a constant reassessment of pasts, resulting in the provision of a space for heritage, which is more often than not expressed at a collective level in the hope of creating a common ground for cultural stability. Perhaps the recourse to ancient histories and Islamic pasts may be partially explained in this light. This paper examines this proposition – the idea of volatility as the basis for national heritage – referring to the context of Iran. It shows that the constitution of national heritage is closely tied to sudden historical change. This is not to suggest that all national heritage is fiction or an imaginary construct, however. Rather it is to suggest that a notion of shared heritage proliferates (and is also encouraged by “the state”) in search of a sense of common cultural stability in the face of change. And yet, it is also a means for change at the same time. From this perspective, volatility appears to have a cultural function that is hitherto under-explored. As volatility challenges people’s relationship to their pasts and their identities, it results in the mobilisation of cultural heritage in different and contradictory ways.

Sofya Shahab

The Remembered Village: Refugee Inscriptions of the Europe-Asia Border

Shanti Sumartojo


Iconoclasm in Syria: The case of Hafez Al-Assad’s statues

Screening Heritage

The village of Nea Magnesia outside the Greek city of Thessaloniki was one of several thousand villages created following the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, a simple urban grid imposed in a rural farming acreage and filled with some 250 hastily built adobe dwellings. Its population came from Bursa and Hamidiye, towns near Magnesia/Manisa, outside Smyrna/Izmir; farming families who adapted the houses and rural properties allotted by the government as orchards and market gardens. Today, few of these buildings remain in the thriving rural suburb some twelve kilometres from the city, its buildings undifferentiated from the city that has grown around it.
This paper uncovers Nea Magnesia’s forgotten history through the life story of a refugee born there, Tasos Kolokotronis, who recorded its evolution through drawings, models and stories. Key aspects of the village preserved in his memory were carried by him to Australia, after the war, rebuilt in miniature and later exhibited at the Bonegilla Reception Centre heritage facility, a commemorative space marking the entry point for post war European refugees to Australia. Even as Nea Magnesia outside Thessaloniki was overtaken by development and divided by an expressway, the original village that lived in his imagination assumed its miniature architectural form. Although displaced from its point of origin, its recreation preserved experiential evidence of the exiled Micro-Asian-Greek population through architectural vestiges of that historic border crossing.
In tracing pre-Second World War forced displacements, the actions of governments in accommodating them, and the resilience of alienated populations, we are offered new perspectives on the twice exiled. History, memory and material reconstruction are combined in strategies of nostalgic recovery. They uncover an internal inscription of the border as it hardens between Europe and Asia to become culturally impervious in the years to come.
This paper’s theoretical focus is on border politics, its human consequences and its material residue, and the affective processes through which cultural rifts are revisited by the diaspora. It looks for the inscription of those global processes in physical space. It treats the material remains of refugee houses, and the displaced models at Bonegilla as fragmented pieces of a form of border ‘heritage’.

Ali Mozaffari

The construction and destruction of monuments has long been used by those who seek or hold power as a tool to cultivate desired historical narratives that support their political agendas. These formations of the past enable leaders to shape identities that can unify, by creating ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1983), and divide, through an emphasis on sectarian differences. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and oral histories produced in collaboration with Assyrians from Iraq and Syria, this paper will investigate the affective resonances of heritage sites and their political deployments. Through ethnographic encounters and analysis of the Islamic State's propaganda outlets, I will explore how heritage narratives are experienced by those engaging with these sites. Building on scholarship on landscape and the Bakhtinian chronotopic imaginary as "points in the geography of a community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time and history and the enduring character of a people" (Bakhtin 1981: 7).
I will highlight the intersection of temporalities embodied in the materiality of heritage and how the memories and emotion contained in this space have the power to shape human action. Heritage sites exist within multiple time-spaces: capturing the past in a manner that reveals the values of the present towards the creation of an imagined future. Consequently, these sites have power, not only in what they symbolise, but also in the formation of peoples and communities in Iraq and Syria. By focusing on the ties between heritage and identity, and how this exists within and without state borders in the construction and maintenance of the Assyrian community and its diaspora, I will seek to expand the affects of heritage beyond the bounded localities of ‘sites’ to understand relationships to heritage across time and space.

Conceptualising Heritage in Volatile Contexts

Download full abstracts and biographies here

Timothy Edensor

How the past becomes important socially and culturally is well-trammelled territory, a vast and diverse area of both scholarship and public concern. Geographies of commemoration address the dynamic and productive relationship between place, memory, the state and its histories and people, often by way of symbolic, discursive and representational aspects. In this talk I will argue that reframing official commemoration from the perspective of the experiential allows us to understand these important state activities in new ways. I will trace recent work that foregrounds affective and sensory elements of such events, including my own on ‘commemorative atmospheres’, and discuss some implications of this for commemorations that reach across national boundaries.

The destruction of statues representing political figures carries symbolic meanings that are negotiated by the people who attack the statue and the regime that the statue represents. Across the Syrian territory, statues of Hafez Al-Assad were created that symbolized the oppressive Ba’athist regime which shaped Syria’s past and present for more than almost half a century. As a result, a cult of personality ensued. This paper will analyse the destruction of Hafez Al-Assad statues as a case of iconoclasm and fallism, framed by how the Ba’athist regime used elements of the past to glorify the cult of personality of Hafez Al-Assad (1971-2000) and later his son Bashar Al-Assad (2000-present), Syria’s current president. Drawing on the work by political scientists, the paper will establish how this cult of personality operated, to understand how Syrians living under an authoritarian regime engaged with images of Hafez Al-Assad and in which terms. Furthermore, by looking at a series of fallen statues available on social media, the paper will also analyse the erection of statues representing Hafez Al-Assad as a case of unfallism. The underlying argument of this paper is that the destruction and erection of statues in Syria are acts full of meanings which are, nevertheless, difficult to pinpoint, given that the civil war in Syria continues to this day, and instead interpretations are offered.

Anoma Pieris

'Commemoration Reframed'

This paper directly reflects on the making of documentary film Taq Kasra: Wonder of Architecture. The production of this film is significant from several angles. Firstly it is useful to reflect on the practical processes of recording and internationally representing such border-straddling heritage, the possible impediments and encouragements that it may meet along the way, especially since this documentary was not driven by any large money or a state funded entity. Quote apart from logistical impediments of working in a field such as Iraq, in volatile contexts riddled with various forms of nationalisms, such documentaries can potentially provoke different responses among audiences. For a small independent production, the film has gained significant amount of attention and is doing the rounds in prestigious venues ranging from SOAS to Yale University. This paper is the result of a critical conversation with the director Pejman Akbarzadeh, posing a range of questions about the film’s conception, its reception and its crafting through which a particular emphasis on heritage has developed.

James Barry

Heritage is Everywhere

Ali Mozaffari

Feras Hammami