Has ISIS Set Its Sights On Occupying the Vatican?

The Pope at the Vatican
Pope Francis delivers a "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican December 25, 2015. Donald Trump is due to appoint his ambassador to the Vatican. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

This article was first published on the Eidolon site.

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 nearby since the emperor Caligula, emulating his predecessor Augustus, added it to the spine of the Vatican Circus. It later presided over the martyrdoms of early Christians, probably including St. Peter. It is bare of hieroglyphs; we can’t tell what pharaoh, if any, originally had it made.

Traces of Latin inscriptions on its base do, however, record dedications by Caligula, and holes left over from an even earlier attachment of bronze letters were deciphered by the 20th-century archaeologist Filippo Magi: They record the dedication of Cornelius Gallus, whom Augustus had left as prefect over Egypt, on behalf of the emperor at the foundation of the Roman colony of Forum Julium.

So the obelisk was first set up on Augustus’s behalf in the land to which he was officially the heir of the pharaohs: He was behaving as an Egyptian king in Egypt, and as some new, Romanized version of an Egyptian king in Rome. His successors, from Caligula through Sixtus, did likewise.

We could compare the history and meaning of “Cleopatra’s Needle” in New York City. This obelisk was originally dedicated to the Sun by the pharaoh Thutmose III, re-dedicated by Rameses II in the next dynasty, and, centuries later, moved to Alexandria by Augustus to adorn a temple to the deified Julius Caesar originally founded by Cleopatra.

In the 19th century, it was transported to New York as a gift of the Egyptian government, where it stands in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not far from the the gift of a later Egyptian government: The Museum’s Temple of Dendur, also originally commissioned by Augustus (the pharaoh depicted and lauded on its walls is none other than the Roman emperor in his role as monarch of Egypt).

The New York obelisk was the twin of one sent at the same time to London; and earlier in the century Paris received an obelisk originally from Luxor, which was set up — and remains — in the Place de la Concorde. In a symbolic translatio imperii, “transferral of power,” three aspiring imperial cities received ancient markers of that power. (We won’t even talk about the specimen erected in Washington, D.C.). And the translatio is also a translation: The imperium of the receiver reads a little more like that of the previous owner.

So this object, the St. Peter’s obelisk, is many objects. Many meanings accrue, all influencing each other in a palimpsestic, metaphor-driven semantics. By adding to it, ISIS betrays and undermines its iconoclasm.

Let us read the ISIS obelisk the way we do the others. Although its surmounting cross is gone, presumably broken (as al-Adnani promises), the obelisk stands intact, modified only by a flag that functions identically to the Latin inscriptions of Gallus, Caligula, and Pope Sixtus.

The alleged caliphate takes on the role of all of those past conquerors and rulers in an inevitable play of likeness and difference that is itself the very engine of ancient Greek and Roman culture, where — as expounded, for example, in ancient rhetorical and literary treatises —imitation and rivalry ( mimēsis and zelōsis in Greek, imitatio and aemulatio in Latin) are two sides of the same coin.

The ISIS monument preserves meaning that could always surface in a dialogue with the flag on top; in fact, the very collaboration of flag and stone compromises the former as much as the latter. They would do better just to knock the obelisk down as they did the Temple of Bel in Palmyra and so many other reminders of the homage once paid by those in power to the ancient gods.

By even publishing a glossy magazine full of graven (or at least pixeled) images, ISIS goes down a dangerous path. Pictures, like words, cannot have fixed meaning; they are fundamentally intertextual and depend for their meaning on context and perspective, which cannot always be controlled.

ISIS’s chosen media, the Internet and social networks, embody and enable this intertextuality, and the seductive potential of Photoshop to juxtapose, recompose, and substitute exacerbates that risk of pluralism. The seams — the incongruity between the obelisk and the flag, like the misaligned mihrab in Hagia Sophia — will always find their counterparts in the disparate perspectives latent within the viewer’s own self and activate a stream of suggestive metaphors in place of an abiding monism.

The very nature of the cover image forces ISIS into an unaccustomed position. Their image-makers can’t make their point with a blank piazza; they need to alter rather than annihilate, and in altering — leaving a little of the old — they have compromised their message. Their submission to the semantics of images remakes their ideology into something like iconophilia. Pictures lead to perdition.

The Italians seem to have worked out a better solution for the un-iconic-minded. La Repubblica and other news sources reported on January 26, 2016, that during the first state visit of a president of Iran to Italy, when he was given a news conference at the Capitoline Museums, their many classical nudes were enclosed on all sides in box-like panels.

The idea was apparently to protect the conservative Muslim head of state from their too pagan sense of easy nudity, lest they shock him into ambivalence over the many billions of euros’ worth of contracts at stake.

We can assume that the works so covered included the Capitoline Venus—her famed “modesty pose” unavailing — and the somber Dying Gaul as well as more titillating items. Only the equestrian statue of the robed, bearded philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius was left visible to greet his counterpart the theologian-president.

Continue past the St. Peter’s obelisk into the basilica and you’ll see Michelangelo’s Pietà, a distant heir both of ancient Egyptian images of the goddess Isis mourning for Osiris and of her nursing their son Horus, synthesized and Christianized. But the grief, death and anthropomorphic beauty of divine beings, made acceptable by the extraordinary conciliations of the Renaissance, can hardly endure a more stringent monotheism.

Presumably the Pietà, like the idols of Nineveh, will fall victim to ISIS’s jackhammers upon its putative conquest. It is interesting, however, that in their vision of this conquest —at least in the terms they display to the world on the cover of Dabiq— they accept and appropriate Rome’s most ancient, charged, polysemous monuments, changing their and our image of themselves.

Jay Reed is professor of classics and comparative literature at Brown University.