In today’s world, it is all too common to witness the destruction and devastation of historic monuments, sites, and even cities. Although the demolition of historic sites is nothing new in the length of human history, the advent of social media and the active efforts to keep these areas has turned the world into a captive audience. While destruction like this is in part the result of urban warfare becoming more common in the twenty-first century, there had never been as great a concerted effort to destroy these monuments as ISIS and the Taliban have done over the last two decades. Today we witness this destruction in Iraq and Syria as well as in other parts of the world, but to see the destruction of ancient sites while far less devastating than the loss of lives is nonetheless tragic to local and global culture.
Perhaps the best example of the destruction of historic sites in the modern era is in Palmyra, a city which has been the setting for many battles during the Syrian Civil War. One of the most devastating parts of the demolition took place on August 30, 2015, when the ancient Temple of Bel was destroyed. It existed for almost two thousand years—having been constructed in 32 C.E.—but the actions of terrorists and iconoclasts destroyed this monument to the Mesopotamian god within a day. Throughout the tug-of-war that took place between the Syrian government and ISIS militants, more parts of the city were destroyed. Statues had their heads removed, and the Palmyra Museum’s collection heavily damaged. In a low point for this crisis, Palmyra’s head of antiquities—Khaled al-Assad—was beheaded by ISIS.
Although Palmyra has been in the hands of the Syrian government since the end of April 2017, this is only the most recent episode of the destruction of historic sites. In March 2001, the Taliban—still the rulers of Afghanistan—demolished the tallest Buddha statue in the world at the time. It too had been standing for over two and a half millennia, and within the span of a few hours was destroyed. While this brought widespread condemnation from the international community, little could be done. The destruction of ancient structures across the Middle East today is devastating among archaeologists and historians, who have worked hard to preserve these sites.
These actions however are nothing new. During the closing days of the Second World War during the bombing of Dresden, the Church of Our Lady was among the structures that were destroyed along with most of the city. Originally constructed in the eighteenth century, its bombing in 1945 left a hole in the cultural fabric of the city, and following over forty years of communist rule reconstruction at last began. The Church of Our Lady would not be completed until 2005, some sixty years after its destruction. In addition to these actions in Germany during the Second World War, the wrecking of historic monuments goes even further, and in virtually every war in human history is some portion of our cultural heritage destroyed.
The most famous of all is of course the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, once the ancient repository of the world’s knowledge. During the siege and occupation of Alexandria by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C.E., the library—or a portion of it depending on some sources—caught fire after his men lit up Egyptian ships in the harbor, which then spread to the library itself. While the true cause of the burning is disputed, this theory shows that not all destruction is intentional. Instead, it can be for a variety of reasons and in this ancient case it was a complete accident. Despite the cause, the burning of a part of or the entire Library of Alexandria was a catastrophic disaster for the records that had been kept there, including many documents that nobody will ever see again.
In the events taking place throughout the deadly Syrian Civil War, iconoclasm and religious extremism created an environment that destroyed much of the ancient city of Palmyra. In Afghanistan, iconoclasm also destroyed the ancient Buddha statues that had graced the mountains of the region for over a thousand years. Dresden saw the destruction of the Church of Our Lady among other structures due to the wide-ranging bombing that killed tens of thousands. And in Alexandria, the accidental burning of the Library of Alexandria destroyed thousands of records, plays, poems, and writings that were lost forever. The reasons may vary, but among the unknown casualties of most wars are the historic sites. While a respect for the past should not be expected among people who have no respect for human life or dignity, it is still a sad sight to see.
Despite all this destruction, there is still hope. Organizations such as UNESCO work to preserve historic sites around the world, and their list of sites is extensive. In addition to that, if you believe that if a historic site is worthy of being added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, you can contact them or your government to petition them for recognition. You can donate here to UNESCO to help preserve, or more importantly donate here to the UNHCR to assist the true victims of war.