Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found in his articles.
Dedication to Khaled al-Asaad
Khaled al-Asaad died for the buildings he loved. Please see my tribute to Khaled al-Asaad later on in this article
This article looks at the values which we place on our cultural heritage, and specifically the remarkable architecture and the monumental sculptures which should rank among our most historic and most treasured relics.
These solid, tangible links to our past are sometimes taken for granted by the inhabitants of the present-day countries in which they are found. But their value to the cultural history of the whole world should be of importance to everyone, and more so today than ever. Cultural identity is changing in many countries, and the threats - particularly in one part of the world today - are truly horrific.
N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
Relative Values in Our Society
Ask what the most precious quality of life on Earth is, and many would answer without hesitation, human life itself. We value this above all else. We place such high store by it that in many societies all human life is considered sacrosanct, whatever its state of being. Indeed, the greatest crime anyone can ordinarily commit is the crime of murder, the willful taking of another person's life.
This article does not take issue with society's duty to care for the lives of each and every one of its citizens. But are there other values which could be considered equal to or even higher than human life itself? Could be or should be?
This is the first of a short series looking at the relative values which we place on immensely important elements of our society, culture and environment. This article will focus on the place of historic architecture in the modern world and its irreplaceability, with illustrated examples.
The Inspiration for this Page
This page written in 2015 was inspired by recent events in the Middle East in Iraq and Syria, and the acts of cultural vandalism carried out by the group known as 'ISIL', or 'ISIS', 'Islamic State' or 'Da'esh', at the time of writing an Islamic organisation which has gained control of large areas of these nations, and which goes under various names. ISIL has been responsible for some of the most barbaric acts to have been perpetrated against individual humans in recent memory, including brutal executions. But ISIL has also carried out some other actions which have shocked and appalled many who care about our culture - the destruction of priceless relics from antiquity.
The terrible loss of these historic sites in Iraq and Syria will be highlighted here together with other recent cases of cultural destruction. However, first there is a brief look at architectural vandalism before the 20th century.
Historic Destruction Across the World, Pre-20th Century
Lest anyone think that the behaviour of ISIL is a modern phenomenon, that is of course, not the case. Throughout all the history of human 'civilisation' and ever since two tribes first went to war against each other, people have been destroying the great works created by their predecessors, or by contemporary rivals. Sometimes it has been for purely practical reasons - ruined buildings provide a ready source of material for use in new constructions. But often it's been done to deliberately irradicate all that remains of a vanquished culture, or to wipe out opposing belief systems.
And the consequence has been the loss of unique architecture from every period of human history. In ancient times it was common for the monuments of old rulers to be broken up by new emperors and kings who regarded the memory of their predecessors as a threat to their own power. And depictions of another society's gods would often be destroyed as heretical. And whole cities like Troy and Carthage would be razed to the ground to ensure a defeated rival could never rise again. What's more, modern day cultural vandals like ISIL are a kindred spirit to the Christians of the 4th and 5th century, who closed down and destroyed the temples and shrines to the former Roman Gods to replace them with churches. All these ancient acts of vandalism robbed Western civilization of a beautiful and important part of our own art history and culture.
The spread of Christianity and then Islam had further drastic effects on the cultures they subjugated over the next millenium throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. And since then, the emergence of new colonialist empires such as Spain, France and Britain, has led to further devastation of indigenous societies. Many of their significant buildings were left intact by these empires, due to the practical needs of a small colonial force to maintain an infrastructure in far distant parts of the world, and the sheer difficulty of demolishing monumental architecture. However, on occasion entire cities established long ago, continued to be lost. Cities such as the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, buried under the foundations of modern day Mexico City. And huge numbers of cultural artifacts were destroyed or removed (the subject of a later article).
And even if there was no intent to obliterate historic architecture, simple wanton neglect by a new controlling army, empire, or belief system, would lead to the slow crumbling or burial of archaelogical sites, rendering them all the more vulnerable to later physical destruction - be it malicious or natural.
Many today wonder at the great ruins of antiquity, but frankly the author of this article wonders that any are left at all - given the propensity of intolerant humans to pillage and destroy. Perhaps the events described above took place in less enlightened times, though that does not make them any less tragic. But cultural vandalism was sadly not restricted to less enlightened times. It continues today, and today's intolerant humans have immensely powerful weapons at their disposal which makes it easy to destroy buildings which had previously withstood centuries of onslaught. The rest of this article is concerned with cultural destruction in the 20th and 21st centuries, and we look first at the concerns over the ISIL group.
Blowing up the shrine of Mashhad al-Imam 'Awn al-Din - destroyed by ISIL in July 2014
The Threat of ISIL Against Architectural Heritage
The nations of Iraq and Syria lie in that part of the world which is in the very cradle of civilisation. The region where our species first adopted a farming lifestyle, and first established sedentary communities. The region lies near the birth centre of three of the world's most significant religions and was home in ancient history to such landmark cities as Babylon (Iraq), Hattusa (Turkey), and Jerusalem (Israel and Palestine), Persepolis (Iran) and Petra (Jordan). Damascus, the capital of Syria, is said by some to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. And just a little further afield are the extraordinary sites of Egypt, Crete and Greece. It goes without further comment that this region is the richest in the world for archaeological treasures. Literally tens of thousands of historically important sites can be found here, and many of these lie within the modern boundaries of Iraq and Syria.
The sudden take over by ISIL of a large part of these two countries in 2014 shocked the world. Immediate concern was over the fate of non-Muslim hostages kidnapped by the group. But it has since emerged that ISIL, who follow a very extreme iconoclastic form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, had other targets too - the myriad archaeological sites and historic buildings of the region. Why have they decided to attack buildings? It's not entirely clear, but several reasons have been conjectured.
ISIL cannot tolerate any culture which deviates from their world view. This includes not only Christian or Jewish sites and sites which predate the rise of these two religions, but also Muslim mosques which reflect a different form of Islam such as Shi'ism or Sufism. It's not just architecture either. Any images or structures perceived as being idolatorous have also been attacked. Thus, ancient images of polytheistic gods, depictions of human beings or animals, and even the graves of Islamic prophets and revered historical figures, have fallen foul of ISIL. Entire buildings and complexes of buildings which exhibit any of these characteristics have apparently been deemed 'un-Islamic' and ear-marked for destruction by the group.
At its most extreme, whether it be intolerance of other faiths or intolerance of Islamic artifacts considered idolatory, this iconoclasm has been seen by some as an attempt to create a new 'Year Zero', the mentality being that all trace of the past has to be deleted. According to Mohammad Rabia Chaar, a Syrian writer now living in exile:
ISIL 'wants people with no memory, with no history, (and) with no culture'
However, not all antiquities which have come within the realm of ISIL control have been destroyed. Some of the smaller, more transportable pieces, have been sold to fund its military and state building enterprises - a certain practicality overriding the ideology. And with sound reasoning. The richness of antiquities in this part of the world refers not merely to their abundance and importance, but more literally to the value they have on the black market. Even small archaeological relics have monetary values which may run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Finally, ISIL sees the destruction of iconic sites as a simple means by which to shock the world. Terrorism in all its forms - even those groups which seek to legitimise themselves through statehood - can only work through publicity, and these atrocities clearly raise the profile of ISIL as a powerful organisation which can act with impunity.
Sites Destroyed by ISIL
In this section, just a few of the many sites so far targeted by ISIL are briefly described as an illustration of what has already been lost to the world through the actions of this group.
Although its origins reach back more than a decade, it is only in the past two years that ISIL has become a serious territorial force occupying vast swathes of land, principally in northern and western Iraq and Eastern Syria.
In Syria, ISIL was initially preoccupied in the Civil War, fighting both government and rebel factions. So it was in Iraq that the group first achieved worldwide notoriety for its attacks against both human life and cultural treasures soon after taking control of the region.
Mosul, one of the largest cities in Iraq, fell under ISIL control in June 2014, and the bleakness of the outlook for all of its many religious sites was immediately apparent. An early casualty was the Mosque of the Prophet Younis, shown in the first photo on this page and in the video above. This was a historic place of worship, significant for both the Islamic and Judeo-Christian faiths. 'Younis' is the Arabic name for 'Jonah', and a shrine at this site was believed to be the tomb of the prophet mentioned in both the Biblical Old Testament and in the Quran. The tomb was part of an archaeological site dating back to at least the 8th century BC, but later incorporated into a Sunni Mosque. Despite this, ISIL regarded this site as 'un-Islamic', and said that the mosque had become a 'centre for apostasy'. It was blown up on 24th July 2014. Another mosque - the Imam Aoun Bin al-Hassan Mosque - was destroyed on the same day.
That week in July also saw several other casualties in Mosul. The shrine of Mashhad al-Imam 'Awn al-Din was a tomb dating to 1248, though subsequently renovated. Built from stone, marble and brick, its most distinctive feature was the great pyramidal tower which raised it to a height of 30 m - the tallest mausoleum in Iraq - until ISIL blew it up on 25th July 2014. A video is included earlier. Another mosque was the Mosque of the Prophet Jerjis, also identified with the Patron Saint of England, Saint George. This was certainly very ancient, last renovated in the late 14th century, but destroyed by ISIL on 27th July. And on 26th February 2015, the 12th century al-Khudr Mosque was also destroyed.The city has several mosques of similar or greater age. The oldest of all was the Umayyad Mosque, built in 640 AD. An original minaret from this mosque was still standing when ISIL took control. Reports conflict as to whether it still stands.
A Christian community has long resided in Mosul, and many churches and monasteries were built here, some dating to before the emergence of Islam in the region. All had archaeological as well as spiritual significance. But on June 16th 2014, ISIL decreed that all should be destroyed. It is not clear how many - if any - still stand today. Just one - the 12-13th century Monastery of Mar Behnam - is illustrated here. And it's not just mosques and churches which have suffered in Mosul. In April 2015 ISIL attacked the 12th century Bash Tapia Castle, on the west bank of the Tigris river. Now it is gone.
Further south, sites in the city of Tikrit were also demolished. On September 24, 2014, one of the oldest of all Iraqi Islamic sites was blown up - the Al-Arba'een Mosque contained 40 tombs dated to the late 6th or early 7th century AD. Also in September, the Assyrian Green Church was demolished. This church was first built in the year 700.
When ISIL turned their attention to Syria, similar sites were targeted, as well as more recent, yet still poignantly symbolic buildings. The Armenian Genocide Memorial Church - memorial to a million or more Armenians slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire during World War One - was blown up on 21st September 2014. And the pretty Virgin Mary Church in Tel Nasri was demolished on Easter Sunday 2015.
The loss of these mosques, churches, shrines and other sites has been devastating. And truly historic sites predating even the rise of Christianity or Islam have also been targeted since the beginning of 2015. Ancient Dur-Sharrukin (present day Khorsabad) in northeastern Iraq was for a brief period the palace and capital city of Assyrian King Sargon II. Development of the city began c721 BC, but was halted when Sargon was killed in battle in 705 BC. Since then the site fell into ruination. Archaeological work at Dur-Sharrukin began in the 19th century, and many ancient artifacts were excavated and removed, but some remained - unfortunately - because in March 2015, these fragile ruins were attacked by ISIL.
Even more ancient sites have been damaged, including Tell Brak in Syria, the site of a long established city which was once known as Nagar. Nagar reached the pinnacle of its importance between the 4th millenium BC and the 2nd millennium BC. But an original Bronze Age settlement here is believed to date back to at least 6,000 BC.
One can scarcely do justice to the scale of devastation in Iraq and Syria. All that has been mentioned here is but a very small selection of the total number of buildings to have been destroyed. All were of cultural or architectural importance, and some were truly ancient treasures. And foremost among these are two whose destruction has received worldwide publicity. These were the cities of Nimrud and Hatra.
Most sites attacked in 2014 had been religious places of worship. It was in 2015 that the most ancient sites were also attacked, including the city of Nimrud. Founded more than 3200 years ago, Nimrud was once capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, which between the 3rd millennium BC and the 7th century BC, ruled large swathes of the Middle East from Egypt to the Persian Gulf in the south, and as far north as modern day Turkey.
Throughout the Neo-Assyrian era, the heartland of the Empire was in the land now claimed by Iraq and Syria, and it was during the late 'Neo-Assyrian' Era that Nimrud rose to its greatest prominence, when it was established as the capital under the rule of the brutal and expansionist King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC). It maintained this prestigious position for about 150 years until King Sargon moved his residence to Dur-Sharrukin. Nimrud however would remain a major city and royal residence until the final fall of the Empire to invading forces c 610 BC. Culture flourished here, and Nimrud would have been one of the most important cities on Earth, covering an area of about 400 hectares, and the site of extravagant temples and palaces. It would have been renouned throughout the civilised world, and has been identified as the Biblical city of Calah, mentioned in Genesis 10.
After the fall of Assyria, Nimrud descended into neglect, and eventually was buried and forgotten in the desert sands. In the modern era, archaeological excavations began in 1845, and continued intermittently before recommencing in earnest in 1949. During this work, many artifacts and sculptures were removed (quite fortunately, in hindsight) and sent to museums around the world, in London, in Paris, and America. But of course the infrastructure of the rooms and walls, wall engravings and some of the larger statues remained in situ. Most famously - some of the lamassu - colossal winged bull statues with a human head - were left in the ruins.
In 2014, ISIL took control of the region, and on 5th March 2015 ISIL claimed - and video evidence confirmed - that they had blown up the entire site of Nimrud.
Nimrud was arguably the most famous and historically important of the sites recently destroyed by ISIL, but it is by no means unique. This region of the world is so rich in other archaeological sites, none of which conform to ISIL's ideal, and all of which may be targeted. And one which already has been, was the incredibly well-preserved city of Hatra - Iraq's only World Heritage Site.
If Nimrud was a late Bronze Age, early Iron Age city of the Assyrians, Hatra belongs to the the Classical Period of Ancient Greece and Rome. The city was believed to have been built in the 2nd or 3rd century BC by the Seleucid Empire, one of several Greek controlled realms following the death of Alexander the Great. But the heyday of the city was as a trading centre between the 2nd century BC, and the 2nd century AD, when under the authority of the Parthian Empire. It is said to have become the capital of an Arab Kingdom in the region. During this era of Roman domination of the Middle East, Hatra resisted sieges by two Emperors, Trajan (116 AD) and Septimus Severus (198 AD), and later defeated a Persian army of conquest, before finally falling to Persian forces in 241 AD. The city was subsequently destroyed, but of course without levelling it to the ground. The ruins remained as the best preserved example of a Parthian city in this region, a complex of temples and columns, 2 km (1.2 m) in diameter, surrounded by a fortified wall.
On 7th March 2015, it was reported that demolition of Hatra by ISIL had begun. Videos later seemed to confirm that it had indeed been destroyed. Images of Hatra from before this event show a beautifully preserved city, little known to most in the West, but surely a site which had the potential to be a major tourist attraction. UNESCO cites the 'Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend(ed) with Eastern decorative features'. The author of this article had never seen Hatra except in video and photos, but would have found the prospect of passing through the grounds an exhilerating walk through ancient history. That will never happen now. No one will ever again have that pleasure.
(The following video has English subtitles. It shows the splendour of Hatra before ISIL occupied the ancient city)
Cultural Vandalism in the Iraqi Civil War and the Syrian Civil War
Deliberate cultural destruction based on theology such as that practised by ISIL, is nothing new; this has blighted the Middle East for decades. But open warfare between nations and within nations, has also quite inevitably caused great damage. In some cases, however, it is not easy to determine whether buildings which are destroyed in war are unintentially caught in the crossfire, or whether the destruction is deliberate, the to inflame tensions or to demoralise the enemy. To illustrate this, we must return to the sad state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, and look at architectural destruction for which ISIL is not directly responsible.
In Iraq, the Samarra Mosque was once the largest mosque in the world, originally built in the 9th century. A 52 m high minaret, with a spiralling ramp around the outside, was its most famous feature. But in 2005, the top of the minaret was destroyed by an insurgent attack. Another mosque - the al-Askari Mosque - is one of the most venerated Shi'ite mosques in the world. Originally constructed in 944 AD. its most prominant features were a 20 m diameter golden dome and minarets. But in 2006 and then again in 2007, two bombings by al-Qaeda destroyed the dome and minarets and much of the rest of the mosque during the height of the Iraqi Civil War - the intent was to inflame tensions and incite further sectarian fighting.
In Syria all sides in the ongoing civil war have caused untold damage. Five out of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been extensively damaged or destroyed. One such site is the City of Bosra, occupied since the 14th century BC, and home to a 2nd century Roman theatre and other Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic ruins. Fighting in Bosra has led to considerable damage. The Roman baths, theatre, and nymphaeum have all been affected to varying degrees. So has the Omari Mosque in Bosra, which dates to 702 AD. Apamea, once the capital of the Seleucid empire, and a leading city under Roman and Byzantine rule, was one of the best preserved ruins in the region. Now it has been devastated by looters using heavy earth-moving machines.
Dura-Europos in Syria, is a rich archaeological find. This site includes the remains of temples, tombs and wall carvings. It dates from between the 3rd century BC, and the 3rd century AD, ruled at various times by the Macedonians, Parthians, and Romans. The ruins of one of the world's oldest synagogues was found here, and so was the world's oldest Christian 'church-house' including depictions of Jesus from 235 AD. Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums claims that 80% of the site has been damaged by looters. Now it is in the region controlled by ISIL.
The ancient city of Aleppo has suffered too. Much of the famous Al-Madina Souq has been destroyed by fire, and the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, erected in 1090 AD, has been destroyed, it is believed by Syrian Government shelling. Other sites damaged include the 13th century Citadel of Aleppo.
The rich history of the region has meant that widely different architectural wonders have been badly - perhaps irreparably - damaged by the fighting. The 12th century Crac des Chevaliers - until now, the best preserved of all crusader forts in the Middle East - has suffered damage. In August 2014 a most unusual loss occured - more of a medieval machine than a building. The norias of Hama are giant wooden water wheels up to 20 m (70 ft) in diameter which raise water from the River Orontes for supply to the city via an aquaduct. They are certainly several hundred years old and maybe much older than that, and remarkably they still work. But some of them have been destroyed in the war.
Hundreds of other sites deemed to be of archaeological or historic interest have been damaged or destroyed, maliciously, or simply because they happened to be in the way.
Non-ISIL Acts of Destruction Elsewhere in the Middle East and North African Arenas
This is not an article about ISIL, nor about Iraq and Syria. Extensive attacks on heritage in those two countries provided the inspiration, and ISIL is the most devastating example of this kind of action in recent times, but the article is about the destruction of historically important architecture in all its forms. In this section we continue the sorry tale of attacks on heritage sites elsewhere in the Middle East and the Arab world.
And foremost among all the nations responsible for these attacks, ironically, has been that 'friend' of the west, Saudi Arabia. Despite some concern by this country over the rise of ISIL, the Saudi nation is heavily influenced by the same iconoclastic Wahhabi philosophy as ISIL, attributed to such Koranic and Biblical stories as the 'Adoration of the Golden Calf', and the belief that any worship of shrines or idols should be rejected. Remarkably (and to those who do not belong to the Wahhabi belief system, this may seem almost incomprehensible) even shrines and relics which are associated with the revered prophet Muhammad himself have been targeted, as worship at such places represents a deviation from absolute subservience to Allah.
What's more, the irreverence for these shrines and the consequent willingness in Saudi Arabia to demolish them has been lent added impetus by the desire to accommodate and cater for the burgeoning numbers of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina with construction of new hotels, apartments and wealth-creating shopping malls. The historic sites have had to make way for the modern.
Even before Saudi Arabia ever existed, Ibn Saud, who would one day unite the nation as its first king, destroyed the beautiful al-Baqi Mausoleum and cemetery in Medina, including 7th century shrines from the time of Muhammad - the grave of the prophet's uncle and the Mosque of Fatima (Muhammad's daughter). And since its foundation as an independent nation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has continued the policy of targeting mosques, burial sites and other historic buildings. Much of this destruction in recent years has been associated with accommodating the continued expansion of the Masjid al-Haram (Mosque) at Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. In Medina, historic sites destroyed include the home of Muhammad's Egyptian wife Mariyah, whilst the birthplace of his son Ibrahim has been paved over. Only two of seven ancient and famous mosques originally built to commemorate an important conflict in defence of Islamic Medina - the Battle of the Trench - remain. The rest have been destroyed.
In Mecca in 1998, the grave of the prophet's mother, Amina bint Wahb, was bulldozed in al-Abwa.The house of Muhammad's first wife Khadija, is now a toilet block. And recently the Saudi authorities decided to demolish the House of Mawlid, reputed to be the dwelling where Muhammad was born in 570 AD. According to the Washington-based Gulf Institute, as many as 95% of all buildings from the first millenium in Mecca and Medina have been destroyed in the past 20 years, and that includes almost everything associated with Muhammad's life.
Elsewhere in this part of the world, numerous historic buildings have been targeted in Yemen during fighting between Saudi-backed Government forces and Shi'ite rebels. One of the most important is the Great Dam of Marib in the Valley of Dhana. The original dam is the oldest of its kind in the world, dating back at least to 800 BC, and regarded as one of the architectural wonders of the age. It was badly damaged by an airstrike in May 2015. Another airstrike hit the centuries old al-Qahira Castle. Finally the Old City of Sana’a has been reported severely damaged. Inhabited for more than 2,500 years, Sana'a features 103 mosques, 14 hammams (Turkish baths) and over 6,000 houses, all of which are more than 1,000 years old.
During the Bahraini uprising of 2011, 43 Shia mosques were destroyed by the Sunni Government. Most were modern and some had apparently been erected without proper licencing, but at least one - the Amir Mohammed Braighi Mosque - dated back 400 years. Islamic groups associated with ISIL have attacked sites elsewhere in the Middle East and the Gulf. In Libya, Sufi shrines near Tripoli were destroyed by bulldozers and sledgehammers in March 2015. Sufi shrines have also been attacked in Pakistan, Somalia, Tunisia and several other countries. Meanwhile in Iran, the Shi'ite regime has demolished all the holy sites of the Baha'i faith.
Of course other countries have suffered both in conflict and from religious intolerance, notably in the conflict which has forever blighted the region of Palestine. The Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by the Arab League in 1948. At that time all but one of the 35 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, were destroyed. Much more recently, the historic 7th-century Al-Omari Mosque in Palestine, was heavily damaged by Israeli air strikes in August 2014. Several other mosques were also targeted and destroyed.
Further afield cultural atrocities have occured in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, another UNESCO World Heritage Site where Ansar Dine, another Islamic group with links to ISIL, took over many archaeological and religious sites in 2012. It is reported more than half of the 600-year-old mud brick shrines in the city were destroyed before the secular government, aided by an International force, regained control. One of the best known was the Mausoleum of Sidi Mahmoud.
In the next section we cover what was arguably the most famous non-ISIL attack of recent years - that of the Taliban in Afghanistan on the Bamayan Buddhas.