Cultural heritage a target in times of strife – Lee Keath

ISIS vandalising Hatra, Iraq

In this image made from an ISIS video posted on YouTube in April 2015, an IS jihadi militant hammers away at a face on a wall in ancient Hatra, a large fortified 3rd century BCE Seleucid (Greek) city in Iraq recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A nearly 2,000-year-old temple in the Syrian city of Palmyra in August was the latest victim in the Islamic State group’s campaign of destruction of historic sites across the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.

The group has destroyed ancient buildings and artifacts, as well as shrines to Shiite and Sunni Muslim saints (looting some sites for profit) all in the name of purging what it considers symbols of idolatry to create a society dedicated solely to its extreme and violent interpretation of Islam. The IS campaign has horrified many around the world with a scope of destruction that hasn’t been seen for decades.

Still, it isn’t unprecedented.

Throughout the centuries, invaders, religious fanatics and colonizers have targeted works of art, houses of worship and other pieces of heritage. The goal is often to uproot, eliminate, replace or impose control over the culture and heritage of their opponents. Nearly every ethnic or religious conflict across history has seen at least some cultural destruction, along with genocides like the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.

Below is a look at some examples:


The Islamic State group’s rabid ideology against shrines and historical sites is rooted in Wahhabism, the ultraconservative Sunni Muslim interpretation preached by Sheikh Muhammed Abd al-Wahhab, who lived in the 1700s in what is now Saudi Arabia. Allied with the powerful Saud family, Abdul-Wahhab’s followers destroyed anything they saw as promoting idolatry or polytheism, including shrines of Shiite and Sufi saints, and the destruction of a major Shiite shrine at Karbala in what is now Iraq. Today, the alliance with Wahhabism remains one of the foundations of rule by the Al Saud royal family.

Protestant Reformation

During the Reformation in 16th century Europe, Protestant preachers railed in sermons against Catholic statues of saints and other religious relics as forms of idolatry. Mobs of Protestants attacked hundreds of Catholic churches, particularly in France, Germany and the Netherlands, destroying statues and images. In England under King Henry VIII, churches were stripped of their relics and riches. The result erased from Europe’s cultural landscape untold numbers of works of art.

Muslim invasion of Spain

During the Muslim invasion of Spain in the 8th century, churches were often destroyed or turned into mosques. Conversely, when Christians took back the peninsula in the centuries-long Reconquista, completed in the 15th century, they destroyed mosques or turned them into churches. Also, after King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of Jews from the peninsula in 1492, synagogues were turned into churches.

Second Jewish Temple, Jerusalem

Roman armies destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. after a revolt against Roman rule. The temple, built 500 years earlier to replace the first temple destroyed by the Babylonians, was the heart of Judaism. The first temple had held the Ark of the Covenant, which vanished after the Babylonian conquest. All that remains of the second temple is its Western Wall, which is today the holiest site in Judaism, located at the base of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Aztecs’ Templo Mayor

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1521, bringing to an end the empire that ruled over much of what is now Mexico. To root out the local religion, Cortes ordered temples destroyed, including the Templo Mayor, the giant step pyramid at the center of Aztec spiritual culture, and site of their human sacrifices. The temple was leveled, and a Catholic church built on its remains. Parts of the temple were uncovered in the 1970s during the digging of a metro in Mexico City.


From the 15th to 17th centuries, Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) was one of the grandest capitals in Africa. In the late 19th century, negotiations with the British trying to dominate the area and its trade turned bloody, with Benin’s troops killing a British expeditionary force. In retaliation, British troops captured the city and burned it to the ground, destroying its palaces and religious sites. They also carted off some 2,500 works of art, including bronze and ivory sculptures and plaques and the palace’s carved wooden gate.

Beijing’s Old Summer Palace

During the Second Opium War, waged by Britain and France against China to force it to open up markets and legalize the opium trade, British troops in 1860 destroyed the sprawling Old Summer Palace in retaliation after the Chinese tortured and executed members of a British diplomatic mission. Built some 100 years earlier, the palace was a sprawling complex of palaces, pavilions and gardens filled with works of art. After orders came from Britain’s High Commissioner in China, Lord Elgin (notorious for his looting of marbles from Greece’s Parthenon) it took 3,500 troops three days to burn down and tear apart the palace.

Babri Mosque

Hindu activists tore down the 16th-century Babri Mosque in northern India in 1992, sparking riots across the country that left at least 2,000 people dead. Hindu groups claim the mosque was built after a temple dedicated to the Hindu god King Rama was destroyed by Muslim invaders, though that claim is disputed by some historians. Still, it’s undisputed that over the centuries, Muslim invaders of South Asia did destroy Hindu holy sites. For example, the Somnath Temple in western India was destroyed multiple times by Muslim rulers, the first time in the 11th century.

Modern-day Islamic militants

For decades in the 20th century, Islamic militant groups in the Middle East, including al-Qaida, put little emphasis on destroying shrines or historical sites. But al-Qaida’s ally the Taliban brought back the tactic in dramatic fashion in 2001 when they blew up the two towering 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in the Afghan region of Bamiyan, stunning the world.

Since then, the tactic has gained prominence among Islamic extremists as a way to tout their claim to “purify” society and create their vision of an Islamic state. Sunni hard-liners have increasingly attacked shrines across the Middle East.

In the West African nation of Mali, Islamic radicals in 2012 overran Timbuktu, the historic city of Islamic culture. The militants destroyed 14 of the city’s 16 tombs of prominent figures and thinkers and also targeted the library of camel-skin-bound manuscripts dating back to the 13th century that included ancient learning in astronomy, law, history and philosophy. They set fire to the institute where many of the manuscripts were stored, destroying an estimated 4,000, though the majority were successfully spirited out of the city by the library’s custodians. – Herald & Review, 3 October 2015

Aurangzeb's general order for the demolition of Hindu temples (9th April 1669) included the Somnath Temple in Gujarat.

Somnath Temple ruins in 1869.

Somnath Temple

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