Heritage vs war: Cultural & heritage sites that have borne the brunt of armed conflict

Whenever a war breaks out, cultural properties and heritage sites bear the brunt either as collateral damage or on purpose. But there’s no clear winner here, either in conflict or during peace.

The world was left aghast when Islamic State militants blew up the centuries-old temples of Baalshamin and Baal in the ancient city of Palmyra in modern-day Syria.

By Shubhangi Shah

When Vladimir Putin-led Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine in February this year, not many were clear of his intention(s). Sadly, that remains the case over three months into the war. Was it to thwart any further expansion by NATO (Cold War-era military alliance formed to contain Russia-led USSR), or for a regime change in Kyiv, or to rebuild some “historical Russia”, nobody knows. However, what we do know is that thousands of Ukrainians, including children, have been killed, thousands injured, while millions have fled to neighbouring countries.

As the war intensified with Russian tanks violating Ukrainian soil, Ukrainians putting up a brave resistance, and the world community mounting pressure on the aggressor, UNESCO sounded an alarm over damage to the country’s heritage sites. And rightly so. Ukraine is home to as many as seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, apart from numerous other sites that have stood the test of time and two world wars.

Ukraine suffers

Since the Russian invasion, over 130 of Ukraine’s cultural sites, including religious sites, museums, historic buildings, monuments, and libraries, have suffered damage, UNESCO, the UN culture agency, has confirmed. These include the Maripul Museum, Ivankiv Museum, and Drobytskyi Yar Holocaust Memorial, among others. Gladly, none of its seven world heritage sites have been harmed.

“Cultural sites define a country’s and its people’s past,” says archaeologist and historian Nayanjot Lahiri. In some cases, these are deliberately destroyed in order to “humiliate”. However, in other cases, the destruction happens as “collateral damage”, the expert, a professor of history at Ashoka University, adds.

Buddha erased

Once in the valley of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan stood the tallest statues of Buddha built somewhere in the 5th century AD, a testimony of its Buddhist past. Built under the Gandhara School of Art, the twin Buddha figurines rightly represented Afghanistan’s place of bringing together east and west by representing an eastern religion endowed with Hellenistic elements.

Sadly, nothing remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas as the Taliban blew it to pieces in 2001. “The saddest thing is, the same group responsible for the destruction is now in charge,” said archeologist KK Muhammed, the former regional director (north) of the Archaeological Survey of India. The Islamist group, which ruled from 1996-to 2001, seized power again last year following a bloody siege.





Nothing remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas in central Afghanistan as the Taliban blew it to pieces in 2001.

Afghanistan is located along the ancient Silk Road. “It always fell in the route of caravans,” according to the archaeologist. And “once upon a time, nine languages were spoken there. So, it should have been a very liberal community,” the expert says, adding: “But what has gone wrong there, nobody knows.”

Carnage all around

Long before it was marred by an ongoing civil war (2011-present), Syria once captured the heart of every historian, archaeologist, and art-lover. A part of an ancient civilisation, Syria, over the years, came under the control of the Romans, Greeks, Mamluks, and Ottomans and each of the conquerors added to its architecture in their ways.

A civil war, which broke out in 2011 between dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces and those opposing him, has completely changed its present and future. The worst came with the rise of ISIS. The battle has left about half a million Syrians dead, and millions displaced. The country’s mesmerising architecture met the same fate.

Syria houses as many as six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all of which have suffered immense damage. The world was left aghast when the Islamic State militants blew up the centuries-old temples of Baalshamin and Baal in the ancient city of Palmyra. They also dynamited the 2,000-old Arch of Triumph built during Roman rule. The ancient city of Aleppo is another world heritage site that bore the brunt of the brutal war. Its ancient citadel often caught itself in the fighting between pro-Assad and rebel forces. In 2015, a wall of this citadel collapsed in an explosion. Both sides blamed one another. It also became a military camp for Assad’s army. Aleppo also houses the 8th-century Ummayad mosque, also called the Great Mosque of Aleppo, another heritage site that was lost to war. “This is like blowing up the Taj Mahal or destroying the Acropolis in Athens,” archaeology professor Helga Seeden had told the Associated Press then. “This mosque is a living sanctuary. This is a disaster. In terms of heritage, this is the worst I’ve seen in Syria,” she added. Other heritage sites, which include the ancient city of Bosra and Crac des Chevaliers, also met with the same fate.

Africa’s jewel

The city of Timbuktu in northern Mali has been a World Heritage Site since 1988. When an armed conflict broke out in 2012, Islamist fundamentalists seized control over areas in northern Mali. The jihadis went about attacking, vandalising, and destroying historic mausoleums. Not just that, thousands of ancient manuscripts were charred to dirt. In the first such ruling, the International Criminal Court convicted jihadist Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi for directing attacks on such sites. The destroyed mausoleums were later rebuilt by local stonemasons working for UNESCO.

Coventry blitz

When the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, the windows of the 15th century St Michael’s (Old) Cathedral were transferred to the church’s crypt to protect them. However, the structure couldn’t brave the 11-hour-long German air-raid on November 14-15, 1940. The attack, one of the deadliest during WW2, damaged the cathedral, leaving just its tower, spire, and outer walls intact. Given the carnage, Nazis swiftly coined the term ‘coventrieren’, meaning to raze. The old cathedral wasn’t restored. Instead, a new one was built right next to it and opened to the public in 1962.

Atomic destruction

During World War II, as the Allied powers suffered losses, so did the Axis. The worst came on August 6, 1945, when the US dropped its first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It wiped clean 12 km of the city’s area, killing 30% of its population. Given the magnitude of human suffering it entailed, any damage to important buildings might seem minuscule. However, one structure stood as a symbol of the most destructive creation by humans. It “also expresses the hope for world peace and the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons,” UNESCO says. The structure is Japan’s former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now called Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Built in 1915 by Czech architect Jan Letzel, it was a place to showcase and sell prefectural goods and to host art shows and exhibitions. However, during the war, many government agencies took shelter there. When the US dropped its lethal bomb, it suffered significant damage. However, it remained the only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocentre.

The worst came on August 6, 1945, when the US dropped its first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It wiped clean 12 km of the city’s area, killing 30% of its population.

The structure hasn’t been redone and was preserved as it remained right after the bombing. Amid the opposition from the US and China, UNESCO inscribed the Peace Memorial as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The way forward

Whether a damaged cultural site should be rebuilt on not “depends on the nature of destruction,” says professor Nayanjot Lahiri. “If it is completely destroyed, it’s better not to rebuild,” she says, adding that “each country has its own way of doing things”.

Meanwhile, archaeologist KK Muhammed is of the opinion that destroyed sites “should be reconstructed, as over time whatever remains will also be lost”. He gave the example of the temple complex at Bateshwar in the Chambal valley that got destroyed in an earthquake. The complex housed hundreds of 8th- to 11th-century temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu, which lay in ruins. With the effort of a team of ASI archaeologists led by KK Muhammed, 80 out of 200 ruined temples were reconstructed.

“Technology is there,” he says, explaining anastylosis, a technique in which a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural pieces combined with modern elements.

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