10 Heritage Sites Lost to Disaster and War

Robert Bevan takes a look at the cultural sites that have been bombed, flooded, destroyed and built over

The cultural treasures that have been inherited from our ancestors bind us to our past: they show where we've come from, and should, in theory, be left to future generations as our greatest cultural wealth. UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova explains, "Heritage, before being a building, is a consciousness and a responsibility. When violent extremism attacks culture and cultural diversity, it is also necessary to respond with culture, education, knowledge, to explain the meaning of sites and share the message of tolerance, openness and humanity that heritage carries.” Our heritage is our humanity: it defines our place in the world, and helps us to respect and understand one another.

In the past, ancient rulers often destroyed the temples of rival god-kings or wiped out entire cities in victory, but, during the last century, powerful weapons have helped see cultural history obliterated like never before. Added to this are the wars on identity that have seen the heritage of others deliberately targeted – from the Holocaust, to Iraq under ISIS. Preserving cultural heritage is often also difficult for other reasons beyond human conflict; floods, fires and earthquakes can undo centuries of creative endeavor. Such ‘natural’ disasters can be intensified by human actions.

Many cultural heritage sites around the world are still under threat. This includes hundreds of World Heritage Sites such as the Statue of Liberty, the Tower of London and Sydney Opera House, which are now said to be threatened by climate change and rising sea levels.

Here we look back at ten of the worst cultural losses of the past century – to remember them and learn from their stories of destruction.

Flooded museum, Accademia, Michelangelo's, "David" in rear (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

1. Florence
At dawn on November 4th, 1966, a flash flood that swelled the river Arno hit the Renaissance capital at 37mph. Historic libraries, churches and art galleries were inundated with water rising up to 22 ft (6.7m high), mixed with heating oil, mud and sewage. Countless thousands of priceless books, maps and works of art were damaged or destroyed, with images flaking off painted panels and frescoes. Fortunately, thousands more were rescued by volunteer ‘Mud Angels’. Among the famous art casualties was the 13th century Cimabue crucifix from the Santa Croce basilica. Conservation continues today.

2. Aleppo
Although it is the ISIS attacks on Palmyra that have grabbed most media attention, the biggest cultural casualty of the Syrian war is the historic centre of Aleppo – much of which had only recently been restored. It is one of the most ancient cities in the world. The minaret of the central Umayyad Mosque (similar to the mosque in Damascas), around 60 percent of the covered souk, and houses dating back to the first century AD are among the ruins of the Old City.

Aleppo, Into the Wild, July 2014, by Ammar Abd Rabbo (From the collection of Barjeel Art Foundation)

3. Leuven University Library
This historic Belgian library had the misfortune of being destroyed not once, but twice – in both world wars. In the First World War, hundreds of thousands of books went up in flames along with the 17th-century building after the Germans set fire to the town (although many of its oldest documents had already been moved). The library was rebuilt in a grand Flemish manner only to be destroyed again along with its contents in the second German invasion of Leuven in 1940.

4. Kathmandu Valley
A 2015 earthquake caused untold damage to venerable Nepali architecture. Monuments were shaken to the ground in the capital and beyond, including the 60m-high Dharahara minaret and the Kasthamandap temple, along with shrines and much medieval housing. Now, ham-fisted reconstruction efforts are in danger of compounding the disaster with reconstruction contracts awarded on lowest cost rather than the basis of expertise.

Kathmandu Darbar Square after 2015 earthquake, by Nirjal Stha via Wikimedia Commons (From the collection of Freer and Sackler Galleries)

5. The Mosques Of Bosnia
The Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka was one of hundreds of historic mosques destroyed by Serb and Croat forces during the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. During the war, the targeted attacks on the cultural monuments of ethnic groups often happened alongside attacks on people themselves. Patterns of heritage destruction were later used as evidence in international war crimes trials. The Ferhadija (one among the 96 percent of Bosnian mosques damaged or destroyed, according to one survey) was rebuilt from scratch and reopened in 2016.

6. Old Bucharest
Several square kilometres of the historic Romanian capital, including a monastery and churches, were levelled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in order to build himself a plus-sized palace. It was also part of a countrywide campaign to demolish historic architecture as a means of creating modern cities and citizens. Thousands of ancient villages were slated for elimination. Romanians called the destruction that took place ‘Ceausima’ – combining “Ceausescu” with “Hiroshima.” Similar campaigns against heritage were undertaken in communist Beijing and Moscow – although arguably the more recent losses to developers have been worse.

Sighet Memorial: Room 75 - Demolitions in the 1980s (From the collection of Civic Academy Foundation - Sighet Memorial to the Victims of Communism and to the Anticommunist Resistance)

7. Tokyo
Tokyo must have thought it had seen the worst after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 set off firestorms from upturned cooking stoves that destroyed swaths of the wooden city. But worse was to come on the Night of Black Snow in 1945 when US bombers dropped 1665 tons of bombs, including incendiaries and napalm. More than 15 square miles were burned down and an estimated 100,000 people killed. Little of historic Tokyo survived.

Aerial view of Japanese capital city of Tokyo, which shows the heavy damage from American air raid attacks, 1945 (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

8. Warsaw
Aerial bombardment saw devastation to countless European cities from Coventry to Cologne, but Warsaw was different. Here, the occupying Nazis systematically levelled the Polish capital as part of its plan to turn the Poles into a slave race. Further destruction followed uprisings by Jews imprisoned in the ghettos and by the Polish resistance. The Nazis carted off statues and dynamited entire city blocks, including the castle. After the war, the Old Town was carefully rebuilt using hidden plans, photographs and details from paintings.

Ruins of the Old Town Market Square in Warsaw, The Kołłątaj side, 1945, Maria Chrząszczowa (From the collection of Archeology of Photography Foundation)

9. District Six
District Six was a multiracial area near Cape Town docks that was flattened under apartheid to keep races separate. It was once home to a tenth of the city, including Muslims, Xhosa, whites, and Indians with a lively cultural scene. From 1968 onwards, hundreds of homes were demolished. In 2004, Nelson Mandela handed over keys to new homes for the first returning elderly residents. Although not as artistically precious as ancient African cultural centers, such as Benin City, which were burned to the ground by British colonialists, District Six became emblematic of racist town planning.

Forced Removals, 1974 (From the collection of Africa Media Online)

10. Bamiyan Buddhas
When the Islamist extremists of the Taliban blew up two giant Buddhas in remote Afghanistan, it wasn’t only an act of iconoclasm, but part of a tide of ethnic cleansing directed at the local Hazaras for whom the statues were a symbol of their region. The niche in which they stood has since been stabilized but there are still arguments about whether they should be rebuilt. Would that be an act of recovery or faking history?

Words by Robert Bevan
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