From Parthenon to Palmyra: a history of cultural destruction

Demolition of temples in Syria by Isis is the latest act in a catalogue of purposeful vandalism in the name of religion or ideology

War has always taken a toll on heritage as well as human lives, from the sacking of Constantinople by crusaders and the destruction of Baghdad by Mongol armies, to the second world war firebombing of Coventry that claimed its Gothic cathedral.

But the demolition of the temples at Palmyra in Syria by Isis is the latest act in an even darker history of purposeful vandalism in the name of religion or ideology. It stretches back to the earliest days of recorded human history, with the Bible noting the destruction of religious statues in the Syrian region centuries before the Christian era. Here are details of a few of the lost treasures, and the groups that destroyed them.

Libraries of Timbuktu

Timbuktu manuscripts
Preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts after Islamist extremists torched a library in Timbuktu. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

The Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine torched libraries of priceless manuscripts dating back to the 13th century when they took control of Timbuktu and destroyed ancient mausoleums that were part of a world heritage site.

The shrines were rebuilt after the city was liberated, and it has emerged that many of the city’s manuscripts were secretly saved from the flames by people who risked their lives to protect their cultural heritage.

Buddhas in Bamiyan

Buddha in Bamiyan
One of the statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, before it was blown up by the Taliban. Photograph: Jean-Claude Chapon/EPA

The two giant Buddha sculptures that presided over the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan for more than 15 centuries were blown up by the Taliban in March 2001. The size of the statues made it hard work, and captives suspended on ropes spent days seeding them with explosives.

Taliban fanatics had already been on an orgy of destruction through the national museum. Curators painstakingly gathered up the fragments there and reconstructed many of the most precious items after the Taliban were toppled, but restoration of the Buddhas has proved too controversial and complicated, and the niches that once sheltered them still stand empty.

Monasteries, temples and art during China’s cultural revolution

Tibetan monastery
A monastery in Shannan, Tibet. Photograph: Chen Yichen/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The decade of chaos that began in 1966 caused the deaths of millions and was also devastating to China’s cultural heritage. Young Red Guards driven into a frenzy of destruction by the campaign to destroy the “Four Olds” rampaged through temples, homes and other historic sites and artefacts across the country. They burned and disfigured thousands of priceless items, including much of the Confucius temple in the ancient sage’s home town, now a world heritage site. In Tibet just a handful out of about 6,000 Buddhist monasteries and convents survived.

Easter Island Moai

Easter Island Moai statues
Easter Island Moai statues. Photograph: Art Wolfe/Getty Images

Some of the famous Easter Island statues were toppled during civil war and religious disputes, though not destroyed entirely.

The Reformation

In the UK, a huge quantity of religious art was destroyed during the reformation and then the English civil war in the 1640s, and the monasteries that housed them were set on the path to ruin. Curators of the Tate’s Art Under Attack exhibition estimated that at best 10% of medieval British art survived that period.

Books and early music were also destroyed, and many great abbeys fell into ruin after the dissolution of the monasteries. The archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, reportedly hailed the rule of Edward VI (son of Henry VIII) as “a new Josiah, destroyer of idols”.

Across Europe the reformation brought similar destruction. Sculptures were toppled or defaced, frescos whitewashed, reliquaries melted down, stained glass smashed, and manuscripts, painted panels and carved church fittings ranging from choir stalls to confessionals went up in smoke on bonfires.

Temples in Delhi

Delhi’s Qutb Minar, begun in 1199, towers over a mosque built in part from the remains of 27 Hindu and Jain temples destroyed when the Muslim Ghorid dynasty took control of northern India.

Christian art in the Iconoclast era

The original Iconoclasts were eighth-century Christians opposed to any depiction of human or animal form, who won the backing of Byzantine emperors. Laws banned the production of images, and existing pictures were destroyed or covered up.

Few survived the turmoil of this period and although the Iconoclasts eventually lost the fight for control of the church, and icons returned to homes and places of worship, few predate this period.

Greek and Roman temples

Parthenon temple
The Parthenon temple in Athens. Photograph: Alamy

Early Christians destroyed and defaced many of the pagan temples across the Middle East, including probably some of the statues on the famous Parthenon temple that stands on the Acropolis in Athens.

The destruction of the temple of Zeus at Apamea in Syria is one of several pieces of large-scale vandalism attributed to militant Christians around the fourth century of the Christian era. It was celebrated by contemporary chroniclers as an effort involving both hard work and ingenuity, because of the size of the temple.


Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Islamic State retakes historic city of Palmyra
Isis-affiliated news channel claims victory for jihadi fighters after intense fighting prompts Syrian military to withdraw

Kareem Shaheen

11, Dec, 2016 @4:23 PM

Article image
Isis seizes Syrian military base near Palmyra as it consolidates grip on city
Islamic State releases videos of advances as fighters take border crossing with Iraq, begin assault on Deir Ezzor and amass near key army base in Homs province

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut

22, May, 2015 @5:26 PM

Article image
Isis’s destruction of Palmyra: ‘The heart has been ripped out of the city'
Isis is destroying the ‘Venice of the sands’ piece by piece – and worse atrocities may be yet to come. Will it erase the memory of Syria’s extraordinary history?

Stuart Jeffries

02, Sep, 2015 @6:41 PM

Article image
Syrian forces make further gains in attempt to wrest Palmyra from Isis
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian army makes significant gains in bid to retake world-renowned archeological site

Martin Chulov in Beirut

24, Mar, 2016 @6:03 PM

Article image
Palmyra: historic Syrian city falls under control of Isis
Some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity face destruction as forces loyal to Assad withdraw to western strongholds

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut

21, May, 2015 @6:45 AM

Article image
Desecrated but still majestic: inside Palmyra after second Isis occupation
Forces loyal to Syrian government watch as smoke rises outside ruined city they took from Islamic State, which fights on nearby

Ruth Maclean in Palmyra

09, Mar, 2017 @10:50 AM

Article image
‘Palmyra will rise again. We have to send a message to terrorists’
Syrian forces are closing in on the ancient citadel. Now comes the task of assessing the destruction caused by Isis and rebuilding the city’s temples

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut and Emma Graham-Harrison

26, Mar, 2016 @10:09 PM

Article image
Palmyra's Arch of Triumph recreated in Trafalgar Square
Faithful copy of ancient Syrian monument destroyed by Isis will stand in central London for three days

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

19, Apr, 2016 @10:21 AM

Article image
Isis is systematically destroying Palmyra, top antiquities official says
Maamoun Abdulkarim says Islamic State militants have also begun excavations to unearth artefacts to sell on black market

Kareem Shaheen in Beirut

01, Sep, 2015 @5:17 PM

Article image
Syria: Isis releases footage of Palmyra ruins intact and 'will not destroy them'
Ancient ruins are not statues and so will be spared, Isis commander reportedly tells radio station amid new humanitarian crisis in the area

Kareem Shaheen

27, May, 2015 @5:11 PM