So how do wars destroy history? Such a question can be answered from many angles, most prominently that the winners write history textbooks and evidence of the past can be easily erased. The secondary angle that is often discussed is the relationship between politics and history; that is, even if war brings down the government, why does a change in regime necessarily harm our collective past? Despite these questions, there remains a much more physical and tangible incarnation of war’s impact on historical narrative and appreciation, and that is the destruction of relics and sites of cultural significance in war zones.
On April 24, the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo was destroyed in a fierce battle between rebels and government forces during the most recent escalations of the Syrian Civil War. The mosque, which dates as early as the 8th century CE and whose minaret was built in 1090, is one of the world’s oldest and most significant religious sites, particularly for Muslims. Over the past millennium, the site was preserved despite many periods of strife and civil unrest, notably the great fire of 1159 and the 13th century Mongol invasions. It houses the remains of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, giving the site much significance to the many Christians that used to visit Syria as pilgrims. Many even consider the Great Mosque of Aleppo to symbolize unity between the Muslim sects, as both Shiites and Sunnis contributed to its construction, repair, and renovation.
It is irrefutable that the destruction of the minaret carries great symbolic meaning, but the longer-term ramifications are less clear. It’s interesting, in this respect, to consider the role of fiction and literature as they relate to historical sites. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for example, are considered by many to be fictional but very well may have existed in reality until the 2nd century BCE- existing relics or artifacts clearly would have been advantageous in settling this dispute. Many stories of antiquity like the Battle of Troy are additionally, to this day, contested in terms of their historical accuracy and existence. Any physical evidence at the site of Troy could have validated this claim and led to a clearer understanding of literary works like the Iliad and the Odyssey if only Heinrich Schliemann hadn’t accidentally blown through the ancient city in the 1800’s looking for gold and treasures. This, of course, isn’t perfectly comparable to a situation of war, but the intellectual price we pay for negligence of this sort is remarkable.
Many destructions of historical sites are justified by their perpetrators in the name of religion. This occurred, for example, in 2001 when the Taliban dynamited two monumental carvings of Buddha in central Afghanistan known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. The carvings, which dated to the 6th century CE, were deemed idols by the Taliban’s religious leadership and ordered to be destroyed despite heavy international criticism. An even more troubling example comes from the sacking of Constantinople by the Christian Crusaders in 1204, who not only destroyed Christian history (as the city was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for nearly 1,000 years), but also melted hundreds of statues dating to Ancient Greece in order to forge more weapons and make coins. This type of blatant disregard of historical value has ended any possibility at a greater intellectual appreciation of those ancient civilizations.
Interestingly, some more contemporary examples have shown that destruction and historical preservation might not be mutually exclusive. Most prominently, the town of Taihuai in China was destroyed in 2008 in order to preserve the Wutai Mountain’s “Buddhist character.” The town’s residents, who thrived off of their tourist shops and businesses, were forcibly evicted and moved about 10 miles away, leaving behind temples that are historically precious to Buddhists. This sort of intervention by the Chinese government both “destroyed” and “preserved” in the name of history, raising the concern that modernization alongside historical preservation (in its most basic form) has rendered such sites as inauthentic and needing destructive intervention to more directly enforce that preservation.
Even for me, this idea isn’t too hard to digest. Having visited the Pyramids at Giza a number of times- the Great Pyramid of Khufu is, by the way, the last surviving monument of the 7 Wonders of the World- it’s true that the amount of commercial tourist activity and the number of Egyptians aggressively trying to sell rubbish to unknowing foreigners could use a tone-down (maybe even some destruction) for the sake of authenticity and not just economic gain. On the flip side, widespread tourism and appreciation provide much income and economic activity for communities around historical sites. In fact, before the Egyptian revolution, the tourism industry alone employed about 12% of the national workforce. So even on such a level, destruction for the purpose of preservation comes at a cost.
But regardless of how we go about our goal, it’s crucial to realize that appreciating historical sites and relics is important not only because it gives us an eye into how our predecessors lived and interpreted the world, but also because it contributes to moral understanding and provides identity. The minaret at the Great Mosque of Aleppo has been reduced to rubble yet again, under the rocket fire, but we can only hope that like the great fire and Mongol invasion, it will only prove to be a short road block in its future marked by renewed respect for culture and our collective human history.