As with IS, her­itage has al­ways been a tar­get

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY LEE KEATH

A nearly 2,000-year-old tem­ple in the Syr­ian city of Palmyra this week 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 Mo­hammed Ab­dul-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 — and 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.


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 Ferdi- nand II and Queen Is­abella or­dered the ex­pul­sion of Jews from the penin­sula in 1492, syn­a­gogues were turned into churches.

Sec­ond Jewish Tem­ple in


Ro­man armies de­stroyed the Jewish Tem­ple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 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.

The 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 the United King­dom’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.


In this Dec. 13, 2013 file photo, the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, some of the holi­est sites for Jews and Mus­lims, are cov­ered in snow in Jerusalem. Through­out the cen­turies, in­vaders, re­li­gious fa­nat­ics and col­o­niz­ers have in­ten­tion­ally 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.

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