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Temple of Bel, an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria. The temple was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Source: Janos/Adobe Stock

History Erased: The 6 Most Heartbreaking Archaeological Destructions

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Have you ever wondered how the destruction of our past affects our future? World history is full of incredible stories of innovation, achievement, and triumph, but it is also full of tales of destruction, loss, and devastation. Throughout history, many priceless archaeological sites, monuments, and artifacts have been destroyed due to wars, natural disasters, and human negligence. These cultural tragedies not only rob us of our heritage but also deprive future generations of the opportunity to learn from the past. These are some of the most devastating archaeological destructions in history, some of which are deliberate attempts to erase the past.

1.The Bamiyan Buddhas - Destroyed by the Taliban

Religious extremists have a formidable reputation for destroying important pieces of history. A prime, and tragic, example of this is the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001. 

The Buddhas were two massive 6th-century statues that had been carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley of the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan. The larger of the two stood 55 meters (180 ft) tall while the smaller was 38 meters (125 ft) tall. The Buddhas were considered a cultural and religious treasure by Buddhists around the world but over time had been adopted by the present-day inhabitants of the region as well who had named them Salsal and Shamama, tying them to their local beliefs.

38-meter (125ft) Buddha of Bamiyan, before and after destruction.  (Minahatithan/CC BY-SA 4.0)

38-meter (125ft) Buddha of Bamiyan, before and after destruction.  (Minahatithan/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Unfortunately, after the Taliban took control of the region, they decided the Buddhas had to go. Their reasoning? They considered the statues to be idolatrous and a violation of their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Demolition began on 2 March 2001. 

The Buddhas didn’t go down without a fight, however, and the demolition took much longer than expected. The Taliban started out by using anti-aircraft guns and artillery fire, which caused heavy damage but did not completely destroy the two Buddhas.

The Taliban next tried placing anti-tank mines at the base of the two monuments. That way, when the rubble fell to the floor, it set off the mines and caused even heavier damage. It worked to an extent, but the Buddhas were still standing.

Eventually, the Taliban resorted to rappelling men down the fronts of the statues and placing dynamite in the holes made by their earlier efforts. The process took several weeks but by March 21, 2001, the Taliban had succeeded in destroying an important historic monument.

It was not only a tragedy for Buddhists, but for all those who value the preservation of history and art. Unsurprisingly, there was a massive international outcry. Many countries and organizations have since made efforts to rebuild the statues, or create replicas, but nothing can replace the original works of art.

2.The ancient city of Palmyra - Demolished by ISIS

Another important site destroyed by religious zealots, Palmyra was an ancient city located in central Syria famed for its well-preserved ruins of Roman and Persian architecture. It was (and still is) a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the most important cultural landmarks in the Middle East.

The city, which is believed to date back in some form or another to the Neolithic period, has survived numerous conquests and changed hands numerous times throughout history. While it has been damaged several times over the centuries, no one caused as much historical damage as ISIS.

Aerial View of the ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur), 2008, showing the now destroyed Temple of Bel complex, the Colonnade, and the Monumental Arch. (CC BY 2.0)

Aerial View of the ancient city of Palmyra (Tadmur), 2008, showing the now destroyed Temple of Bel complex, the Colonnade, and the Monumental Arch. (CC BY 2.0)

When ISIS captured the city in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War, they initially promised they would not carry out any attacks on the city’s ruins. They broke their promise just a few days later.

They began on May 23, 2015, by destroying the Lion of Al-lāt and other statues. A month later they blew up the Temple of Baalshamin and a week after that ISIS destroyed the cellar of the Temple of Bel. But they didn’t stop there.

By September of that year, it became clear that ISIS had destroyed three of the city’s best-preserved tower tombs, including the famous Tower of Elahbel. In October, the media began reporting that ISIS had moved away from buildings with religious connotations and was now destroying other buildings. The destruction continued over the next two years.

The destruction of Palmyra was seen as a deliberate attempt by ISIS to erase cultural and historical landmarks that were deemed incompatible with their extremist ideology. The world was outraged by these acts of cultural vandalism, and many countries and organizations condemned the destruction and called for the protection of cultural heritage sites.

After the city was retaken from ISIS renovations began but the damage was largely done. In 2022 a handful of sites were reopened to the public following restoration but the process will be a long and arduous one. 

3.The Destruction of the Library of Alexandria - A Slow Process

The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, located in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. It was founded in the 3rd century BC and contained hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and books, making it a center of learning and scholarship.

The widely accepted belief today is that the library burnt down in a massive fire that started during the Roman conquest of the city. People tend to believe its destruction was quick, but the opposite is actually true. The library was destroyed gradually, over the course of centuries.

The Great Library of Alexandria before its destruction. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Great Library of Alexandria before its destruction. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first known damage to the library occurred in 48 BC when Julius Caesar accidentally set fire to the city of Alexandria. While it is true that a substantial portion of the library’s ancient knowledge was destroyed, much of the library survived its first burning.

In the centuries that followed, the library suffered further damage from wars, invasions, and neglect. The Roman Empire conquered Egypt in the 1st century BC, and although they were interested in preserving the knowledge contained in the library, it’s believed that many of the books were eventually lost or destroyed due to a lack of care.

The next big attack on the library came during the 4th century AD. Around this time the Roman Empire converted to Christianity and many pagan institutions, like the Library of Alexandria, were shut down or destroyed. Ancient sources show that the library was either destroyed or permanently closed at this time on the orders of the Christian emperor Theodosius I.

In the years that followed the library was repeatedly attacked by Christians and the contents within it were slowly chipped away at. Still, the library continued to stand in one form or another.

The final blow to the once great library came in 640 AD after Alexandria came under Muslim rule. The city’s new ruler, Caliph Omar, decided the library had to be destroyed. His reasoning was a little bizarre. Either the ancient texts within the library contradicted the Quran, and had to be destroyed, or they agreed with it and were superfluous (which meant they should be destroyed). It is said it took them six months to burn all the materials within.

Although the exact details of the library's destruction are not known, it is clear that the loss of the library and its contents was a significant blow to the intellectual and cultural heritage of the ancient world. Many of the works contained in the library have been lost to history, and their loss represents an irreparable loss to human knowledge and culture.

4.The Burning of the Library of Nalanda in India - Burnt to the Ground

The Library of Nalanda was once one of the most important centers for learning in India and was located in the present-day state of Bihar. The library was part of the famous Nalanda University, which was founded in the 5th century AD and was considered one of the oldest, and most prestigious, universities in the entire world.

The remnants of the library of Nalanda University. (Wonderlane/CC BY 2.0)

The remnants of the library of Nalanda University. (Wonderlane/CC BY 2.0)

Much like the library of Alexandria, the library of Nalanda was a massive repository of ancient knowledge and texts. It hosted a vast collection of manuscripts that covered everything from science, mathematics, and medicine to philosophy and religion. It was a center of learning that attracted scholars and students from all over the world, including China, Tibet, and Korea.

Unfortunately, the library was destroyed when the troops of the Ghurid dynasty (a Persian dynasty thought to originate from eastern Iran) led by Bakhtiyar Khilji invaded the area and began attacking the University of Nalanda and the monasteries that surrounded it. 

The library was most likely burned down by the invading army, and many of the scholars and students who were present at the university were put to death. The destruction of the library by the Muslim invaders is supported by three sources which disagree over some details but generally agree on who carried the destruction out and roughly when.

Due to the extent of the damage, and the fact that sources covering the destruction tend to disagree, the exact extent of the damage and the number of manuscripts that were lost is not known. However, it is estimated that the library contained over 9 million volumes of manuscripts. 

In modern times efforts have been made to revive Nalanda University, and it has been rebuilt as a modern institution of learning. However, the loss of the ancient library and its vast collection of knowledge and culture remains an irreplaceable loss to human history.

5.The Destruction of the City of Persepolis - Burnt by Drunken Greeks

While the destruction of many of history’s great monuments has been intentional, sometimes things just get out of hand. Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Empire, located in present-day Iran. The city was known for its magnificent buildings, palaces, and sculptures, and was a symbol of Persian power and culture.

In ancient history, ancient Greece and Persia had a long, complicated rivalry. In particular, the Greeks never forgave the Persians for the destruction of Athens in 480 BC at the hands of King Xerxes I.

When Alexander the Great first came to power he made it his mission to lead a massive war against Persia. He was immensely successful and in 330 BC he invaded Persia and conquered its capital, Persepolis. 

Whether or not he meant to destroy the city is still a subject of much debate. What we do know, however, is shortly after Alexander conquered the city, it was burnt to a crisp, and much of it and its treasures were destroyed.

After taking the city Alexander essentially told his men to go wild and let their hair down. They were far from home and had been fighting almost non-stop for several years. Some historians believe that during all the drunken revelry a fire broke out and destroyed the city.

Some other historians believe the fire was intentionally set by either Alexander or his troops in revenge for the burning of Athens. However, there’s little evidence for this theory and it’s more likely the fire was accidental in nature.

Regardless of the cause, the destruction of Persepolis was a significant blow to Persian culture and history. Many of the city's buildings and treasures were lost, including its magnificent palace complexes and sculptures. Thankfully due to the nature of its construction, some parts of the ancient city survived and it’s still a popular tourist attraction today.

The Ruins of Persepolis, in Iran. (A.Davey/CC BY 2.0)

The Ruins of Persepolis, in Iran. (A.Davey/CC BY 2.0)

6.The Destruction of Baghdad Museum - A Victim of Negligence

Baghdad Museum, also known as the Iraq Museum, is one of the most important museums in the Middle East, housing a vast collection of artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia, including the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian civilizations. Sadly, its magnificent collection suffered severe damage during the Iraq War in 2003.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein chaos broke out in much of Baghdad and looters took the opportunity to strike. They broke into the largely undefended museum and stole many priceless artifacts, including the famous Warka Vase and the Mask of Warka.

Recovered artifacts: The Mask of Warka (left) and the votive Vase of Warka (right) dating back to 3000-2900 BC.  (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0) and (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recovered artifacts: The Mask of Warka (left) and the votive Vase of Warka (right) dating back to 3000-2900 BC.  (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0) and (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The looting was met with widespread condemnation from the international community, and there were calls for the US military to do more to protect the museum. The US military later acknowledged that they had not taken the necessary measures to secure the museum and its artifacts.

Thankfully in the years since many of the lost artifacts have been recovered and there has been a massive international effort to restore the museum and its collections. While the museum did reopen in 2015 thousands of artifacts are still missing and it will take years for the collection to fully recover. 

Conclusion

The stories of devastating archaeological destruction throughout history remind us of the fragility of our past and the importance of preserving our cultural heritage for future generations. The loss of priceless artifacts, monuments, and ancient cities due to war, natural disasters, and human negligence is a tragedy that cannot be undone. 

These tragic events serve as a reminder of the need to protect our heritage and the role that each of us plays in preserving our collective history. By understanding and respecting the past, we can learn from it, draw inspiration from it, and build a better future. 

Top image: Temple of Bel, an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria. The temple was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.  Source: Janos/Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Centlivres. P. 2012. The Death of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Available at https://www.mei.edu/publications/death-buddhas-bamiyan

Haughton. B. 2011. What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria? Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/207/what-happened-to-the-great-library-at-alexandria/

Mark. J. 2019. Alexander the Great & the Burning of Persepolis. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/214/alexander-the-great--the-burning-of-persepolis/

Martin. M. 2023. Who's to Blame for Iraq Museum Looting? Available at: https://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=128469&page=1

 

Comments

Left out the Western Hemisphere. The writings of the Mayans and Aztecs were destroyed by the priests of the Catholic Church. The Incas wrote no script but used knots/

mogoso

Charles Bowles's picture

BWANA4SWAHILI,  I agree with you 100% regarding religious extremists and their advancement in truying to erase USA history. They all have guilt trips..

Charles Bowles

It does appear most of the damage to history has been accomplished by religious extremists.

At the rate this extremism is advancing in the USA with banned books, discussing slavery, etc. it won’t be too long before USA history is erased as well!

From stardust I was born, to stardust I shall return

Charles Bowles's picture

University of Sankore in the ancient world learning center at Timbuktu during three major West African Empires, such as Ghana, Mali, and Songhai..Destroyed during the late 15th century..

Charles Bowles

Robbie Mitchell's picture

Robbie

I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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