Global Insights

When terrorists target heritage sites

The symbolic value of destroying cultural heritage
By Constantine A. Valhouli  |  August 22, 2017 5:53 PM

Sagrada Familia, nave roof detail via Wikimedia Commons

According to recent coverage from The Guardian, one of the intended targets of the terrorists who drove a van into a crowd in Barcelona was the city's iconic Sagrada Familia church.

Given that the plot was uncovered in part because the house in which they had been stockpiling and manufacturing explosives, had exploded, it is likely that they would have attempted to detonate bombs at Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia is not just a cathedral, but an iconic symbol of Barcelona and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As such, the potential damage to – or loss of – the building has repercussions that are on a scale much larger than the real estate itself. It is a defining symbol of the city's skyline, and a touristic draw. Symbolically, it would have been a loss to Barcelona on par with the destruction of New York City's World Trade Center in 2001.

However, significant architectural and heritage sites are often deliberate targets of terrorists and radicals.

The Buddhas of Bamayan, before and after demolition in 2001.

In 2001, a pair of massive 1,700-year-old Buddha statues carved out of limestone were intentionally destroyed by the Taliban. With one standing almost 165 feet tall – the height of a 16 story building – it was the largest such statue in the world. First, the Taliban used them for target practice, then brought in a truckload of dynamite to finish the destruction. According to the Telegraph "[The Taliban] drilled holes into the torsos of the two statues and then placed dynamite charges inside the holes to blow them up."

ISIL (or Daesh) has made destruction of heritage sites and cultural artifacts part of their practice when capturing cities in the Middle East. In the city of Raqqa in Syria, they publicly bulldozed the Assyrian gateway lion sculpture, which dated from the 8th century BCE.

The Tetrapylon in Palmyra; photographed 2008, destroyed 2017. Via Guardian

In 2015, the group released video of its members destroying artifacts in the Mosul Museum. The same year, it began destroying the city of Nimrud, which dates to the 13th century BCE. And in May of 2015, it began destroying the World Heritage Site of Palmyra, including the Tetrapylon in 2017.

According to the Guardian, militants beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, 82, a renowned antiquities scholar in Palmyra and hung his mutilated body on a column in a main square because he heroically - despite a month of torture - refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The losses to the region in terms of culture and identity, as well as cultural heritage, are incalculable. But the losses are not merely regional – they are deliberate attacks upon the world's shared heritage