The Destruction of Memory – Architecture at War

by | Books, Features

It is because we – in the West – have a highly developed concept of ‘global heritage’, that the systematic destruction of architectural totems at Palmyra and Nimrud by Islamic State, is able to cause such outrage…. and certainly as much outrage as their barbaric execution of prisoners.

Our Western notions of a shared cultural heritage inevitably inspire a special kind of indignation, and the strategic targeting of priceless ancient artefacts has led to elaborate initiatives for their protection, the use of 3D printing for their replication and replacement… and even for increased Western military intervention.

In dramatic contrast, not only do the perpetrators of these outrages on priceless relicts from early civilisations not share our values – including the concept of ‘global heritage’ – but are particularly motivated to target those very values in a deliberate strategy of cultural warfare. Mindful of quite how much these relicts of the past mean to us, Jihadist groups have warned that their onslaught on civilisation will even include such icons of ‘global heritage’ as the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx. A threat that the Egyptian government is taking very seriously.

But It’s not just them – and it’s not just now. Throughout history, man has understood that the most effective way to obliterate an enemy – is to erase any trace of their culture. Political, religious or military turmoil has often been accompanied by iconoclastic activities or cultural warfare, from the Roman practice of damnatio memoriae to innumerable examples – even in the heart of Europe – in the 20th and 21st centuries. However as Robert Bevan demonstrates – in his book and film ‘The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War’ – it is only very recently that our understanding of ‘genocide’ is beginning to be extended to include the concept of ‘cultural genocide’. Bevan argues that such destruction not only shatters a nation’s culture and morale but is a deliberate act of eradicating a culture’s memory and, ultimately, its existence.

the destruction of the ancient temple of Baal Shamin (built in 17 AD) in the Unesco-listed city of Palmyra, Syria.

The destruction of the ancient Temple of Baal Shamin (built in 17 AD) in the UNESCO listed city of Palmyra, Syria.

The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War

by Robert Bevan

Nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway . . .
It targets human lives, and minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage.

Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, March 2015

My book ‘The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War‘, was first conceived in the wake of the Bosnian War – before the pair of sixth-century Buddhas in remote Bamiyan were dynamited in March 2001, before anyone could imagine the toppling of the Twin Towers in New York later that same year.

It was published first in hardback in 2006, about the time that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike in Iraq. In the years leading up to his death, the ‘Emir’ of al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Zarqawi, had made a habit of escalating inter-communal violence between Shia and Sunni using the cal­culated bombing of Iraqi mosques such as that at the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra – one of the holiest in Shia Islam – to successfully provoke sectarian outrage. Since his death, al-Zarqawi’s organization has morphed into Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh).

As an organization, Da’esh has inherited the Taliban and al-Zarqawi’s brutal way with heritage, demonstrating its keen understanding of the uses and abuses of architecture. The destruction of cultural sites can serve many purposes; terror, propaganda, conquest, genocide.

Some regions addressed in my book have quietened since. Bosnia, for example, has not seen much in the way of architectural destruction in the following two decades. Nor, however, has it seen much in the way of inter-communal reconciliation via rebuilding beyond the showpiece Mostar Bridge, despite the heritage-protection clauses of the Dayton Accords of 1995. Elsewhere, the cultural catastrophe that results when built heritage is targeted for destruction in conflicts has only intensified. Across the Islamic world in particular, the tactics favoured by al-Zarqawi have spiralled out of control in Syria and Iraq and are barely contained further afield.

The destruction of cultural sites can serve many purposes: terror, propaganda, conquest, genocide

Image: Shocking destruction of ancient relicts by Da’esh

While this destruction is informed superficially by the iconoclastic religious doctrine that has its origins in Saudi Wahhabism, it is essentially political in nature, an ideology that challenges the postcolonial settlement – the illogical, externally imposed national boundaries and the corrupt, repressive regimes backed by the West and Russia that have followed. Such regimes have imposed a Western capitalist model on their people, without its freedoms but with brutality, corruption and hopeless poverty.

Iconoclastic activities have a history going back millennia but in its latest Islamist interpretation they are about forging a new Islamic identity that rejects the hegemony of the West. This attitude is encapsulated in the name of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, often translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’ or ‘Westernization is sacrilege’. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have helped create the vacuum that such ideas have rushed to fill. Saudi oil money has supported this expansionist puritanism despite the potential for extraordinary blowback.

From across the Maghreb to Pakistan and beyond, identities are being asserted that are uncompromisingly hostile to Christian churches, Shia shrines, Sufi tombs, cemeteries, secular archaeology, museums or world heritage sites. Scholars have been shot by snipers, site custodians beheaded by militants. The world watched in disbelief as Da’esh proudly uploaded videos showing its bulldozing of ancient Nimrud and the 2,000-year-old remains of Hatra, both in Iraq, and the dynamiting of Palmyra.

But to anti-Western idealogues the very idea of a universal heritage is an externally imposed notion. In 2001 the Taliban’s Mullah Omar teased the West that it idolized the Bamiyan Buddhas and cared about them more than it did about the plight of Afghanis living in poverty; while in Mali it is thought that in Timbuktu a new round of shrine destruction by Ansar Dine in July 2012 was a response to condemnatory resolutions at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee meeting in St Petersburg. Why should they be expected to trust in such universalism when the West’s Enlightenment project has only brought their regions subjugation?

Such regimes have imposed a Western capitalist model on their people, without its freedoms but with brutality, corruption and hopeless poverty.

Terrorism always conveys a message, often embodied in the choice of architectural target. To al-Qaeda, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York represented in part, Western idolatry and in part, the economic hegemony of the U.S. in the world and particularly in the Middle East. The anti-American and anti-modern message was also a call to action for Islamic militants.

From Bosnia onwards, bouts of cultural destruction have led to enormous amounts of hand-wringing; to bureaucratic UN resolutions, self-aggrandizing academic conferences, inflammatory suggestions of armed intervention to protect historic sites and deluded proposals to fly out valuable artefacts for safe-keeping in the great museum storehouses of New York, London and Paris while leaving persecuted populations behind to suffer or drown in the Mediterranean. In some ways, then, Mullah Omar was correct in his criticism. Until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and their culture are interlinked, there will be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.

Here, Da’esh, for all its slickly horrifying videos of stonings, immolations and hammer-drills taken to Assyrian lamassu, is unwittingly serving the long-term interests of would-be protectors of heritage and the guardians of human rights because the links between the two are now readily made, whereas they still appeared novel (or, more accurately, had been forgotten by the international community) when my book was first written.

In response to these escalating attacks UNESCO has, finally, condemned attacks on cultural sites not simply for the damage to their intrinsic historical or aesthetic value but because such attacks are also so often a component of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The UN Security Council and the UN’s human rights office are now looking at what is happening in Iraq with the understanding that the destruction of heritage is part and parcel of the mass murder of Yazidis, Shia, Christians and other minorities and their cultures. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch are also tentatively making the linkages between heritage and rights.

In theory, prosecution of this destruction should, to some degree, be a deterrent. Unfortunately, international law as it exists is not fit for purpose, not just because it is inadequate to deal with non-state protagonists, but because it continues to separate out cultural crimes from crimes against humanity. This has been illustrated again and again by the tribunal at The Hague set up to adjudicate on crimes carried out in the former Yugoslavia (the ICTY). Here, the destruction of heritage has been accepted (tentatively) as potential evidence of genocide but not as an intrinsic method of achieving genocide – part and parcel of genocide itself – even if they are an element of blatant attempts to erase an entire people’s history and identity. There have also been few prosecutions at The Hague directed at perpetrators of cultural crimes, with charges of destruction normally tacked onto main charges dealing with deaths and human rights abuses.

Until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and their culture are interlinked, there will be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.

Da’esh’s cultural destruction has been called a war crime and in spirit this is extravagantly true.

Lot and his Daughters (1520) attributed to Lucas van Leyden. Depiction of the fall of Sodom

Lot and his Daughters (1520) attributed to Lucas van Leyden. This depiction of the fall of Sodom, with its intimations of incest, has been a popular subject for artists. The destruction of sinful cities and a suspicion of the urban is found throughout Vedic, Koranic, Classical and Judaeo-Christian texts. Similarly, present day notions of ‘urbicide’ – attacks on the cosmopolitan and multi-cultural- have been used to explain assaults on cities such as Dubrovnik and Sarajevo

Only the Church of St Sergius remains of the 7th- 11th century Armenian monastery of Khitzkonk in Eastern Turkey.

Only the Church of St Sergius remains of the 7th-11th century Armenian monastery of Khitzkonk in Eastern Turkey. The monastery was abandoned after the Armenian genocide and subsequently destroyed by Turkish forces in the 1960s, as part of a long standing hostility against the remains of Armenian culture in Turkey.

The UN’s International Court of Justice (also at The Hague) has taken a similar stance, to the disgust of one of its own judges: ‘Whether one wishes to admit it or not, body and soul come together and it is utterly superficial . . . to attempt to dissociate one from the other’, said Judge Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade in his incendiary dissenting opinion on the verdict in a genocide case between Croatia and Serbia in February 2015.

Trindade argued that the ICJ is denying justice by demanding too onerous a level of evidence to prove intent to commit genocide – intent being a vital test of the crime of crimes. His written opinion sets out what he regards as overlooked evidence; the consistent pattern experienced across Serb-occupied Croatia where in towns such as Vukovar, Croatian-built culture was systematically targeted at the same time as Croatian civilians were murdered and evicted. This is evidence, he says, of a desire to eradicate a people and part of its methodology. What we are seeing in this opinion is a determined effort to drag the issue of culture’s fate in war from the margins and make it central to the question of human rights; if a group’s cultural identity is eradicated, this has a similar end result to eradicating that group physically – they cease to exist as a distinct cultural group.

Trindade quotes Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis and went on to draft the 1948 Genocide Convention. Lemkin was convinced that genocide was made up of both barbarity (attacks on people) and vandalism (attacks on culture as the expression of a people’s genius). As eventually adopted by the United Nations, however, the Convention omitted Lemkin’s concept of cultural vandalism as an element of genocide. Cold War diplomatic hostilities and the fear among new world governments that their indigenous peoples (and former slaves) could apply the law against their own government prevailed: ‘I defended it successfully through two drafts’, Lemkin later recalled in his autobiography.

‘[Vandalism] meant the destruction of the cultural pattern of a group, such as the language, the traditions, the monuments, archives, libraries, churches. In brief: the shrines of the soul of a nation.’ Realizing that realpolitik would block the cultural destruction clauses, Lemkin decided, ‘with a heavy heart’, not to press the issue. He hoped it would be taken up later in an Additional Protocol to the Convention. It was not to be, with the consequences we are seeing today. Trindade is hoping that his opinion will help bolster precedent or ‘persuasive authority’ in international law.

Instead of recognizing the fate of culture as being inextricably linked to cultural genocide, the UN adopted the 1954 Hague Convention that aims to protect heritage in the event of armed conflict. Under later protocols amending the Convention, nations that are signed up to it are supposed to hold non-state actors on their territory to criminal account but one cannot imagine that happening in Iraq (which is not a signatory to the vital Second Protocol in any case). It has been hard enough to get convictions for the systematic levelling of religious architecture and museums across the relatively functional countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia.

Da’esh’s cultural destruction has been called a war crime and in spirit this is extravagantly true. However, the question remains whether it can be formally considered as such under any enforceable law; cultural destruction is not officially genocide and while such destruction counts as a war crime under the 2002 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court, Iraq has failed to sign up to that too. Indeed, like the US, Iraq is actively hostile to the very idea of the court and to the notion that its generals and politicians should be held to account in that forum. The West’s own ‘civilized’ values are once again flexible.

In March 2004 a mob of young Serbs set fire to the historic Islam-aga mosque in Nis, Serbia. The attack, and the one on the Bayrakli mosque in Belgrade, were a response to the destruction of dozens of Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo by Kosovar nationalists the day before. They were the last two Ottoman mosques in Serbia.

Prevention of genocidal cultural destruction has been as lacklustre as the prosecution of its perpetrators, despite, in the wake of Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda, genocide early-warning and prevention measures rising up the international agenda. In 2004 Secretary-General Kofi Annan used his key­note speech at the Stockholm International Forum on Preventing Genocide to say that there ‘is no task more fundamental to the United Nations than prevention and resolution of deadly conflict’. The Forum committed the UN to ‘using and developing practical tools and mechanism to identify as early as possible and to monitor and report on genocidal threats to human life and society’. A variety of statistically based genocide early-warning systems have been in development in the years following Stockholm. Not a single one includes material culture as a measure in determining if a genocidal situation is emerging.

In its critique of these emerging systems, the Armenian government called in 2009 for culture to be taken into account, arguing that ‘Destruction of cultural property, religious sites, suppression of cultural identity’ should be ‘listed under the warning signs at the cultural level. However, all these violations should be of a systematic nature and frequently occurring to be considered as a warning sign for a genocidal situation.’ Yet at a UNESCO-related conference on heritage at risk held in Istanbul in 2012, a paper on this subject was not scheduled for delivery and could only be submitted to the written proceedings if passages were excised that could offend Turkish or Chinese delegates (both nations have been guilty of cultural genocide in the past and, in China’s case at least, in the present).

Of course, nothing will ever stop the determined philistine or murderous sociopath but until Lemkin’s vandalism provisions become an explicit Additional Protocol to the Genocide Convention, or a new convention clearly linking heritage and human rights is formulated, there will be no effective remedy, despite a raised understanding of the issues.

Burning books is not the same as burning bodies’, observed Lemkin in 1948, ‘but when one intervenes . . . against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.’

‘Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes . . . against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.’

Robert is the architecture critic for the London Evening Standard. He has previously been editor of Building Design and the architecture critic for two other daily newspapers The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. He has written for design, art and travel magazines around the world, including Vogue Living, where he was deputy editor.

Robert is also the author of The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War and is a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) that advises UNESCO on world heritage. He has degrees in architecture, planning and urban design and experience in both news and features. He is presently based in London.


by Robert Bevan
published by Reakton Books, RRP £9.95

Main Image: Herbert Mason’s shot of St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by the smoking, blitzed City of London in December 1940

To order THE DESTRUCTION OF MEMORY: Architecture at War, please visit GDC Interiors Journal Book Collection on Amazon


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