10 Destroyed Cultural Heritage Sites


During the First Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE, the Roman army plundered and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Thousands of Chinese historical sites were destroyed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and during World War II, numerous important cultural sites were destroyed in both Europe and Asia. In 1942 Royal Opera House in Valletta, Malta was destroyed and in 1945 the United States hollowed out the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima, Japan.

The reaction to the carnage was the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of military conflict. These regulations were bolstered in 1977 by adding additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, effectively turning the targeting of heritage sites into war crimes. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the armed groups from intentionally targeting them. Cultural Heritage sites in the Middle East, West Africa, and Eastern Europe have all been targeted during the past few decades. However, our cultural heritage sites are threatened by much more than war, lack of resources, training, poverty as well as economic development are also playing a part.

10. The Minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, Syria

In 1986, the ancient city of Aleppo was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its “rare and authentic Arab architectural styles” and as an homage to the city’s technological, social, and cultural advancements from the Mameluke period. The Great Mosque of Aleppo, one of the city’s foremost heritage areas, was constructed between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. The Mosque, traditionally believed to hold the remains of the father of John the Baptist – the prophet Zechariah – was one of Aleppo’s oldest and largest mosques, situated within the Old City’s walls. The Great Mosque’s Minaret, a tall tower from which a crier calls Muslims to daily prayer, was built in the 11th century.

The Great Mosque, in the heart of Aleppo’s ancient city, had already been severely damaged by fire due to heavy fighting by October 2012. However, the Minaret was totally demolished in 2013 amid continued attacks during the Syrian Civil War. To date, the cause of the tower’s ultimate collapse is still unknown. Anti-government forces were occupying the mosque at the time, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime pinned the blame on fighters from an Al-Qaeda-linked faction while rebels reported that incoming Syrian Army fire had destroyed the site.

9. Ani, Kars Province, Turkey

At the turn of the 10th century, the Bagratid Armenian Kingdom featured one of the largest cities in the world. Ani, also known as the “City of a Thousand Churches,” had such magnificent artistic and architectural splendor that its nickname led not only to its legendary status but ultimately also to its devastation. In 1064 Ani was invaded by the Seljuk (Turko-Persian) forces who in turn slaughtered thousands of ethnic Armenians and raised the city to the ground. 

For the next 150 years what remained of the once glorious city slowly limped along until 1236, when it was plundered by the Mongols. What little remained of Ani was obliterated by an earthquake in 1319 and entirely abandoned in 1735. Today, it is a haunting, mysterious city that stands alone on a plateau in northeast Turkey’s sparsely populated hills, 45 kilometers from the Turkish border. Despite its deterioration, Ani remains one of the most important sites of Armenian heritage in the world.

8. The Gates of Nineveh, Iraq

At its peak, around 700 BC, Nineveh was the world’s largest city and one of the Neo-Assyrian empire’s most valuable capitals. The spectacular city contained several temples as well as King Sennacherib’s legendary 80-room palace, all within a 12 kilometer-long wall adorned with 15 gates. Each gate is thought to have served a specific purpose. The Mashki Gate, also known as the “Gate of the Watering Places,” is considered to be the principal gate used to lead livestock to and from the Tigris River. The Adad gate was named after the ancient Mesopotamian weather and storm god.

A Babylonian alliance sacked the city around 612 BC and for hundreds of years, its remains stood as a testimony to its former glory. During the twentieth century, the two gates finally underwent restoration projects and were rebuilt, standing once again as rare and valuable symbols, a testimony to the ancient rich heritage of Mosul. As part of an ongoing crusade against historical monuments and cultural artifacts, ISIS demolished both of these gates and a large portion of the city’s ancient fortification wall in 2016. Although first reports of its destruction could not be verified, CHI images and satellite imagery confirmed its destruction within a matter of weeks.

7. Temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria

The city of Palmyra in Syria was one of the most sensational cities on the ancient Silk Road. Influenced by both Greco-Roman culture and Mesopotamian spirituality, early Palmyrene wealth was channeled into art, monuments, and architecture, including the Temple of Baalshamin and the Temple of Bel. When the country erupted in civil war during 2011, historians and archaeologists alike began to fear that Palmyra would become one of the war’s casualties – and they were 100% correct. 

ISIL fighters launched a massive attack on the ancient city in 2015, blowing up the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel in an act that UNESCO defined as a deliberate war crime. The temples’ decimation was a devastating cultural loss. The Temple of Bel, in particular, was an incredibly important religious site in Palmyra in antiquity. Built during the first century and dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel (or Baal), the temple boasted over 1,000 columns as well as a Roman aqueduct and over 500 ancient tombs.

6. Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were the world’s tallest Buddha monuments. The biggest one, carved into a mountainside during the sixth century, stood over 170 feet tall. The Buddhas rapidly developed a reputation as a sacred site when Xuanzang, a Chinese traveler, reported tens of thousands of monks gathering around the monuments around 629 AD. The Buddhas, however, were bombed over several weeks by the Taliban during 2001 after Mullah Mohammed Omar, Afghanistan’s spiritual leader, ordered its demolition.

After the Bamiyan Buddhas’ destruction, Afghan authorities, UNESCO and the world community decided to make every effort to protect Afghanistan’s rich historical and cultural heritage, which bears witness to millennia of social and cultural exchanges. Due to the acute frailty of the niches, the shortage of a comprehensive management system, and continued reservations surrounding security and safety, the cultural landscape and historic remains of the Bamiyan Valley were designated on both the World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003.

5. Imperial Library of Constantinople, Istanbul, Turkey

Constantinople was the most prosperous and wealthiest capital throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. In fact, it was so majestic that its Imperial Library was one of the last great libraries in the world. Within, ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts were safely preserved while it also hosted a Scriptorium to duplicate ancient texts at a time when instability and turmoil sparked their catastrophic destruction in Europe and Africa. 

Although it is a lesser-known fact, it is truly devastating to note that most of the Greek classics in existence today are duplicates from the once-great Imperial Library. In 1204, during the 4th Crusade, most of the library was destroyed with its last vestiges completely demolished in 1453 after Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. Rumors of manuscripts said to have survived the Ottoman era often make the rounds, however, none of them have ever been discovered.

4. The Monuments of Timbuktu, Mali

Timbuktu was the hub of North African trade for several centuries, trading in ivory, salt, gold, and even slaves. In addition to these and other commodities, Timbuktu also played a major role in scholarship, and its libraries amassed hundreds of thousands of Islamic manuscripts over time. In 1988, the ancient cultural and artistic center was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nonetheless, as Islamist radicals gained courage and became bolder in the 1990s and 2000s, they concentrated their hatred on Timbuktu, condemning its shrines as shining examples of idolatry.

In 2012, several of the city’s landmarks were destroyed by the terrorist group Ansar Dine. The Djinguereber Mosque, constructed during the reign of Mansa Musa in the 14th century, was severely damaged, and 14 mausoleums as well as numerous residents’ tombs, were destroyed. The revered Sidi Yahya mosque door, which many regional residents believed would stay sealed until the apocalypse, was also demolished. The terrorists returned for Timbuktu’s books the following year, but thanks to the valiant efforts of the librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and many others, the bulk of them were safely smuggled from the city before the raid. Just 4,202 of the city’s 700,000 priceless manuscripts were lost. 

3. The Palace and Temple of Tenochtitlan, Mexico

Tenochtitlan was the Aztec Empire’s capital. It was the largest city in the New World and was established on an island on Lake Texcoco. Very few cities could compare to Tenochtitlan at its peak, in fact, only Constantinople, Paris, and Venice were actually larger when looking at the European cities existing during the same era. Causeways linked the city to the mainland, and all had bridges that could be withdrawn if the city came under threat. The city housed the Palace of Montezuma, the Templo Mayor temple complex, an aquarium, zoos, and even botanical gardens.

The magnificent city was devastated after a three-month-long siege in 1519 when Spanish forces led by Hernán Cortés invaded Tenochtitlán. The city was leveled by Cortés’ men, who also captured Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec emperor. Apart from ruining the city, the palace and temple were also demolished, after which the Spanish erected a colonial city and a cathedral on top of it. Today, the ruins of Tenochtitlan can be found in the historic center of Mexico City. The Xochimilco World Heritage Site preserves the remaining geography (floating gardens, vessels, water) of the ancient capital.

2. Imperial Gardens, Beijing, China

The Imperial Gardens, established in the 18th century, served as the residences of the Qing Dynasty’s emperors. It was an 860-acre complex of halls, lakes, pavilions, palaces, and gardens, approximately eight times the size of the Vatican City. It held one of the world’s most extensive and exquisite art collections, which included unique copies of compositions and manuscripts. British and French troops were ordered to destroy the site in 1860 after two British envoys were massacred. Despite the Chinese government’s efforts, the majority of the site’s remaining artifacts remain in private collections.

The few buildings that did survive into the twentieth century were pilfered for construction materials by locals, and the Communists, eager to remove any sign of China’s colonial history during the Cultural Revolution, further damaged the site.  The looting finally ended in the 1980s, when the government classified the Old Summer Palace as a historical site. Art collectors and Chinese historians are currently doing their best to reconstruct the splendor of the pillaged remain, either through the purchase of stolen artifacts at auctions or through digital renderings. Even so, the ruins of the Old Summer Palace remain a sore spot on Beijing’s landscape and on China’s collective psyche.

1. The Desecration of Baghdad, Iraq

The Abbasid caliphs used Baghdad as their capital from the eighth century. During this period, also referred to as the golden age of Islam, Iraq had canal systems in place to support its agriculture and Baghdad had a sophisticated culture, was a leading educational hub, and was home to numerous hospitals, mosques, palaces, and libraries. Unfortunately, in 1248, Genghis Khan‘s grandson Möngke became the Mongols’ great khan and vowed to spread his supremacy to the Middle East and, if possible, to Syria and Egypt. Within ten years Mesopotamia was invaded by a Mongol horde led by his brother Hülegü. 

The House of Wisdom and the Grand Library was demolished as the Mongols captured and destroyed the city. According to ancient reports, the survivors of the event claimed that the Tigris changed color and turned black due to the massive quantities of books the Mongols threw into it. To this day, Baghdad has never been restored to its former glory. In fact, the Mongol desecration of Baghdad in 1258 is said to have marked the end of Islam’s golden age.

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