In Brief

Turkey's neolithic caves: is destruction of heritage ever justified?

As Turkey dynamites and floods its ancient history, The Week examines other attacks on cultural heritage

Turkish construction crews started dynamiting neolithic caves this week to accommodate a new hydroelectric dam.

The Ilisu Dam, the building of which has been delayed for years by protests, is also likely to flood the ancient town of Hasankeyf on the Tigris River. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, with evidence of human habitation dating back to 10,000 BC. 

"They are not only destroying our past, but also our future by taking away this as a source of income and heritage," one resident told Deutsche Welle. "We would like to apologise to the future generations for allowing this."

Despite international condemnation and protests, destruction of ancient cultural heritage is often an inevitable outcome, deemed necessary to further a cause. The Week looks at some of the most notable examples:

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan
A view of the giant Buddhas site in Bamiyan, 29 January 2003 some 200 kms (125 miles) northwest of Kabul.The fate of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, ancient Afghan statues which were destroyed


2010 AFP

The Buddhas of Bamiyan are perhaps the most famous modern occurrence of cultural demolition. Standing almost 200ft tall, these two monumental statues, dating back to the fourth century, were carved out of a sandstone cliff face during Afghanistan's pre-Islamic era. 

After the hard-line Taliban government took power in 1996, they began to dynamite the statues, as they were seen as "un-Islamic graven images", USA Today reported. Despite a desperate plea from numerous countries – most ardently Japan – to save the statues, they were destroyed with dynamite and anti-aircraft weapons in March 2001, having stood for 1,700 years. 

Tikal Temple 33, Guatemala
View of Mayan temples at the Tikal archaeological site on February 19, 2011 in the municipality of Flores, Peten, 488 km north of Guatemala City. AFP PHOTO/Johan ORDONEZ (Photo credit should


2011 AFP

The destruction of Tikal Temple 33 in Guatemala is less clear cut. A 100ft tall Mayan funerary pyramid in the ancient city of Tikal, 33 was one of many temples uncovered by archaeologists in the 1950s and 60s. When researchers wanted a better view of earlier phases of the city's construction, the 1,500-year-old Temple 33 was chosen as the sacrificial lamb.

Completely dismantled in 1965, the Temple's lower layers brought to light fascinating and groundbreaking information vital to the piecing together of Mayan history, revealing tombs and shrines within. Uncovered History writes that "sadly, Templo 33 is [now] a stunted pile of rubble", but adds that "fortunately, the deconstruction did reveal a hidden history that may otherwise have laid buried and undiscovered".

Bucharest Centrul Civic, Romania

"Of all the atrocities committed on Romanian territory in the name of socialism," writes travel site In Your Pocket, "few rank as monstrous as the destruction of an entire district of the capital to make way for the Centrul Civic."

The reconstruction of entire districts was a key policy of ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's "systematisation" programme in Romania in the 1970s and 80s, in which standardised apartment blocks and wide boulevards were constructed.

According to heritage historian Duncan Light, the "traumatic" construction of the Centrul Civic involved the wholesale demolition of five square kilometres of the city centre, which had contained "many medieval churches and other monuments", as well as thousands of residents' homes.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

The case of MoMA is a peculiar and ironic one. As one of the world's leading modern art museums, the expansion of MoMa has been rapid and formidable. The museum has bought numerous picturesque brownstone buildings around Manhattan since the late 1930s, only to see many of them destroyed.

The New York Times reports that MoMA's original expansion at its Midtown site "vacuumed up the rest of the block" it occupied, leading to the destruction of the 19-storey Dorset Hotel, built in 1929, and the 1907 City Athletic Club.

Four years ago, MoMA acquired and then ordered the demolition of the American Folk Art Museum, built in 2001 and designed by famed architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. By expanding its own cultural impact, MoMA is arguably at fault for the erasure of others'.

Palmyra, Syria

After the ancient ruins of Palmyra fell into the hands of ISIS during the Syrian civil war, widespread, intentional damage by the militant group was reported. Much of the well-preserved remnants of Palmyra, many of them Roman, were destroyed using explosives, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, along with a number of other buildings and archways.

The Gatestone Institute writes that sites across the Middle East are selected for destruction by ISIS' Kata'ib Taswiyya, or settlement battalions, "driven by a relentless passion to enforce religious purity on the regions they now control".


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