These are not isolated or unique incidents. Indeed, the destruction of cultural property in war is a sufficiently well recognized problem as to be the subject of an international agreement. In force since 1956, the Hague Convention has now been ratified by 126 states.
The Spanish conquistador Cortez oversaw the destruction of the Aztec temples, including Mexico City’s Templo Mayor in 1521. Britain’s army, led by Lord Elgin, burned the Chinese Old Summer Palace in 1860. Nor are such episodes limited to wartime. In the midst of the schism with Rome triggered by his wish to dissolve his marriage to Catharine of Aragon, England’s Henry VIII famously ordered the looting and destruction of his nation’s own Catholic monasteries.
There is something primitive and ingrained about the nihilistic impulse to obliterate the civilizational monuments of conquered nations or divergent ideologies, particularly in the context of violent conflict. It sends a message: you may live, but you no longer truly exist. Resistance is futile.
We all remember the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. But for sheer, craven destruction, few modern examples rival the Nazis’ deliberate dynamiting of the Romanov Tsars’ glorious Peterhof and Catharine Palaces outside Saint Petersburg.
For some 900 days, the Nazis laid siege to what was then Leningrad. As Stalin begged the Allies to open a second front, a million residents of that city – one in four of her citizens – died from disease, from shelling, and from starvation.
Located in the German-occupied area surrounding Leningrad, the Peterhof and Catharine palaces served as bases of operation for the invading Nazi generals. And when at last the order came to withdraw, the German army decided to raze the buildings that had served as their headquarters during the failed siege.
And yet, following the fall of Hitler’s Reich, amidst all the many challenges of a post-war environment and a scant three decades after the Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicolas II and his family, the USSR chose immediately to begin the reconstruction of these exquisite imperial monuments, now re-dedicated to the workers who had built them.
The recreation of these palaces announced to the world that Russian civilization, and the Russian people, still lived. Bodies and buildings had been destroyed, but the nation remained and would be restored.
The Jewish people above all others knows the extraordinary power of such an idea. A nation dispersed and deprived of its great monuments and sacred spaces can nonetheless survive, so long as the memory of those places remains vital. The destruction of the first temple some 2500 years ago and of the second temple by the Romans, is memorialized and mourned afresh each year on the Jewish fast-day of Tisha b’Av. “If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem,” says the psalmist, “let my hand forget its skill.” “Next year in Jerusalem,” we recite at the conclusion of every Passover ritual meal. This is the millennia-old idea that for many Jews animates a profound commitment to the modern State of Israel.
And so, as Jews follow with heavy hearts ISIS’ bloodthirsty and evil efforts to overwrite the diverse ethnic and cultural history of the Levant, we can at least join in the tender solidarity of remembrance.
Together with the people of Syria – and with all lovers of history and archaeology – we can remember and cherish Palmyra, whose founding Josephus attributes to Jewish history’s most revered builder, King Solomon. Together, we can affirm that violence alone will never destroy that most resilient of abstract structures: the persistent idea of a historically rooted communal identity, buttressed by an unwavering belief that evil and oppression must ultimately fail.