Photo: Torsten Pursche/Shutterstock

7 Historic Treasures Destroyed in Wars That Travelers Will Never Get to See

Art + Architecture
by Phil Norris Aug 29, 2019

Soldiers killed in combat. Civilians targeted by airstrikes. Whole communities uprooted and forced to abandon their homes. War has an obvious, and deeply harrowing, human cost.

But it also erodes our culture. Within the past century alone, conflicts have led to the destruction of historic monuments and buildings across much of the world. The Middle East may have borne the brunt of this assault in recent years, but wars in Asia and Europe have also been hugely damaging to our cultural heritage.

Whether blown up, torn down, or bulldozed into the earth, the seven historic treasures detailed here all became casualties of war, never to be seen in their original form again.

1. The historic district of Sana’a — Yemen


Photo: Oleg Znamenskiy/Shutterstock

First inhabited more than 2,500 years ago, the Old City of Sana’a in Yemen is characterized by its beautiful multi-story tower houses built from heavily compacted earth. Narrow and ornately decorated in white gypsum, these eye-catching structures — most of which date from before the 11th century — huddle in thousands behind the neighborhood’s partially preserved city walls.

At its peak, this ancient part of the Yemeni capital was a picture-perfect labyrinth of mosques, homes, and traditional bathhouses. But much of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site was razed by a Saudi-led airstrike in September 2015; just one incident in the ongoing conflict between the alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab states and the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that is believed to have cost almost 100,000 lives.

Whole blocks of houses were destroyed in the bombing, leaving piles of rubble and shrapnel-pocked palm trees in their place. With the war in Yemen still raging, it’s too early to tell what the long-term consequences will be for this historic district.

2. Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church — Berlin, Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

Photo: conceptualmotion/Shutterstock

Built at the end of the 19th century in honor of Germany’s first emperor, the neo-Gothic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is located on Breitscheidplatz, the public square that marks the center of Cold War-era West Berlin.

Today, the church is surrounded by modern shops and offices. That’s no coincidence; it was the only building on the square that wasn’t completely wiped from the map by Allied bombing during the latter days of World War II.

While it fared better than its neighbors, the church was still almost entirely ruined in April 1945. Only the partially collapsed west tower is standing today; Berliners have nicknamed it the “Hollow Tooth,” as it’s literally just an empty husk. A new church, built between 1959 and 1961, includes the ruin of the 19th-century structure, as well as a new tower. Inside the striking, modern octagonal design, a beautiful light filtered through the blue stained glass covering every wall showers worshipers and visitors. The site remains as an anti-war memorial; a poignant testimonial to the power of peace and reconciliation.

3. Two giant Buddhas — Bamiyan, Afghanistan

The monumental Buddha statues of Bamyan

Photo: Torsten Pursche/Shutterstock

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Bamiyan in Afghanistan was once home to two giant Buddha statues. Carved 1,500 years ago and perched inside a pair of vast domed archways etched out of the imposing sandstone cliffs, the gargantuan monuments — one measuring 181 feet in height and the other 125 feet — were believed to be the world’s tallest standing Buddhas. They were the most striking features of a sprawling Buddhist complex made up of hundreds of caves, monasteries, and shrines, many of which were painstakingly decorated in colorful hues by the resident monks.

All that changed in March 2001, when the Taliban desecrated the site, demolishing the statues in a thunder of artillery fire and explosive charges. Such was the scale of the monolithic carvings that it took weeks for militants to reduce them to two huge piles of fragmented rock.

But while the monuments themselves no longer stand, the colossal niches in which they were perched — one of which is large enough to comfortably fit the Statue of Liberty — are still very much present. On rare occasions, local authorities fire up a powerful $120,000 projector to illuminate the larger niche with a 3D image of how the larger Buddha may have looked in its pomp. Sadly, the power-guzzling projector is impractical for regular usage, as the city of Bamiyan lacks a consistent supply of electricity.

4. Royal Opera House — Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Photo: Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

Designed by English architect Edward Middleton Barry and opened to the public in 1866, the neo-Classical Royal Opera House was one of Valletta’s most beautiful buildings. But it was seemingly cursed with bad fortune.

Just seven years after its inauguration, a fire broke out during rehearsals of Giuseppe Privitera’s opera La Vergine del Castello, causing extensive damage that required four and a half years and an investment of 4,000 British pounds — equivalent to more than $300,000 in today’s money — to repair.

Though substantial, the fire damage paled in comparison to the destruction caused by the Luftwaffe on the evening of April 7, 1942. Stuka dive bombers targeted the Royal Opera House, reducing one of Malta’s most important cultural buildings to ruins and rubble.

Several efforts have been made since the end of World War II to rebuild it, but for various reasons none ever came to fruition, leaving the shell of the building to serve as a moving reminder of the hardships that befell the island during the conflict. Today, and since 2013, the ruins serve as an open-air theater, the Pjazza Teatru Rjal.

5. Temple of Bel — Palmyra, Syria

Temple of Bel

Photo: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

Often described as the Middle East’s most important temple alongside Baalbek in Lebanon, the Temple of Bel was built between 32 BC and the second century AD. Throughout its long history, it served first as a place of worship for the eponymous Semitic god Bel, before becoming a church and, later, a mosque.

Although ruined, the ancient temple still inspires awe. Blending ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture, the rectangular white stone structure is at the heart of a wide, column-flanked precinct looming out of the desert on the outskirts of Palmyra, one of Syria’s oldest cities.

That all changed in late-August 2015 when the UN revealed that much of the site — including the temple’s main building — had been destroyed by the Islamic State in a targeted attack on Syria’s diverse cultural heritage. Little remains of the Temple of Bel today, besides a few outlying columns.

6. Great Mosque of al-Nuri — Mosul, Iraq

Part of Mosul’s Old City, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri dates back to 1172. Although it was extensively renovated in 1511, one of its original features — the distinctive, leaning minaret nicknamed al-Hadba (or “the Hunchback”) — was still standing eight centuries later.

Although included in the World Monuments Watch in 2010 to attempt to protect the minaret from ongoing conflict, the entire mosque’s future was imperiled in 2014, when Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used the site to proclaim the formation of a new caliphate. As Iraqi government forces stormed Mosul in 2017, the jihadist group blew it up in retaliation.

Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest and most culturally important cities, suffered heavily at the hands of the Islamic State. In 2015, the group destroyed around a third of the ancient artifacts housed at Mosul Museum, including a 3,000-year-old lion statue originally from the Temple of Ishtar in Nimrud.

But there are, finally, positive signs for the beleaguered city and its lost heritage. Work has begun on rebuilding the Great Mosque, thanks in part to a $50 million donation from the UAE, and a 3D-printed replica of the lion statue was created as part of Google’s digital arts and culture project. It’s now on display at London’s Imperial War Museum, and can even be viewed online.

7. The Iron Age temple of Ain Dara — Afrin, Syria

Historical sites of Syria

Photo: Hakan Temucin/Shutterstock

Built around 1300 BC, Ain Dara is a sprawling religious site decorated with a series of enormous footprints hewn into the ancient stone. Three times the size of a human foot, they’re believed by some archaeologists to represent the passage of a god or goddess.

One of Syria’s most extensively excavated heritage sites, Ain Dara is also remarkable for its similarity to Solomon’s Temple, the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem, as described in the biblical Book of Kings.

The early Iron Age complex was extensively damaged in January 2018 by a Turkish airstrike targeting a Kurdish-held enclave south of the modern-day city of Afrin. More than half of the main temple was obliterated in the attack, including many of the intricate stone sculptures of lions and sphinxes that ringed the site.

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