Absence makes the heart grow fonder: Modern iconoclasm and the meaning of heritage

It has taken me a good while to put together this blog post – since it has taken me a while to try and make sense of the ‘destruction’ of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, in Syria, by the ‘So-Called-Islamic-State’ (IS) last August. Indeed, the fact that I am writing it now doesn’t mean that I have somehow found ‘sense’ in these events, only that I feel that I am getting to a point where I can make some connections that can place the actions into a meaningful cultural, political-economic and longer temporal context, which I hope has some useful purchase. The pause has also enabled me to have several very interesting conversations with students – MA Sustainable Heritage students in Aarhus, Denmark, and final year BA Geographers in Exeter – and the thoughts in this blog have very much benefitted from these stimulating discussions.


It is testament to the power of UNESCO branding that many front pages of newspapers and slots on prime time news were taken up by reporting on the ‘destruction’ of Palmyra, and particularly the Temple of Bel. ‘UNESCO’ has become a globally recognized brand and a valuable commodity for a heritage site to possess. According to the UNESCO Website for Palmyra (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/23): “An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences”.

In other words, ‘from’ the 1st/2nd century, whose value is founded on specific cross-cultural architectural elements, recognized through expert aesthetic judgements. It is a site that is in Syria, but valued for its cross-cultural (tansnational) associations, though very little mention is made of the site’s story outside of a block of time of a few hundred years, around 2000 years ago.

The notion of a World Heritage Site conveys a sense of universality of certain values and heritage assets that should be treasured and preserved. But what are these values? And what is universal about them? Despite some broadening towards the intangible in recent years, much of the literature and policy documents surrounding World Heritage Sites focus almost entirely on physical objects and buildings, especially those of prestige nature, such as temples. It is on this basis that the newspaper reports on Palmyra in late 2015 focused on the ‘destruction’ of heritage. But what was actually happening with regards to ‘heritage’? Is ‘Palmyra’ really being ‘destroyed’, and what are the consequences of this action? And, if we make room for recognizing the intangible, and the value of certain practices, then can the practice destroying the remains of already ‘ruined’ buildings (and a fairly new heritage centre) be considered as ‘intangible heritage’. After all, there is a very long tradition around the world of such iconoclastic destruction, as a meaningful cultural practice.

In the first place, why did the blowing up of a visitor centre, a few old statues and some dusty ruins merit more coverage – in terms of column inches and airtime – than the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad (aged 82) the Principal Keeper of Antiquities at Palmyra, or the execution of many other civilians and captured soldiers at the World Heritage Site?

Khaled al-asaad

Khaled Al-Asaad, executed by IS fighters

Without wishing to sound slightly shrill with moral outrage, the murder of this man, together with the daily (and largely unreported – beyond the generic) killing and maiming of individual civilians in Syria is far worse than the bull-dozing of a few old ruins. Certainly, we have seen too many newspaper front pages with terrifying images of death in recent years. But these make the front page images of Palmyra all the more strange, since almost every newspaper went with a version of showing the space where Palmyra used to be – presence, marked through absence. Indeed, many of the newspaper images required a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, so that the viewer could ‘see’ what they were (literally) not seeing; a photo of ‘nothing’, where the lack of anything is the point being made.

Palmyra relote sensing images

Before and After Photos of Palmyra


But what is Palmyra? The UNESCO description notes simply that it is a city and temple complex from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD – as though it is somehow ‘stuck in time’, which somehow does not exist in any other period.

If we take a look at the longer ‘biography’ of the site, we find that the ‘Temple of Bel’ (destroyed by IS in 2015) was also destroyed over 1700 years ago. It was actually only the ‘Temple of Bel’ for a few hundred years. It was ‘destroyed’ first in the 3rd Century AD; repaired as a fort, and then converted into a Christian Church during the Byzantine era. It was transformed again into a Mosque in the 7th century, and then a citadel/mosque in the 12th century. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, Palmyra was just a small village within the ruins of the old ‘temple’, but it was used as a garrison and prison in the 19th century, before the French turned it into a ‘site of antiquity’ in the 1920s. By removing the local population (and transferring them to a newly built village nearby), it is the French who made this site a declared item of ‘heritage’, to be understood within the context of colonial power structures and western-European renditions of architectural categorization – and a site without people.

The ‘Temple of Bel’ has only been The Temple of Bel for about 200 of the last 2000 years; a ‘universal’ site of heritage that is now universally known as a ‘former World Heritage Site’ – an empty space; now more famous and well known in popular culture around the world than it ever was as a built edifice. This ‘destruction’ is just the latest phase of the site’s ongoing biography, and for most of this time the Temple has been in ruins. Like the Atlantis of legend, the site is now generally known through its destruction – more in the public mind than ever. Like Atlantis, the non-existence of the site conveys a sort-of lesson – it perhaps has agency and an affective capacity. In its absence, it is perhaps more ‘present’ than it ever was as a managed ruin.


In the absence of tangible buildings, perhaps the heritage of Palmyra can do more work, and carry more burden of meaning, than it ever could as a ‘well preserved ruin’ of a once-destroyed Temple complex?

For IS, it stands for ‘the West’, and so its destruction can potentially send a powerful message of anti-Western sentiment. For the West, the World Heritage Site stood as a representative of universal human spirit and ingenuity and its wonton destruction is heinous barbarism – only that it is perhaps a bit more difficult to be so angry about the destruction of a former colonial prison and a heritage visitor centre than it is about the ‘Temple of Bel’.

In some popular reports, the destruction is portrayed as being ‘unparalleled’, but of course it isn’t. Perhaps the most famous parallel in recent years is the Bamiyan Statues in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001



Bamiyan Statues: before and after ‘destruction’, and as simulacrum, ‘better-than-the-original’ 3D laser image

Western commentators were very upset by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – but, of course, the West is not really an innocent party when it comes to ‘destroying’ heritage in a purposeful manner.

In the 20th century, the easiest parallels, perhaps, can be found in the so-called Baedeker Raids of the Second World War, in which the Germans bombed several ‘heritage cities’ in the UK, including Bath and Exeter in 1942 – in response to the RAF bombing the heritage city of Lubeck in northern Germany.


Lubeck in Flames

March 1942, Lubeck in flames (above); April 1942, Bath and Exeter bombed (below)


But the history of such iconoclastic activity is actually much longer and more ingrained than these iconic events from the practices associated with colonial violence to the obvious examples connected to the Reformation and Wars of Religion; of Reformers tearing down and destroying what they saw as the imagery and memorials of ‘idolaters’. Interestingly, in the case of some iconoclastic acts carried out in the 16th/17th centuries, the actual destruction has ended up being a valued component of ‘heritage’ – an important element of the life history of a site. In other words, making reference to iconoclastic actions becomes a powerful means of managing the past in reference to the present and future.

As my blog post from December 2014 notes, such activity can raise an interesting paradox:

“If an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?”



Exeter Cathedral-statue

Preserving iconoclasm (Exeter Cathedral)

If referring to the ‘heinous nature’ of an act of iconoclasm has such power, then it is in the interests of those that are shocked by such apparent barbarity that we should ‘preserve the memory’ of the iconoclast; as warning and/or as memorial. While much of Lubeck has been carefully rebuilt – to erase the memory of the RAF’s ‘visit’ in March 1942 (and perhaps to gloss over the memory of Nazism) – there are also many examples where ruins are preserved ‘as ruins’ to act as meaningful memorial marker.


Charles Cross Church-plymouth2

Charles Cross Church ruin, Plymouth

When managing built heritage, remembering (and preserving?) iconoclasm is vital. In the case of the World Trade Center in New York, the absent building has become an iconic element of heritage through the process of its destruction. In other words, its resonant meaning as heritage relies on the narrative of its destruction; and so destruction precedes its meaning as heritage. The World Trade Center is now marked both by a very large building, and by a memorial space on the site of the old World Trade Center footprint. Entitled ‘Reflecting Absence’, it is a prompt from the past, which is managed in the present with an eye to the future.



‘Reflecting Absence’, World Trade Center, New York

Perhaps this is more like martyrdom, in which an act of destruction and death is required to produce something more potent. The site of a martyrdom might be marked by memorials and buildings (etc.); monuments to an act of destruction, the memory of which requires preservation to be powerful and meaningful. The death of a saint is often a crucial element for their memory to be powerful: ‘this is the site on which an event took place. Look on and be a witness to destruction’.

In many ways, the easy dualism between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage draws a false distinction; all heritage, ultimately, is intangible. With Palmyra, we are asked to look and witness a space of absence – a space of destruction. We are witnesses to the power of heritage, not as a tangible thing, but as an idea.