Disappearing Architecture: Pieces of History

By Annie Cheng


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he stories of the world are steeped in the architecture of humanity — press your ear against the cold marble of the Parthenon, bow your head before the many Buddhas of Thai temples, ride the Staten Island ferry, and marvel at the New York City skyline.

Architecture is one of the most tangible, intersectional, and wholly irreverent expressions of human progress, documenting every step along the way with each pillar and frame. People build for a range of purposes: to house, to feed, to love, to pray. However, we also cruelly tear down those works through conflict and bloodshed. Countless historical sites have been destroyed by humanity’s ever-present unrest. Amongst these include the World Trade Center, the National Library and Archive of Iraq, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, and the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. Through ongoing issues, such as the Syrian War and proliferated terrorism, once great monuments have been diminished to dust. Unlike historical objects or art pieces, historical sites cannot be sheltered, climate controlled, and protected from vandals by a glass case. Conversely, inexcusable corruption of historical sites occurs outside of conflict as well. The silent war of capitalism has left a trail of corpses, from gentrification of ethnic enclaves to the brutalization of indigenous lands and cities. Cultural properties become casualties of war and economic hegemony.

It is pertinent to consider how historical sites can be protected in times of both war and peace. The rights of a non-sentient site remains significant as a fragment of society, and should be protected by governance through both domestic and international frameworks. Preemptive and retroactive action is needed to keep sites open to the public as artifacts for cultural and academic appreciation. In many ways, visiting sites in-person provides an intangible and unforgettable experience that gives weight to understandings of the historical context.

Current treaties and protections
In 1972, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) members ratified the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Each member state committed to the “identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage.” They also endeavor to adopt legal policies and pursue research that would enforce these ideals. This convention also established the World Heritage Committee, which serves to monitor, identify, and assist in protecting properties in danger — thus, the committee members aim to hold state governments accountable for destruction within their borders. Amongst the committee actions include: research into rehabilitation and preservation, provisions of technical experts and laborers, training of restoration staff members, equipment, and financial loans or subsidies.

Even before that, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was created to prevent future cultural disasters, following the mass destruction of World War II. Countless works of art and historical sites were destroyed by the Nazis. Many cathedrals and synagogues throughout Europe were bombed by the stranglehold of Germany. While some, such as the French Rue de Bayeux church, were resurrected, others were lost forever.

The Hague Convention calls for states to adopt preventative measures during peacetime by planning and maintaining inventories, instilling emergency protection plans against fire or collapse, and preparation for the potential need to transport cultural property. The document also asks that states respect cultural territories when entering conflict on foreign soil, as well as that the home military safeguards the relics. If cultural property is at especially high risk, then the High Contracting Parties may register it as in need of ‘Special Protection.’ These sites are deemed international property for the time-being, and are protected by immunity and global governance. However, in absolute unavoidable military scuffles, immunity can still be withdrawn.

While the current treaties and conventions are intended to be protective and implementable solutions, they have not been adapted to the contemporary nature of conflict. The UNESCO Convention and preceding Hague Convention operate under the assumption that parties responsible for both defense and aggression lie within the confines of the traditional Westphalian state system. In this case, other states in the United Nations and other international or regional governing organs hold the culpable state accountable. Thus, there is a sense of reprehensible punishment that can be enforced through economic sanctions, military retaliations, expulsion of certain markets or treaties, and general loss of diplomatic influence in the global community. However, the modern era of historical destruction is defined by the rogue nature of the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and other terror groups which have little to no motive to adhere to the pre-existing responsibilities — least of all to say, no motive to respect these sites even on ideology.

Yale professor of classics and history, Joseph Manning, describes looting as a core causality of architectural damage as well. “There’s been a lot of looting in Egypt, for example, because sites aren’t protected. It’s expensive to protect locations.” At vulnerable sites, valuable goods are stolen and sold on the black market, and often destroyed in the process.

Architectural casualties of war

According to the World Heritage in Danger Map created and maintained by UNESCO, there are currently 54 heritage sites at risk of damage for a variety of reasons, including tourist disrespect, civil conflict, and poor maintenance. As of 2013, six Syrian locations have been endangered by the crisis. Amongst these, the ancient cities of Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus, and Palmyra have been noted for their beautiful architectural and historical values — the lost sites are mourned by the residents themselves along with the broader global community.

Mohamed Hafez, a New Haven-based Syrian architect, is also an artist who draws much inspiration from the ruins of Syrian cities. Using mixtures of found objects and foam, he creates simultaneously stunning and heart-wrenching sculptural renderings of post-conflict Syrian street scenes. He remembers Damascus as a gorgeous city, brimming with noise at all hours of the night. While he is crushed by the loss of human lives at the hands of war, Hafez also emphasizes the great tragedy of watching the walls of ancient cities come crashing down. “It will take generations to forget,” he told the Yale Daily News. “And decades to rebuild.”

For the Islamic State, the architecture is only another victim. Many online propaganda videos show the members swinging jackhammers and tossing bombs at priceless pieces, rampaging through museum galleries in ostentatious displays of power and violence. In August 2015, the terrorists publicly executed Khalid al-Asaad, a retired chief of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra who was endearingly known as “Mr. Palmyra.” The military destruction of Syrian cities is further quickened by looters, who break away pieces of architecture to sell for food and other goods. The careers and lives of Syrian archaeologists and museum staff remain in danger, as they fight to reclaim and protect their histories.

They are not the only guards of Syrian culture. In an undisclosed location beneath the ruins of Damascus, volunteer librarians have amassed a collection of over 14,000 books. “In a sense the library gave me back my life,” regular visitor Abdulbaset Alahmar, told the BBC. “I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books.” The collection, deemed the ‘secret library,’ is one of many throughout history that have been built and maintained to prevent theft of knowledge by political or religious regimes.

Before the Islamic State reigned in the industry of cultural annihilation, the Taliban donned the crown. In 2001, UNESCO officials spent eleven hours pleading on behalf of two Buddha statues located in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Museums and government affiliated institutions also offered to step in and move the statues to protect them from conflict. Despite their efforts, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Muhammad Omar ordered the bombing of all statues. “’These idols have been gods of the infidels.” His choice was the first of many in the regime, which utilized ideological differentiation as justification.

Trading historical preservation for capitalist gains

Mainstream media coverage of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline has dwindled in the past month. The event is no longer at the forefront of the news cycles, but it at least received some of the deserved public scrutiny. Unfortunately, the pipeline represents one in a series of American failures to prioritize the security of historical sites. In April 2014, a Native American burial ground in California was destroyed and replaced with a $55 million residential project. Archaeologists told USA Today that the 300-foot-long site “contained Coast Miwok life from before the time of King Tut’s tomb, including 600 human burials, tools, musical instruments and harpoon tips along with bones of bears and a ceremonial California condor burial.” The consulting archaeologist Dwight Simons estimated the value of the site at over a million dollars, and priceless in historical value.

Fortunately, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria — thought to be the descendents of the original remains — monitored the progress and were able to rebury the items north of the site as per their wishes. While their input was considered, ultimately it was the developer’s decision to undergo the project. However, all the work was completed under a non-disclosure agreement. As a result, both media and indigenous activist groups were unable to take action.

On the other side of the world in Beijing, luxury housing and commercial construction is dominating history as well. Residential development seems to be a primary enemy of historical sites, making up a significant portion of the encroachment as the human population grows exponentially. When Beijing was preparing for the 2008 Olympics, large swaths of traditional hutong homes were razed to build hotels, skyscrapers, and stadiums. Some of the hutongs, which have been a staple of Beijing since the Ming Dynasty, had been around for hundreds of years. The neighborhoods are made up of narrow streets lined with single-story homes featuring courtyard layouts. Although the modern economic boom has catalyzed the destruction, the number of hutongs has been dwindling since the country was led by Mao Zedong. In the 1950s during the growth of urbanization in China, the Communist leader ordered the teardown of Beijing city walls in favor of residential and commercial expansion. These included the hutongs, which are less spatially inefficient due to the single entryway, one-story design. The Ming Dynasty-era wall has been undergoing slow reconstruction ever since, but the Cultural Revolution wiped out much of ancient Chinese history.

The remaining thousand or so hutongs have been continuously at risk of destruction by the Chinese government, which often gives tenants little notice before seizing and destroying properties. Officially, the government states that crumbling infrastructure and lack of sanitation drive the city towards its unique interpretation of beautification. However, the residents — now predominantly working-class migrants — have lodged complaints about being forced to shut down their shops, restaurants, and homes with short notice. In a Reuters article, construction worker An pointed out the irony of China’s mistreatment towards migrants. “There is no single high-rise building that was not built by migrant workers. Now the city doesn’t need us to build more buildings, so we are being kicked out.”

Moving forward
The solution is not a clear one, and it is essential to incorporate both global and local perspectives. Manning hails economic and cultural heritage development as key drivers of architectural protection, compared to simply sending international forces to guard historical sites. “It’s a bit colonial to send international organizations for protection. The better option is to build up tourism and museums, and work with local populations to train them in cultural conservation.” However, he simultaneously acknowledges the downfall of tourism. “It’s a double-edged sword, the more tourists you have the more damage you have.” The damage can include general disrespect, littering, vandalism, and other disruption of local environments.

There is current progress being made to support protection of sites, backed up recent improvements in technology. For example, self-described “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to track looting, tomb raiding, and grave robbing in the Middle East. “We can tell from the pictures where people are digging, and even the time period of a tomb that’s been looted,” Parcak told National Geographic. “Then we can alert law enforcement agencies to watch out for antiquities from that time that may come up for sale.” Under ‘Operation Mummy’s Curse,’ she has worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Artifacts to save and restore dozens of artifacts to their rightful homes.

The need for architectural renovations and protections is coming to light, but it may be too late. For example, Manning shares his remorse for the loss of ancient Hellenistic cities in Egypt. In particular, the professor’s dream is to someday explore Ptolemies, an ancient city of the Macedonian Greeks that has since been buried under the current settlement of La Mancha in Egypt. Unfortunately, urbanization has led to the establishment of many modern cities over ancient ruins, rendering excavation and archaeological study nearly impossible. Manning said, “Modern development and building homes butts up against ancient monuments very clearly. It’s hard to argue against not developing and not giving people housing, so it’s tricky.”

Globalization, modernization, and movement towards a sleek, efficient future are the new normal. As buildings grow higher and design becomes increasingly minimal, the projects of the past have become lost in the pace of today. The world’s historical sites are records of humanity’s progress, locations that archaeologists and historians argue should be celebrated, rather than tossed aside for yet another million-dollar condo development. Especially as various regions experience proxy conflicts and general sociopolitical chaos, we risk diminishing our own responsibilities of guarding and studying treasures of the past. Until there can be a definitive system of nonpartisan immunity for architectural sites, we also risk our stories becoming lost in the rubble.


Annie Cheng ’20 is a second year in Ezra Stiles College. When she isn’t editing for the Globalist, she’s working hard and saving every penny for her next destination.