Glendinning makes the interesting observation that there the monumental religious architecture of the medieval period and that this architecture was often the first target of intentional monumental destruction. Indeed, as we discussed in class, when religious architecture represented a political state, as the religion was often the governing body of the state, an attack on that religion or its structures did indeed mean an attack on the state itself.

Today, this type of monumental destruction has also become secular, as more and more canonical architecture has become secular, but the motivations for destruction have continued to remain religious and political. Indeed, we see the attacks of September 11, 2001 as an attack on the United States but by an extreme religious group for religious, nationalistic, and capitalistic reasons. Interestingly, the World Trade Center, although an iconic building complex for its time, was not necessarily revered for its architecture, and critics even claimed that its height would disturb the migration patterns of birds. Indeed, it was not until the towers came down that a new appreciation and reverence for its architectural details emerged.

A detail of the aluminum-clad facade of one of the WTC towers.

A detail of the aluminum-clad facade of one of the WTC towers that critics are now beginning to praise.

We also see a shift in the relationship between religion, politics, and preservation from that of the medieval period. Groups such as the Islamic State, fueled by their religious beliefs, engage in intentional monumental destruction of valuable, but mostly non-religious, or non-modern religious structures from the ancient world. The religions practiced by Assyrian and Mesopotamian cultures are not even practiced today – so we know that ISIS is not destroying these monuments as an attack on ancient religions. It is an attack on Western cultural heritage and society, as these are ruins that most of the world have come to cherish as precursors to modern civilization.

The Islamic State is trying to show that their religion and religious motivations trump the ultimate symbols of progress and prosperity of these ancient societies. ISIS does not stop there, though – they then go on to to sell fragments of the destroyed monuments on the black market, profiting off their known cultural for monetary and political gain. But what will they have to show for the progress they make? So far, their religious and political tactics have led only to destruction and chaos, and a failure to look back on history for political and religious lessons. What will they build to mark progress of their societies, if they do not acknowledge the success of past ones?

For more on ISIS and the destruction of Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage:


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