Despite international treaties meant to protect them, places of significant cultural heritage are often the first to be destroyed in periods of conflict. Since World War II, dozens of ancient sites, religious temples, and monuments have been lost due to bombing, looting, and arson. While many have been rebuilt, they will forever be reminders of the consequences of violent intolerance. From Syria to Norway, these 16 essential heritage sites are lost but not forgotten.
Buddhas of Bamiyan, Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan
The Buddhas of Bamiyan stood sentinel over the Silk Road, the trade route that connected East Asia to the Middle East and Europe, for more than 12 centuries. An early center of Buddhism, monks lived as hermits in sandstone caves within the cliffs of Bamiyan. Many adorned their humble homes with religious statues carved into the sandstone and two, the 115-foot tall Shahmama Buddha and the 174-foot tall Solsol Buddha, towered over the rest. When the Taliban took over the region in the late 1990s, they announced that the Buddhas of Bamiyan, figures which they believed to be false idols, would have to be destroyed. Local Muslim leaders and the international community protested the move, but the Taliban were undeterred by the outcry. In March 2001, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were dynamited into oblivion, leaving behind only the massive sandstone niches in which they stood.
Old Town Hall, Prague, Czech Republic
In 1939, Adolf Hitler's army took over the Czech Republic (then called Czechoslovakia), and by 1945, the Czech people had had enough. In a brutal, bloody battle, they rose against the German occupiers, setting fire to Prague's 14th century Town Hall in the process. When the flames were finally out, both the east and north wings of the iconic building had been destroyed, and the famed horologe, the massive Medieval astrological clock on the Town Hall's facade, was damaged. The citizens of Prague, however, succeeded in their rebellion. A ceasefire was signed by Czech and German leaders three days later, liberating the city and country from Hitler's grasp. The Old Town Hall was later reconstructed, and it remains one of Prague's most important monuments today.
White Horse Temple, Luoyang, China
China’s White Horse Temple has undergone cycles of destruction and reconstruction throughout its nearly 2,000 years as the cradle of Chinese Buddhism. First built by the 2nd emperor of the Eastern Han Dynasty in 68 CE, the massive temple complex drew religious scholars to its gates for centuries. But when the Tang Dynasty issued an imperial edict condemning Buddhism in 845 CE, the White Horse was among the 4,600 Chinese temples targeted for extermination. While the temple complex was slowly reconstructed in later centuries, it was damaged once again during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and its statues and artifacts scattered across the country. Today, many of the temple’s early elements have been reconstructed, and the White Horse has been restored as an important center of Buddhism in China.
Vijećnica, Sarajevo, Bosnia
First built to house Sarajevo’s City Hall, after World War II, Vijećnica was converted into Bosnia’s National Library, a repository for 1.5 million books and 155,000 rare manuscripts. But on Aug. 25, 1992, Sarajevo was invaded by Serbian forces, and the city was forever changed. The four-year siege gutted Sarajevo. While librarians and others braved sniper fire to save some of the library’s most irreplaceable items, the vast majority were destroyed, along with the 100-year old building that housed them. After close to two decades of repairs, the Vijećnica reopened in 2014.
Old City, Sanaa, Yemen
In 2011, Sanaa was at the center of the Yemeni Revolution, one of many Arab Spring protests against unemployment, inequality, and corruption that erupted across the Arab World in the early 2010s. Also, at the center of Sanaa was its Old City, a unique ancient neighborhood and UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its distinct architecture. But while the initial battle of Sanaa eventually resulted in the ousting of Yemen’s president, fighting continued in fits and starts in the years that followed. In 2014, control of the city was seized by the Houthi insurgents who had led the initial uprising against the Yemeni government. The next year, significant portions of Sanaa’s Old City were severely damaged by Saudi-led airstrikes. Nearly a decade after it began, the ravaged city remains embroiled in conflict.
National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad
One of the worst casualties of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition was its spectacular National Museum. When staff was forced to abandon the building as fighting between the coalition and Iraqi forces crept closer, the museum was left unprotected, allowing thousands of artifacts, some more than 5,000 years old, to be stolen. Even after staff began to return three days later, the looters kept coming. It took an entire week for the coalition to deploy forces to protect the irreplaceable ancient treasures. By then, almost 14,000 objects had disappeared—the largest museum theft in modern history. Since 2003, the international community has recovered some of the museum’s objects, but around 8,600 remain missing.
Fantoft Stave Church, Bergen, Norway
One of Norway’s original Medieval-era wooden stave churches, Fantoft on the outskirts of Bergen, was destroyed by arson in 1992. The man responsible, Varg Vikernes, was one of the most influential musicians of the early Scandinavian black metal scene. But even after he was convicted of arson (and murder), Vikernes refused to accept responsibility for burning down Fantoft and seven other churches. He did, however, clarify that the burnings were acts of revenge for the desecration of Viking spiritual sites and cemeteries by Christian missionaries. Vikernes was sentenced to 21 years in prison. While there, a perfect replica of Fantoft was rebuilt. It opened to the public in 1997, this time surrounded by a security fence.
For centuries, Timbuktu was a flourishing city at the crossroads of North African trade. In addition to slaves, salt, gold, and ivory, Timbuktu dealt in scholarship, and over the years, hundreds of thousands of Islamic manuscripts were amassed in its libraries. Much of the city’s historic center was designated a World Heritage Site in 1988. Still, as Islamist extremists became increasingly emboldened throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, they turned their ire towards Timbuktu, calling its shrines examples of idolatry. In 2012, the terrorist group Ansar Dine destroyed several of the city’s monuments. The following year they returned for its books, but thanks to the herculean effort by librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and others, most were smuggled out before the raid. Of the city’s 700,000 priceless manuscripts, only 4,202 were destroyed.
Old Town, Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw’s Old Town is today a thriving neighborhood in the lively Polish capital, but nearly everything in it—from the buildings to the market squares—are meticulous reconstructions of the original. At their initial invasion and occupation of Warsaw in 1939, German forces took special care to destroy the neighborhood’s historical landmarks, some of which dated back its founding in the 13th century. The busted-and-broken streets remained under their control for six years, and while the Polish underground resistance rose against them in 1945, their effort ultimately failed. When the enraged Germans finally regained control of Warsaw after 63 days, they systematically blew up anything still standing in retaliation for the rebellion.
Jehanabad Buddha, Swat Valley, Pakistan
Buddhism arrived in Pakistan over 2,000 years ago, and most in the region of Gandhara (present-day Southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) were adherents of the faith. Buddhist statues and stupas bloomed in the lush Swat Valley with the most impressive of all, a massive rock-carving of a seated Buddha eclipsed in size only by the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, found in the town of Jehanabad. But in 2007, fundamentalist leaders of the Taliban set their sights on the erasure of Pakistan’s Buddhist past and present. They quickly demolished or looted many of the smaller artifacts in the valley, but while the giant Buddha suffered significant damage, it refused to give up the ghost. In 2016, after four years of work by archaeologists and conservation experts, the Jehanabad Buddha was restored to its original glory.
World Trade Center, New York, New York
In less than two hours, the World Trade Center, one of the most iconic buildings in New York, was reduced to rubble on Sept. 11, 2001. The hijacked planes that slammed into its towers were part of a coordinated terrorist attack that killed around 3,000 people at three sites on U.S. soil; most lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Three years after the World Trade Center fell, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for ordering the attack, claiming it was in retaliation for U.S. activity in the Middle East, which, at the time, included the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia and economic sanctions against Iraq. While New York and the rest of the United States were devastated by 9/11, the World Trade Center also became a symbol of American resilience. A memorial and museum were opened at the site in 2011.
National Museum, Malé, Maldives
On Feb. 7, 2012, a group of radical extremists stormed the National Museum of Maldives, a small island nation in the Arabian Sea southwest of Sri Lanka. They were after what they considered false idols in the archive’s pre-Islamic collection. The siege lasted just a single day, but it was enough. The director of the National Museum reported that in that short period, the entire pre-Islamic history of the island had been destroyed.
Temples of Bel & Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria
Palmyra in Syria was one of the Silk Road’s most dazzling cities. Early Palmyrenes, influenced by both Mesopotamian spirituality and Greco-Roman culture, channeled their wealth into monuments, architecture, and art, including the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin. When Syria erupted in civil war in 2011, and the fundamentalist terrorist group ISIL carved a swath of destruction through the country, many feared Palmyra would be caught up in the crosshairs. They were right. In 2015, ISIL fighters launched a full-scale attack on the ancient city, blowing up the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin in an act UNESCO declared a willful war crime.
Ani, Kars Province, Turkey
A thousand years ago, Ani was one of the largest cities in the world. The capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom, the splendor of the architecturally-and-artistically advanced “City of 1000 Churches” was both the source of its legendary status and its destruction. In 1064, Ani suffered an attack by the Seljuk (Turko-Persian) army, which burned the city to the ground and massacred thousands of ethnic Armenians. Ani limped along for another 150 years being traded among the region’s ruling factions until finally, in 1236, it was sacked by the Mongols and finished off by an earthquake in 1319. Though what little was left of Ani was abandoned entirely in 1735, it remains one of the most important sites of Armenian heritage in the world.
Jaffna Public Library, Jaffna, Sri Lanka
In one of the most egregious acts of ethnic strife in the 1980s Sri Lanka, the public library in Jaffna was burned to the ground. The day before the fire, a rally for the Tamil United Liberation Front, a popular democratic political party, had ended in violence, leaving two police officers from the Sinhalese ethnic group dead. Police and paramilitaries who sided with the Sinhalese reacted violently. For three days, they rioted against members of the Tamil ethnic group and destroyed the artifacts of their culture and heritage, including more than 97,000 books and manuscripts and the library that housed them. The library was quickly renovated, and by 1984 it once again held thousands of books, but civil strife continued to brew in Jaffna. In 1985, the renewed library was bombed by soldiers retaliating against a Tamil rebel attack on a local police station. The destroyed library was abandoned for close to two decades before finally being rebuilt.
Cathedral Church of St. Michael, Coventry, England
Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Coventry Cathedral was one of England’s largest churches capped with the country’s third tallest spire. But the church’s prominence likely made it an easy target when the German bombers filled the skies in 1940. In the final attack of the so-called Coventry Blitz, a series of 18 raids between August and November, bombs, artillery, and fire destroyed around two-thirds of the city. When the flames were finally out, all that was left of the cathedral was its tower, spire, outer wall, and the words “Father Forgive” carved in the ruins.