It has been a bad few days for historic monuments across the world. At the weekend, Iraqi officials announced that Islamic State militants had destroyed ruins at Hatra, an ancient city located in the country. Hatra was founded during the Parthian Empire, almost 2,000 years ago; initial reports suggested that the entire site may have been destroyed. Unesco, the World Heritage organisation, described the destruction as a sign of the contempt in which ISIS holds the history of the Arab people. ISIS had apparently used explosives and bulldozers to destroy buildings and other ruins at the site. Interestingly, Iraq’s ministry for tourism and antiquities laid the blame for the carnage firmly at the door of the international community, citing a failure to assist Iraq in the protection of its historic monuments, and saying that the destruction of Hatra could have been avoided if more support had been forthcoming. ISIS had already released a video a few days earlier that appeared to show militants destroying a number of exhibits in a museum in Mosul.
Meanwhile, another ancient monument was under attack yesterday – the Colosseum in Rome. The difference this time was that the attackers were not Islamic militants intent on destroying false idols, but two American women who were caught carving their names into the monument. The two women separated from their tour group, and were in the process of scratching their initials into the ancient stone work, when they were caught by police. They even posed for the obligatory selfie. The two women ail go before an Italian Court in the coming days to answer for their actions; last year a Russian man was fined €20,000 and given a four-month suspended prison sentence for a similar offence. He was one of five people found guilty of defacing the monument last year.
The Colosseum is not the only ancient monument to have suffered at the hands of western tourists this year. Angkor Wat, the ancient temple in Cambodia that is one of the country’s most sacred site, has been plagued by a wave of tourists posing in various states of undress amongst the ruins. At least five tourists have been arrested for taking naked photos at the site. In February, temple authorities deported two American women who tooled photos of each other’s backsides in the Preah Khan temple, while three tourists were caught riding a motorcycle naked near Phnom Penh in Jaunary. All the offenders have been deported from the Buddhist ‘Kingdom of Wonder’. Outside of these recent incidents of disrespect, Angkor Wat has always suffered from a lack of management of tourists at the various temples, with visitors allowed to clamber freely across many of the monuments.
So what is it that makes people want to damage or deface historical sites across the world? The ISIS terrorists cited the ‘destruction of false idols’ as their justification, and while the various western tourists would probably come up with an excuse that was more akin to ‘tomfoolery’, both groups are guilty of treating a culture that they don’t understand with contempt. Is there something in human nature that makes us want to destroy something of beauty as soon as we see it? Or perhaps an urge that pushes us to attack the symbols of cultures that we don’t understand? Either way, unless these attacks are punished appropriately, and ancient sites respected, it is collective human culture that will pay the price in the long run.