In recent years, the use of iconoclasm has justified the destruction of priceless antiquities, all in the name of propagating some religious ideal. Many claim that Islamists have propagated this iconoclasm, as is evidenced from today's looting of a major museum in central Egypt. However, not all recent attacks on religious and historical properties have been the doings of Islamic fanatics or Islamists. Let us look into five historic places where fanatics, religious or otherwise, have destroyed priceless works:
1. The City of Timbuktu
Islamists break into an destroy a 15th Century Sufi tomb in Timbuktu, early 2013
The City of Timbuktu was an important trade outpost in western Africa, and a hub of higher learning throughout the Middle East, from the 13th to 16th centuries. In the fallout of the end of the Libyan Civil War, Islamists supplied with arms from the war took over parts of Mali in a conflict that was put down by a force led by the French earlier this year. During the conflict, Islamists took over Timbuktu, and proceeded to lay waste to many of the historic structures, including the tombs of ancient Sufi Islamic scholars and rulers. They would even target the Ahmed Baba Institute, which contained priceless manuscripts from the Islamic Golden Age of the late first and early second millennium AD, because these documents were considered insufficiently Islamic. Thankfully, advance warning led scholars to whisk away the manuscripts before the Islamists set their location on fire in February 2013.
2. The Babri Mosque
Hindus overrunning the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, prior to its demolition in 1992
Hindu fanatics in India targeted a historic Islamic structure, the Babri Mosque, in 1992, blowing it up with bombs. The Babri Mosque, in Ayodhya, was an architectural wonder, with masterful acoustics, built on the orders of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur. However, it was built on what many Hindus consider a holy site: The birthplace of Rama, a reincarnation of the god Vishnu and one of Hinduism's greatest heros. The temple itself was destroyed by Babur to make way for the mosque, which was finished in 1527. As of 2011, the area where the temple and mosque were is managed by a Sunni Muslim organization and two Hindu organizations, but it remains a point of contention by locals to this day.
3. The Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley
Footage of the Bamiyan Buddhas being destroyed, 2001
In the late 6th century AD, just before the development of Islam, local Buddhists in what is now Afghanistan built two giant sandstone Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley. Over the centuries it has braved repeated attacks by Islamic groups, including the Mongols and the Mughals. However, in 2001, the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, under orders of several radical clerics, dynamited the two statues, destroying them. Eventually, the Taliban was overthrown in Afghanistan, and the mullah responsible for the destruction assassinated in 2007. However, despite the discovery of ancient Buddhist caves, the statues' loss is all but complete.
4. Mecca and Medina
A historic cemetery in Medina, likely targeted for demolition by Saudi authorities
In a situation some would call ironic, the Saudi Royal Family has long moved to destroy several key cultural and religious sites in Islamic history in the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, there really is no irony to the situation: Since the House of ibn Saud entered into alliance with radical cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, in the 17th century, the family has long supported the movement as their primary religious directive. The Wahhabi movement considers any Islamic religious site besides the Kaaba in Mecca to be sinful. Saudi authorities have undertaken a slow campaign of destroying mosques, cemeteries, and other shrines linked to the early days of Islam. In its place, we have gaudy clock towers.
5. Most of China's Religious Heritage
Cultural Revolution poster, sanctioning religious desecration and iconoclasm, 1967
China has a long history of propagating different religions and traditions, including Taoism and Buddhism, as well as a mythological reverence towards the early Emperors. However, in the 1960s, atheists under the orders of Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong attacked and destroyed thousands of temples and shrines, all in the name of the Cultural Revolution, a failed attempt at reshaping society by destroying ancient Chinese traditions. Relics and other items of historic value were also destroyed by Mao's Red Guards, and produced the single largest act of mass iconoclasm in history.
(Media Sources: The Hindu, CNN, The Telegraph, Flickr: Mardetanha, Chinese Communist Party)