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Architectural devastation is a familiar byproduct of conflict, but the effects on a city can extend far beyond simply bricks and mortar. So what lessons can be learned from those most severely affected by war?
Throughout urban history cities have been regularly torn apart as collateral damage in wars and rebellions. Even so, the ravaging of the ancient city of Palmyra by the militant group Isis earlier this year was particularly shocking for its deliberate targeting of the Syrian city’s irreplaceable architectural heritage.
In a very public wave of destruction, Isis razed Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, which in more peaceful times attracted 150,000 tourists a year, dynamited the smaller Temple of Baalshamin, destroyed numerous venerable statues, and laid waste to the tombs of two Muslim holy men.
Of course, many of Syria’s historic cities have been devastated by the bitter fighting between government and rebel forces too, with much of ancient Aleppo, the “Vienna of the Middle East”, reduced to rubble in recent years. Whole neighbourhoods have been levelled by targeted explosions as well as marketplaces and hospitals, and many of the city’s inhabitants live without electricity, running water or fuel.
The systematic disruption of a city’s infrastructure extends far beyond Syria. In northern Mali in 2012, for example, the Battle of Timbuktu did considerable damage to another World Heritage City, when Ansar Dine fighters intentionally vandalised, smashed and even set fire to the tombs of many Muslim saints.
But any survey of war-damaged cities must inevitably focus on the mass destructions of the 20th century, when weaponry and ways of conducting war perfected the art of destroying a city. The second world war saw approximately 17,500 civilians killed in London, while in Germany 42,600 died in just one week during the bombing of Hamburg in 1943. […]