Destruction Of Cultural Heritage Since Antiquity: A Shocking Review

The destruction of cultural heritage, unlike the inevitable actions of nature and time, is intentional. It is not a recent phenomenon, and has been going on for millennia. What happened?

Aug 16, 2020By Guillaume Deprez, Art Historian; Graduate of the Louvre School in Paris
Destruction Of Cultural Heritage jackhammer lamassu Nineveh and Nimrud by Daesh Isis
After millennia, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage carries on to this day. Daesh / Isis destroying a lamassu winged bull at Nergal’s gate, Nineveh, and in Nimrud.


In our own lifetimes, religious extremists destroyed cultural heritage in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and committed irreparable damage. This is not a new phenomenon. For millennia, men have been destroying the memory of mankind. The main reasons are intolerance and greed. Intolerance, meaning the unwillingness to accept different ideas, beliefs, or customs, whether it is religious, political or racial. Greed, such as melting artworks for their precious metal contents, as well as reusing monuments and statues as building material.


Generation after generation, most of the cultural treasures of the last five millennia were destroyed. To get an idea of its extent, here is the story of the destruction of cultural heritage.


Thousands Of Statues Existed In Ancient Greece and Rome


Ruins Roman Forum 1775 with lime burners destruction ancient monuments cultural heritage
The Roman Forum circa 1775. Note on the foreground men vandalizing an ancient monument, using pickaxes to extract marble and burn it as lime. Destruction of cultural heritage by recycling ancient monuments into construction material.


We only have words left to envision the amount of artworks that existed in Antiquity. The principal source on ancient art is Pliny’s encyclopedia, based on 2,000 books. Pliny did not even specifically write about art, but about metals and stone. To illustrate what bronze is used for, he described colossal statues.


He stated that “the examples are innumerable” and their size “equal to towers in size.” Imagine having one hundred of these colossal bronze statues in a single city. For life-size bronzes, why bother counting them? There were so many that Pliny mentioned “3,000 statues on the stage of a temporary theatre.” And “3,000 statues in Rhodes, and no fewer are believed to exist at Athens, Olympia, and Delphi.” At least 15,000 statues, so many that “what living mortal could enumerate them all?”

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The wonders of Rome, circa 350 AD, included:

– 423 temples.
– 77 ivory statues of gods.
– 80 gilded bronze statues of gods.
– 22 equestrian statues.
– 36 triumphal arches.
– 3,785 bronze statues.


As for the marble statues, no one even tried to list them. It was said there was one marble statue for each Roman, in a city where hundreds of thousands of people lived.


Ancient Statues Were Religious Images

Copy of the lost Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles Altemps version
Statue of a goddess, the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles. Due to statues being eventually destroyed most Greek masterpieces originals are lost, and are only known by their Roman copies.


Apollo playing music, Dionysos drinking wine, and Venus bathing were not meant as decoration. They were images of divinity. ‘Art’ wasn’t just created for the enjoyment of connoisseurs. It was a way to make faith visible and accessible, to the illiterate and to the priest performing the most sacred rites. This is how the function of a modest clay statuette and a colossal gold and ivory statue was similar.


Performing rites involved making gifts to the gods in the hope of receiving benefits in return. Animals, for their meat, incense, flowers, and other precious gifts were offered to the statues of the gods. To sacrifice to a god literally meant to ‘make something sacred’.
Plato, explaining the “worship paid to the gods” said that “we set up statues as images, and we believe that when we worship these, lifeless though they be, the living gods beyond feel great good-will towards us and gratitude.” For a modern equivalent, somewhat one can think of lighting candles in church.


All Religious Monuments Belong To The Cultural Heritage Of Mankind


The statues were at the same time images of divinity and art, as much as any religious image or building anywhere in the world. The nude Aphrodite was a statue believed to ward off danger at sea. As a work of art it also brought powerful emotions to the viewer. One “in the excess of his admiration stood almost petrified, though his emotions showed in the melting tears trickling from his eyes.”


For those who created and saw them, the statues were both expressions of the divine and artworks. Exactly like Michelangelo’s Pietà is at once a powerful image of Christ and Mary and a universal masterpiece.


Statues Were Also Raised To Express The Power Of Rulers

Bronze head of Seuthes III era of Alexander the Great Lysippos glass stone eyes
Seuthes III, bronze portrait of the Thracian ruler from the same time than Alexander the Great. This exceedingly rare original allows us to imagine how Lysippos could have expressed the “melting glance” of Alexander’s eyes.


First, statues were created for gods. But “the practice, however, soon passed from the gods to the statues and representations of men.” Starting with the athletes who won games, “the custom was afterwards adopted by all other nations”. So “statues were erected as ornaments in the public places of municipal towns”. With the statues of worthy men “the memory of individuals was thus preserved, their various honors being inscribed on the pedestals, to be read there by posterity”.


Alexander the Great thought only one sculptor was worthy of creating his portrait, Lysippos, one of Antiquity’s greatest artists. He was “said to have executed no less than fifteen hundred works of art, all of which were of such excellence that any one of them might have immortalized him.”


Statues Were Erected For The Remembrance Of The Ancient Greeks And Romans


With eyes set in glass and stone, it was celebrated for “the expressive, melting glance of the eyes.” Fitting for a man looking beyond, in search of worlds to conquer. Eyes are essential for the viewer to access the “feelings of the mind.” The character, emotions, and quality of the person portrayed, as they are a ‘window to the soul.’ Lysippos possessed the rare talent to open that window, like Michelangelo David’s determination is expressed in its eyes.


But we cannot come eye to eye with the great men of ancient Greece. We cannot glimpse into the minds of the men who invented democracy, of the great philosophers, or the conqueror. None of their original portrait statues have survived. All of 1,500 statues created by Lysippos are lost. The marble Roman copies only offer an empty stare.


Museums Were Created To Protect Artworks So We Can Learn From The Past

Louvre museum visitors in 1796 Hubert Robert project
In 1753 the British Museum opened to ‘all studious and curious persons’. The Louvre opened in 1793, seen here in a 1796 project.


The museum as we know it today is an idea of the 18th century, the Enlightenment age. In London and Paris a new type of temple was created. Museums were meant to protect and display artworks from the past. And crucially, not only one’s own culture, but others’.


This is how the late 18th century visitor could wonder at paintings until then the preserve of royalty. One could look at the statue of an ancient god, without ever having to agree or disagree with the religion it was created for. Or being made to choose between the Athenian, Pharaonic, or Imperial Roman type of government.


Venus was no longer a goddess, but an artwork seen as the culmination of thousands of years of human creativity. Past Emperors or Kings were no longer imperfect leaders, but history incarnated in stone. Artists came to museums to learn from past masters. Visitors discovered civilizations and the genius and skills of those who lived millennia ago.


Yet how many realize they only see a minute portion of the past, the small amount of artworks that survive? How many people ask why statues lack heads? Why do they see “Roman copy after a Greek original” labels, and question where the originals are? Architects conceived religious edifices, aiming that they last generations, or even eternity. Artists decorated them with artworks. When an ancient culture gets replaced with a new one, it risks being lost.


When The Worship Of The Ancient Egyptian Gods Ended

Philae 436 graffito of Esmet-Akhom dated 394 AD last hieroglyphic inscription
The last hieroglyphic inscription carved on a temple wall, the graffito of Esmet-Akhom, dated 24th of August 394 AD, Philae. After 3,500 years of use, it marked the end both of the worship of the ancient gods and the use of hieroglyphs.


For over three millennia, the ancient Egyptians built temples and statues to their numerous gods. With Alexander the Great, the Greeks took over, added their own gods, and built temples to the old Egyptian divinities. This is how some of the best-preserved temples of Egypt were built by Greek Pharaohs.


With the Roman era came the transition from multiples gods to one. Christianity evolved from a minority religion to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. This led to numerous decrees by Emperors. The Theodosian Code ordered the closure of the temples: “the temples shall be immediately closed in all places and in all cities, and access to them were forbidden, so as to deny to all abandoned men the opportunity to commit sin. All men shall abstain from sacrifices. But if perchance any man should perpetrate any such criminality, he shall be struck down with the avenging sword.”


Last Hieroglyphic Inscription


Then in 391 AD Emperor Theodosius sent decrees to Egypt, making the worship of statues illegal. “No person shall revere the images formed by mortal labor, lest he become guilty by divine and human laws”. And that “no person shall be granted the right to perform sacrifices; no person shall go around the temples; no person shall revere the shrines.” Three years later, the very last hieroglyphic inscription was carved on a temple wall.


Eventually, the hieroglyphs’ meaning was lost. Even carved in stone, covering walls from floor to ceiling, hieroglyphs became undecipherable. If it wasn’t for the fortunate survival of Greek – Egyptian texts, like the Rosetta Stone, ancient Egypt would still be a mystery.


When Ancient Egyptian Statues Died

Destruction cultural heritage colossal statue Ramesses II Ramesseum Luxor
The colossal statue of Ramesses II in the Ramesseum. Estimated to have been 18 m (59 ft) high, and to have weighted 1,000 tons, it was one of the tallest statues ever carved in Ancient Egypt. And to this day, one of the largest monolithic statues ever carved.


For the ancient Egyptians, the statues of gods, Pharaohs, and people were alive. A statue was thought to magically breathe, eat, and drink, exactly like a mummy. This is why already in ancient Egypt the easiest way to “kill” a statue was to chop off its nose, so the statue would suffocate and die.


The worship of the ancient gods dwindled over centuries, and financial support for the temples declined. Christianity spread over Egypt, cohabiting with ancient traditions, by then three and a half millennia old.


In 392 AD, Emperor Theodosius pronounced an edict on pagan temples. “The emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. Then he destroyed the Serapeum. The governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples. These were therefore razed to the ground, and the images of their gods molten into pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church. All the images were accordingly broken to pieces.”


Ramesses’ Colossal Statue Was Destroyed, Toppled and Defaced


At about the same time, Ramesses II’s colossal statue was attacked. It had been described as “the largest of any in Egypt … it is not merely for its size that this work merits approbation, but it is also marvellous by reason of its artistic quality.”


At an estimated 1,000 tons, it was one of the heaviest stones carved and transported in Egyptian history. And one of the largest free-standing statues of the ancient world. Ramesses’ colossus was chiseled, toppled and defaced.


Statues Were Destroyed To Become Saucepans And Construction Material

Lysippos Hercules lost bronze Farnese marble copy
The Farnese Hercules, a Roman era marble copy of a lost bronze original by Lysippos. Its head was found in a well, its torso in the ruins of a bath, the legs 10 miles away. Destruction of cultural heritage by transforming statues into construction material.


Ancient texts describe thousands of bronze statues in Greece and in Rome. The era when a tourist could admire so many wonders in Rome, circa 350 AD, also was the time attitudes towards statues changed. With the new religion and the imperial edicts, statues deemed pagan became suspicious.


Statues previously thought to be benevolent were felt by some as being inhabited by demons. Being seen by a statue meant risking being attacked or injured by the demon inside. The only protection against the nefarious power of statues was in gouging their eyes, cutting their noses, or beheading them.


For bronzes, the pagan priests were ordered “to bring out their gods with much mockery”. To expose “the ugliness that lay within the superficially applied beauty”. The bronze “gods of stale legends” were made useful by “the melting of their inanimate images in the flames and their conversion from worthless forms into necessary uses”.


Marble Was Burnt And Turned Into Lime


Bronze can easily be melted, reused for pots, weapons, or coins. Marble too can be recycled, and not only by simply being recut and reused. By being burnt and turned into lime. Destroying marble statues for their lime was so prevalent that a district of Rome was even called ‘Lime-pit.’ This is how “many torsos and statues were discovered in digging cellars used to be thrown into the kilns, especially those sculptured in Greek marble, on account of the wonderful lime which they produced.”


A “very great number of fragments of the most beautiful statues had served as building materials.” Spared being turned into lime, these fragments have now pride of place in museums.


Cultural Heritage Melted For Gold

Christopher Columbus offered gold treasures in Hispaniola in 1492
The arrival of Columbus in Hispaniola in 1492, shown here receiving gold gifts. Destroying cultural heritage by melting gold artifacts during the quest for El Dorado and the Golden Cities.


Marco Polo wrote that in Japan “they have gold in very great abundance, because gold is found there beyond measure.” He described the King’s palace as being covered with sheets of gold from the floor to the roof.


The fact Marco Polo had never been to Japan did not stop his readers from dreaming of riches. One of them was Christopher Columbus. In return for finding lands beyond the sea, he asked for a share of 10% of “pearls, precious stones, gold, silver and spices.”


When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, he inquired if Emperor Moctezuma had any gold, and was told, yes, indeed. Cortés said “send me some of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.”


Then Francesco Pizarro explored Peru. He made his motive clear “I have come to take away from them their gold.” Pizarro captured the Inca, who tried to negotiate his freedom in exchange for gold. Atahualpa delivered the promised ransom, a room filled to the ceiling with gold, two more filled with silver. Atahualpa was nevertheless executed. The gold statuettes, jewelry, and works of art were melted, and great silver mines were discovered.


The result was, in the words of a Spanish official, a “torrent of gold”. From 1500 to 1660, 180 tons of solid gold and 16,000 tons of silver arrived through Spanish ports.


Heritage Destroyed Due To Political Upheaval – The Cultural Revolution

Red Guard smashing the 4 Olds 1967 Cultural Revolution propaganda poster Destruction cultural heritage
‘Smash the Old World. Establish the New World.’ 1967 Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. Under the Red Guard’s feet, a crucifix, Buddha, classical texts, a record and playing dice. Destruction of cultural heritage due to political intolerance.


When Stalin died, his successor criticized how he had been transformed into “a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god.” In China, the Great Leap Forward was an abject failure. In four years, a famine caused the death of tens of million people. His authority weakened, Chairman Mao sought to reassert control.


The result was “a great revolution that touches people to their very souls.” Influenced by the relentless propaganda, the Red Guards turned their idealism and immature certainty against their own parents, grandparents, and teachers.


They were told to “energetically destroy all the old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits of the exploiting classes”. Their response was “smash, burn, fry and scorch”! And “we are the destroyers of the old world!” The old world was a culture over two millennia old. The Red Guards ransacked Confucius’ cemetery. An intact Emperor and Empress’ tomb had just been discovered. The youth army ‘denounced’ their crimes and burnt their corpses.


The Destruction Of Cultural Heritage, Places Of Worship, And Religious Statues


In Beijing nearly 5,000 ‘places of cultural or historical interest’ were destroyed, two-thirds of the heritage of the city. Sites sacred to the multiple beliefs of old China were attacked. Buddhist, Taoist temples and statues, Christian churches and images, Muslim places of worship were looted, broken and burnt.


As for books and paintings, “bad books and pictures should be turned into waste material.” Private homes were ransacked, family photos, books, and antiques were destroyed. The Forbidden City was only saved from the destructive fury on prime minister orders.


A Red Guard explained “I felt at that time our leader was not an ordinary man. Mao Zedong might have been born as a sun god.”


We Can All Marvel At The Cultural Heritage Of Mankind

Destruction Assyrian cultural heritage relief Nimrud Daesh Isis
The destruction of Nimrud by Daesh (Isis/Isil) in 2015. Like the Taliban complaining at the difficulty of blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, “It is easier to destroy than to build”. Destruction of cultural heritage by religious intolerance.


For millennia, the cost of refusing to accept the existence of other civilizations has been the destruction of heritage. But we are no longer isolated from other cultures. Our world is interconnected with 7.8 billion human beings, two hundred nations, and thousands of cultures. We therefore benefit from inventions made by people who do not look, think, and believe like us.


As a result, there is no need to agree with others to be able to admire their achievements. This is how, though the past cannot be changed, we can still learn from it. One need not be Italian or Christian to be moved by Michelangelo’s Pietà, or Muslim to wonder at the Taj Mahal. Or be Buddhist to lament the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.


Once we realize the futility of trying to change others into thinking or believing like ourselves, we are freed. Relieved from having to fear others, we cease being bewildered by humanity’s complexity, and end up being fascinated by it. Enlightened, we can all marvel at the common heritage of mankind.



Sources On The Destruction Of Cultural Heritage 

Greek and Roman world:

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 34. The natural history of metals.
– Rodolfo Lanciani – The Destruction of Ancient Rome: A Sketch of the History of the Monuments. 1899, by, p 48-49 – p 39-41 – p 190-191. – Pagan and Christian Rome. p 51-52 – Ancient Rome in light of the recent excavations. p 284.
– The official lists are the Regionary Catalogue “Notitia” circa 334 AD. And the “wonders of Rome” Mirabilia Romae, “Curiosum Urbis Romae Regionum XIV cum Breviariis Suis” circa 357 AD.
Plato, Laws, 930-931.
Pseudo-Lucian; Affairs Of The Heart, 14.
Plutarch De Alexandri Magni Fortuna aut Virtute 2.2.3.
The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Clyde Pharr. – XVI.X.4 – XVI.X.10 – XVI.X.11 p 472-474.
The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘“Paganism”. Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan, Late Antique Archaeology 7, Brill 2011.
Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder, Cyril Mango.
The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. Chapter XVI. Demolition of the Idolatrous Temples at Alexandria, and the Consequent Conflict between the Pagans and Christians.



Diodorus Siculus , The Library of History, 1-47.
Christian Leblanc, Ramsès II et le Ramesseum, De la splendeur au déclin d’un temple de millions d’années.  – Récentes recherches et mesures de conservation dans le temple de millions d’années de Ramsès II, à Thèbes-Ouest.
Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 54 Pagan Temples, Removal of valuables.

Columbus, Cortés, and Pizarro

– Marco Polo, the Description of the World. Moule & Pelliot 1938, chapter III p 357-358.
– Capitulations of Santa Fe. Articles of Agreement between the Lords the Catholic Sovereigns and Cristóbal Colon. 17th April 1492.
The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary Francisco López de Gómara p 58.
– Henry Kamen. Spain’s Road to Empire – The Making of a World Power 1492-1763 – p 88.
Peter L. Bernstein. The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession p 123
Earl J. Hamilton. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 43, No. 3 (May, 1929), p 468.

USSR and Chinese Cultural Revolution

– Khrushchev speech to 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. February 24-25 1956.
– Editorial of the People’s Daily of June 2, 1966.
Mao’s Last Revolution. Roderick MacFarquhar, Michael Schoenhal p 10; p 118.
– Turbulent Decade: A History of the Cultural Revolution, Jiaqi Yan, Gao Gao, p 65-66.
– Red Guard: The Political Biography of Dai Hsiao-ai. By Gordon A. Bennett and Ronald N. Montaperto p 96

Author Image

By Guillaume DeprezArt Historian; Graduate of the Louvre School in ParisGuillaume Deprez is a contributing writer and art historian, graduate of the Louvre School. Wondering why statues and monuments were destroyed and how many ancient artworks survive, he searched for a book answering that question. As the saying goes, when you want to read a book that has not been written, then you must write it. The result is Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of cultural heritage by intolerance and greed. An accessible and engaging book, a journey of discovery throughout the rise and fall of civilizations.