Cultural heritage is an intangible and tangible heritage asset inherited by generations of a society. It is also considered to be the material embodiment of culture, in that it provides the means by which practices can be transmitted and continuity established with previous generations.
The destruction of cultural heritage has been a persistent issue throughout history. It has often occurred in the context of war and ethnic conflict. Typical victims of destruction include Indigenous populations, religious minorities, and others. Intentional destruction of cultural heritage has been accompanied by mass atrocities, human rights violations, and persecution of communities. Often, the destruction of cultural artifacts is associated with conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.
Destroying cultural artifacts and works of art was an integral part of warfare and other forms of violence in ancient times. For example, the Spanish conquistadors who invaded the Americas in the sixteenth century, systematically destroyed the Aztec and Inca Empires, and decimated the indigenous population. However, there were many other factors that contributed to the destruction of art and culture, including economic and religious motives.
Iconoclasm is an ideologically motivated campaign to destroy symbols of a vanquished past. Typically, it is fueled by hatred of images of other religions. There are also shadow economies, which are created when a group pillages a cultural site for economic reasons.
During the early Stalin years in the Soviet Union, art was treated as a commodity. Artifacts were looted and sold abroad. Eventually, museums were set up to collect and preserve these objects. When the Soviets fell, some of these objects were returned to the museums, but many were left behind. Eventually, encyclopedic museums were created, and the sale of these objects went global.
Throughout history, works of art adorned places of worship, such as churches, mosques, and temples. They served to reinforce the sense of belonging of people to a particular culture, and they also helped to establish a common symbolic repertoire. Disputes between emerging Christianity and resident pagan cults, for instance, could involve the targeting of cultural artifacts.
In the twentieth century, the destruction of cultural artifacts and works of art has been linked to mass atrocities and genocide. World War I, for instance, led to the collapse of old European empires, and it paved the way for radical ideologies. These included the National Socialist movement and the Bolshevik revolution. Both revolutions created massive destruction and countless victims.
A more recent example of the destruction of cultural heritage is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL). This organization has been responsible for mass atrocities, and many individuals have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Since 2013, the Islamic State has been propagating a reign of terror. As a result, the number of refugees has increased dramatically, reaching 100 million by May 2022.
Similarly, the Russian Revolution, which began in 1917, targeted the ‘imperial’ and ‘elite’. Red Khmer was a result of radical ideologies. During the civil war in Timbuktu, thousands of manuscripts were smuggled out of the country.