Preserving the Past – Some Thoughts on the Importance of Historic Places

I’m talking about something a bit more personal for this post.

Recently, I went back to my home town with my family. We were in the area and so we thought it might be fun to take a drive through the old neighbourhood.

It’s kind of weird passing by primary and secondary schools where you spent so much time, and then happily pushed them from your mind. All that feel like another life.

Our last stop was the last house my family owned. It was the oldest house in the area (over 100 years old), and belonged to the original landowner who had settled the area. This is a picture of the house:

windsor house

As we were driving along the street, beneath the tall trees, we watched the modern monstrosities as we passed by, those huge, thinly-walled modern mansions that people seem to be so eager to throw up.

I found myself thinking, ‘Man, oh, man, we were so lucky to live in that solidly-built, old house. So many memories –graduation parties, Christmases, dinner parties, engagement parties, etc. etc. It was a place that had seen the area grow up and mature all around it.

This is what we saw when we pulled up in front of the house:


That left us winded and wondering simply, ‘Why?’

So that another monster home could be built? I guess. And yes, I know, the house was no longer ours. It was really none of our business any more.

But this shocking experience got me to thinking beyond this personal experience…

If the destruction of one small house, lived in by only a handful of families over the last hundred-plus years, can deliver such a blow, how much greater the loss when other historical monuments around the world are wiped out?

The Bamiyan Buddhas -destroyed by the Taliban

The Bamiyan Buddhas -destroyed by the Taliban

It happens every day, everywhere, from small towns and villages, to cities, to world heritage sites that represent pinnacles of human achievement.

The period doesn’t matter. What matters is that history, and more importantly, the voices of history, are being silenced when these cultural atrocities are carried out.

Archaeologists at Nimrud 2001

Archaeologists at Nimrud 2001 – excavation and preservation

I’ve worked in the area of heritage preservation, and in my office there are a lot of people who are passionate about the subject. But they’re facing an uphill battle, as are preservationists around the world, historians, archaeologists, restorers and more. All of them.

The thing is, I do believe in the memory of place. History is about the human stories of everything around us, and those voices of the past need to be listened to, deserve to be listened to. They have much to teach us.

If we allow the destruction of an historic temple, farmstead, theatre, or market, even a house, we are losing yet another piece of our collective history. We lose yet another potential lesson and opportunity to better ourselves.

The Recent Destruction of Nimrud

The Recent Destruction of Nimrud

There has been a lot in the press recently about the destruction of historic sites in the Middle East, namely the ancient sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra (about which I wrote HERE). And now the ancient city of Palmyra is hanging over the precipice…

These are just a few examples of the destruction that has been wrought of late. If you go the UNESCO World Heritage website, you can look at the list of endangered world heritage sites. It’s sad, it’s upsetting, and it’s happening all the time.

We are so eager to move into the future that we often forget the past, opting to tear down a sturdy brick building that has been there for one or two hundred years, in favour of putting up yet another glass condominium that won’t even make it to sixty years without falling apart.

Think about it, people pay thousands of dollars to travel across the ocean to visit places like England, or France, Greece and other countries so that they can, in most cases, visit ‘old’ places, historical sites.

Check out this abandoned English manor house - should it be levelled or restored?

Check out this abandoned English manor house – should it be levelled or restored?

If those physical, historic spaces and places were not there, the voices of the people who had inhabited them would be more or less silent to us. We can read someone’s words, but to walk in their footsteps with their thoughts and words echoing in your mind is an entirely different experience.

There are varying degrees of importance and different perspectives, true, but all the voices of the past matter, as do the things they created.

When I look at that picture of the patch of mud where our one-time house used to be, I’m sad, not just for me, but for the neighbourhood which has lost a small chunk of its history.

To most people, the house was neither here, nor there. But just because a place is meaningless to some, doesn’t been it isn’t of import to others or the community as a whole, be it down the street in your own neighbourhood, or on the other side of the world.

The Destruction of Hatra

The Destruction of Hatra

When the physical places are treated with disregard, it’s the beginning of the process of forgetting… which goes on… until… nothing… is… left……..

What do you think of this topic?

Next time you walk or drive around your neighbourhood, check to see if there are any historic or ‘old’ places that catch your attention? Imagine how the neighbourhood would change if that place were completely wiped out.

Tell us in the comments about an historic or ‘old’ place that is close you, a place that means something to you.

Thank you for reading.


Hatra – The Sad Death of an Historic Site

Hatra Temple

My research for the current book I’m writing has taken me to a place that has been in the news of late.

The news from the Middle East has not been good for many years, especially on the human scale. But things have taken another sad turn with the added destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq. A couple weeks ago, we heard of the wanton destruction of the ancient, Assyrian Bronze Age city of Nimrud, and this loss of world heritage has shaken the archaeological and historical communities.

But last week, came yet another catastrophic blow. The ancient city of Hatra, just 290 kms northwest of Baghdad, was bulldozed to the ground. The supposed reasons for this vile act being that Hatra did not represent the religion of the group in question.


Hatra details

Prior to the levelling of this ancient site, I had been admiring its magnificent, intact ruins as part of my research for a prequel to my novel, Children of Apollo. This is… was… an amazing place.

Hatra was built in the third century B.C. under the Seleucid Empire, founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucas. It was later located on the edge of the mighty Parthian Empire with which Rome would wage terrible war.

The city of Hatra was one of the best-preserved Parthian cities in the Middle East. It had inner and outer walls that were about 6 kms around, with 160 towers. These walls were so strong and well-fortified that of all the Parthian possessions, including the capital of Ctesiphon, Hatra was the only frontier city that withstood attacks from Rome’s legions.

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

Map of Hatra (source: UNESCO)

The emperors who laid siege to Hatra were no slouches either! Both the warlike emperors Trajan (in A.D. 116/117) and Septimius Severus (in A.D. 198/199) attacked the city, only to be turned away by the walls, the defenders, and the harsh environment outside of those walls. Some say, the gods themselves had a hand in the successful defence of Hatra…

Eventually, the city fell to the Sassanid Emperor, Shapur I in A.D. 241, but that warrior ruler did not destroy the city. Hatra stood for over two thousand years… that is, until last week.

Emperor Trajan

Emperor Trajan

It wasn’t the walls that kept Hatra standing, nor the power of the Parthians, for both of those things were breeched in the end. What kept Hatra alive, so to speak, was respect and a common sense of heritage.

In my research, it has been interesting to read about how Hatra was a place of religious fusion, of great harmony among faiths.

The architecture may have been a beautiful melding of Hellenistic and Roman styles, but the great temples at the heart of Hatra belonged to the Assyrian and Babylonian faiths, to the beliefs of Greeks, Syrians and Aramaeans, Arabians and Mesopotamians. The age-old gods of all of these faiths co-existed at the heart of this circular city in the desert, standing proud and protected around the base of the Great Temple itself, with its 30 meter columns.

The Great Temple

The Great Temple

I’ve not seen recent pictures, but from what I’ve heard, Hatra has been levelled.

There are no words, really.

Think of it this way – even Saddam Hussein saw value (however selfishly) and wanted to restore Hatra, as well as Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Babylon. He didn’t bulldoze them.

For over a thousand years, Muslims have preserved these ancient sites, including Hatra, because they represented a glorious past, humankind’s past. The towering columns and temple pediments, the ornate reliefs carved by our ancient ancestors did not represent a threat. They were artistic glories, the ornamentations of the houses of many gods, side by side.

In my prequel to Children of Apollo, I’ll be writing about Septimius Severus’ two sieges of Hatra, and how, despite his rage and being repelled twice, the city yet stood. Some stories say it was the threat of mutiny, others that it was the Empress, Julia Domna who urged him to spare the city because of the magnificent temples within that honoured so many gods.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Whether the story is true or not, Severus respected the gods, and the monuments built in their honour. He left them alone, even though the Hatrans angered him with their stubbornness.

Severus now crossed Mesopotamia and made an attempt on Hatra, which was not far off, but accomplished nothing; on the contrary, his siege engines were burned, many soldiers perished, and vast numbers were wounded…

…He himself made another expedition against Hatra, having first got ready a large store of food and prepared many siege engines; for he felt it was disgraceful, now that the other places had been subdued, that this one alone, lying there in their midst, should continue to resist. But he lost a vast amount of money, all his engines, except those built by Priscus, as I have stated above, and many soldiers besides. A good many were lost on foraging expeditions, as the barbarian cavalry (I mean that of the Arabians) kept assailing them everywhere in swift and violent attacks. The archery, too, of the Atreni was effective at very long range, since they hurled some of their missile by means of engines, so that they actually struck many even of Severus’ guards; for they discharged two missiles at one and the same shot and there were many hands and many bows hurling the missiles all at the same time. But they inflicted the greatest damage on their assailants when these approached the wall, and much more still after they had broken down a small portion of it; for they hurled down upon them, among things, the bituminous naphtha, of which I wrote above, and consumed the engines and all the soldiers on whom it fell. Severus observed all this from a lofty tribunal. When a portion of the outer circuit had fallen in one place and all the soldiers were eager to force their way inside the remainder, Severus checked them from doing so by ordering the signal for retreat to be clearly sounded on every side. For the place enjoyed great fame, containing as it did a vast number of offering to the Sun-god as well as vast sums of money; and he expected the Arabians to come to terms voluntarily, in order to avoid being forcibly captured and enslaved. At any rate, he allowed one day to pass; then, when no one came to him with any overtures for peace, he commanded the soldiers to assault the wall once more, though it had been built up during the night. But the Europeans, who alone of his army had the ability to do anything, were so angry that not one of them would any longer obey him, and the others, Syrians, who were compelled to make the assault in their place, were miserably destroyed. Thus Heaven, that saved the city, first caused Severus to recall the soldiers when they could have entered the place, and in turn caused the soldiers to hinder him from capturing it when he later wished to do so.

(Cassius Dio – Roman History LXXVI)

Who was living in Hatra last week, when it was ground to dust? No one.

All that was there were the silent stone monuments of history, tufts of grass and wildflower sprouting up from around the column bases, and the desert sand whirling about them, as it had for so many centuries.

Hatra columns

You may not have known of Hatra before last week, but now, I would urge you to spare a thought for its ghost and the shared history of the peoples who called it home over the ages.

Thank you for reading…

What are your thoughts on the destruction of Hatra and other sites? Let us know in the comments below…

For further reading, click HERE to see the UNESCO pages on Hatra.

Here is a video from UNESCO that will give you a short tour of this once-beautiful city: