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Sunday, 3 January 2016





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Among the world’s most war-ravaged

Architectural devastation is a familiar byproduct of conflict, but the effects on a city can extend far beyond simply bricks and mortar.

After World War II, Warsaw’s Old Town was meticulously rebuilt using many of the original bricks (David Levene/ Guardian)

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 vandalized, smashed and set fire to the tombs of many Muslim saints.

Systematic disruption

Despite the carnage, by the end of the war, European cities had become adept at restoring transportation and essential services in a matter of days. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities that suffered the biggest single bomb blasts the world has ever known, water and power were restored within a week. Electric power was available in most of Hiroshima by 7 August 1945, the day after the first atom bomb was dropped. The railways resumed running the following day.

London has the reputation for being Britain’s most war-damaged city, a phenomenon fuelled by the ‘London Can Take It’ propaganda pumped out during World War II. Indeed, many people now appear to believe the Blitz was largely a phenomenon of the capital city alone.

During the eight months in which the Luftwaffe inflicted Blitzkrieg on Britain, London endured 57 consecutive nights of raids. But, despite losing more than one million houses and much of its dockland, London’s war damage pales in comparison to other ravaged cities in Britain. Coventry lost its entire city centre in one night, and by the end of the war, 95% of Hull’s housing stock was destroyed or badly damaged. Apparently, Luftwaffe pilots crossing the North Sea often could not find their targets, but could always locate Hull.

The rebuilding of London has been so sustained since 1945 that today there are more memorials to the World Wars in London than evidence of war damage. But the amount of damage that Britain as a whole suffered during humanity’s most destructive war never reached anything like that which happened across Europe and a number of Asian cities.

Hiroshima’s loss

Hiroshima lost more than 60,000 of its 90,000 buildings, all destroyed or severely damaged by one bomb. In comparison, Nagasaki – though blasted by a bigger bomb on 9 August 1945 (21,000 tonnes of TNT to Hiroshima’s 15,000) – lost 19,400 of its 52,000 buildings. This anomaly was partly the result of hillsides in Nagasaki sheltering some parts of the city, whereas Hiroshima is virtually flat.

In Tokyo, 286,358 buildings and homes –approximately 26% of the city – were incinerated over the three years that the Japanese capital was bombed. ‘Operation Meeting house’ (9–10 March 1945) has been estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history, and the Japanese emperor’s tour of the damage in Tokyo began his personal involvement in the decision to surrender.

By comparison, the German capital Berlin was hit by 67,607 tonnes of TNT over five years of bombing. This, coupled with intense street fighting in the closing stages of the war, destroyed 80% of the city centre.

But Berlin was a spread-out city, built mostly of stone and brick. As a result, Britain’s RAF Bomber Command failed to inflict the damage intended because the concentration of flammable buildings was not as great as it was in the German city of Dresden. That crowded, baroque city, with its high tally of wooden buildings, was incinerated on the night of 13 February 1944 in a man-made firestorm that destroyed 90% of the city centre.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, the city that suffered the most war damage – in terms of the percentage of buildings destroyed – is the German city of Jülich. Built on a crossing of the River Rur in what is now the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Jülich was considered one of the main obstacles to the Allies’ plan to occupy the Rhineland.

The Allies bombed the city on 16 November 1944 and destroyed 97% of it. The remaining 3% was smashed during three months of fighting that ended on 23 February 1945 when the Allies finally managed to cross the Rur.

After the World War II, it was initially planned that Jülich be abandoned and its ruins – which in aerial photography greatly resembled the centre of Hiroshima – be retained as a war memorial. A new city was to be built nearby. However, in 1949, the rebuilding of Jülich began, using a street plan that had been drawn up in the 1930s and which modified the original Renaissance plan. Essential work was completed in 1956 and today the city shows hardly any signs of being war-damaged, although craters have been retained in the citadel and nearby woods.

While World War II is without doubt the conflict that spawned the most war-damaged cities the world has ever known, the American Civil War was responsible for the first wholesale civic destruction of modern times. In 1865, General Sherman decided that his victorious Union Army could not leave the important rail hub of Atlanta to be re-garrisoned by the Confederates once he moved on to the sea, so he ordered its obliteration.


Sherman’s troops concentrated on the industrial centre of the city, so although that was eliminated, ‘only’ 40% of the entire city was burned down. By the grimmest 20th Century standards that may not sound so much, but at that time it was a shockingly ruthless act. The rebuilding of Atlanta took seven years and today, its seal still depicts a phoenix rising from flames.

Abandonment is perhaps the ultimate proof of how badly a city is war-damaged, and over the centuries, many have been left to decay after major conflicts.

In Georgia in 713 AD, the capital Armazi was so wrecked by Arab forces under Marwan ibn Muhammad that it was abandoned and never rebuilt. In 1221, Afghanistan’s Red City was home to 3,000 people until Ghengis Khan destroyed it.

In India, in 1565, Vijayanagara was probably the second largest city in the world, until it was captured and destroyed by Muslim armies. It has lain abandoned ever since. In Thailand, the old capital of Ayutthaya was captured and destroyed by the Burmese Army in 1767 and never rebuilt.

Abandonment has been less common in Europe, partly because there has been less empty ground on which to begin anew, and partly because most European cities were founded on uniquely advantageous river crossings. When it came time to relocate Jülich – for example – no other location proved quite as good.

The strategic position of Ypres, which held back the German Army for four years during World War I, meant that it was immediately rebuilt despite being 99% in ruins at the end of the war. The repair work was nearing completion when the Wermacht returned in 1940 and took the city with comparatively little damage.

Nevertheless, a few European cities have been abandoned in recent times after living through war. In Spain, following the Battle of Belchite in 1937, Francisco Franco declared that the remains of the city should be kept intact as a war memorial. The surviving inhabitants were relocated to Belchite Nuevo, on the far side of the old town.

Similarly, in France, after the massacre of almost the entire civilian population of Oradour-sur-Glane in Limousin on 10 June 1944, a decision was made to keep the ruins as a memorial.

Some cities do bounce back and laugh – albeit bitterly – in the face of history. The damage done to Warsaw in World War II was unique in that after the failed uprising of August 1944, Adolf Hitler personally ordered that the entire city be razed to the ground. Specialist Verbrennungs und Vernichtungskommando (‘Burning and Destruction Detachments’) were diverted from fighting the Red Army to detonate and incinerate the city. Some 85 % of the greater city was destroyed, while Old Warsaw and the Royal Castle were reduced to their foundations.

Warsaw’s recovery

Remarkably, the Poles set about rebuilding the centre of Warsaw exactly as it had looked before the war. They went to extraordinary lengths, studying 18th Century views by Canaletto and Marcello Bacciarelli, and even travelling to Blenheim Palace to copy the great door lock, which was known to be a duplicate of the one at the Royal Castle. The process took nearly 30 years, topped off with the opening of a reconstruction of the castle in 1984.

In contrast, not only was Berlin blasted apart by 363 air raids and smashed by 14 days of street fighting during World War II, it was also badly reconstructed after the war: divided by a wall and ‘killing zone’ that can still be traced through the city today.

Whereas Warsaw removed every possible sign of damage, Berlin retained the marks of many shrapnel blasts partly because money was scarce, and partly because guilt led many Germans to feel that Berlin’s role in the war should never be forgotten. Berlin was not just damaged beyond visual recognition. Its spirit was traumatized. Today, it remains a city uniquely haunted by all the terrible things done to it, and all the terrible things it engendered.

– Guardian.UK



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