Anyone ever heard of Dan Cruickshank? He is a Historian. A bit more than that, an architectural historian: very interested in and a leading figure in the Building Conservation movement. He still appears regularly on TV and last Saturday he came to South Shields to give a lecture, which he illustrated with images from his new book, A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings.
Interesting and erudite; his thing was whether it is important, or not to reinstate buildings which had been destroyed. He started off with Bamiyan, where I have been and then Saqqara, where I have been, them Palmyra, where I have never been. His image of Bamiyan was post-destruction of the Buddhas whereas when I went, the demolition had not yet taken place. He said that the local Hazara people didn’t seem to be bothered by the destruction; he said the tourist dollars had never filtered down to them. Then he talked about Palmyra and became rather emotional about that. He had several before and after pictures and to be quite honest, I could get quite emotional myself about the demolition of Palmyra. He said and I had not heard this before that it was done very professionally; it wasn’t just a few cowboys with some gelignite. So somebody or several somebodies who knew what they were doing were involved. Then he showed an image of Warsaw in 1947, almost entirely obliterated by the Germans when they retreated from the City in 1945: 85% of the buildings annihilated in a horrendous act of cultural vandalism. Then he let us see what has happened since. Completely rebuilt and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. He had images of other Historic buildings that had been faithfully rebuilt, several Russian Royal palaces which was kind of surprising to me. I’ve never visited Russia and would not have expected the government there to sanction the millions of Roubles it must have cost to reconstruct these emblems of privilege that their Revolution was all about.
Cruickshank then said that he thought the Bamiyan Buddhas would never be reconstructed. The Afghan government didn’t have the money and the Hazaras didn’t care anyway. He thought the reason that Warsaw was rebuilt was because of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole nation; the City and its buildings were a testament to Polish Culture, which up until then had lasted for millennia. The loss of the buildings represented the loss of their culture; the loss of their country . . . as the German High Command must have known when they ordered the destruction of the City [at huge cost of course, the time and resources spent on destroying Warsaw could have been more usefully deployed elsewhere].
So, this was his message. If the people want it, it will happen, even if it takes decades or even generations. Do the Syrians and Iraqis want Palmyra rebuilt? If yes, then it will happen. If not then it will end up inert like Bamiyan, a forgotten byway on the great Silk Route. Maybe the Chinese will take it on particularly now that they are recreating their own version of the Silk Route.
I think the message of Saqqara was that even ruins have a value.