heritage preservation

These old postage stamps tell a sad story of how war has destroyed our shared cultural heritage

Postage stamps from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen depict heritage sites that have been destroyed or at risk of ruin from armed conflict.

The appreciation of postage stamp designs transcends the mere aesthetic since their designs can be used to enhance our understanding about a range of contemporary concerns relating to heritage. This is best exemplified with the postage stamps of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen depicting heritage sites destroyed, or at risk of destruction from armed conflict.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

The July 16, 1972 nine afghanis stamp depicts the Graeco-Bactrian temple amongst the ancient ruins at Ai-Khanoum, situated in present day Takhar province. Initially believed to have been the Alexandria on the Oxus, established after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the region, it is now known to date to around 280 BC during the rule of King Antiochus I. French and Russian archaeologists worked on the site between 1964 and 1978 but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the excavations to be abandoned. Tragically, Ai-Khanoum was heavily looted and much of it destroyed during the ensuing conflict.

The three afghanis stamp from the same issue depicts the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda, close to the Khyber Pass in Kandahar province. Over 20,000 Buddhist sculptures fusing Buddhist and Hellenic artistic traditions from the second or first century BC were excavated at the site. Much of this site was destroyed in the Afghan civil wars between 1989 and 1986, which followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Stamps depicting the Graeco-Bactrian temple and the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda. Photo credit: British Library
Stamps depicting the Graeco-Bactrian temple and the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda. Photo credit: British Library

The March 21, 1951 20 poul and September 27, 1985 10 afghanis stamps both depict the largest of the Bamiyam Buddhas, situated in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. Part of the historic silk road trade route linking India and China, Bamiyan was an important Buddhist holy site. Statues of the Buddha were carved out of the sandstone cliffs during the sixth century. The largest, at 55 metres tall, was once renowned as the tallest Buddhist statue in the world. In March 2001, the Taliban’s military and spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Their destruction immediately sparked outrage and condemnation within the international community. In an interview, Mullah Mohammed Omar stated that he had ordered the destruction of the Buddhas as an act of protest and outrage against the vast sums of money being offered to conserve such ancient sites whilst millions of Afghans faced real privation. Nevertheless the act of destruction was widely regarded by the United Nations, Unesco and others to be an act of iconoclasm by the Taliban.

Stamps depicting the Bamiyan Buddhas. Photo credit: British Library
Stamps depicting the Bamiyan Buddhas. Photo credit: British Library

Syrian Arab Republic

The Syrian Arab Republic’s October 10, 1968 Ancient Monuments issue also includes a number of stamps depicting heritage sites destroyed or at risk from conflict. The 15p stamp depicts the Monastery of St Simeon the Stylite, established during the fifth century northwest of Aleppo. The monastery is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine churches in the world and, consequently, the church and village were designated a world heritage site by Unesco in 2011. Initial fears for the site’s safety were raised during the Syrian conflict whilst it was under the control of Islamic State forces who have garnered widespread notoriety for their practice of destroying Islamic, Christian and other historical sites. Although safely recaptured by Kurdish forces in 2015, the monastery was heavily damaged by a possible air strike on May 12, 2016.

The 50p stamp from the same issue depicts the Roman Theatre at Bosra in the district of Dar’a in southwestern Syria. Carved out of black basalt in the second century CE, the theatre has a seating capacity of 15,000 people, making it one of the largest and best preserved ancient roman theatres in the world. In March 2015, video footage was released showing rebel and Syrian government forces battling amongst the ruins of the theatre, which resulted in the destruction of statues and shattered the stone work.

Stamp depicting the Monastery of St Simeon the Stylite and the Roman Theatre at Bosra. Photo credit: British Library
Stamp depicting the Monastery of St Simeon the Stylite and the Roman Theatre at Bosra. Photo credit: British Library

The second Ancient Monuments series of the Syrian Arab Republic, released on January 20, 1969, is also significant. The 25p stamp depicts the Baal-Shamin temple in Palmyra, which was consecrated in 32 AD for worshipers of the Mesopotamian god Baal. Under Byzantine rule, the temple was converted into a Christian church before being converted into a mosque in 1132. The mosque remained active until the 1920s when Franco-Syrian archaeological missions removed the post-classical additions to the site as part of a restoration process. The ruins were amongst the best preserved in Palmyra until August 2015, when Islamic State forces searching for hidden gold used explosives to demolish the site.

The 16p stamp from the issue depicts the Shrine of St John the Baptist, housed in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Built on the site of an old Christian church in 634 CE, the mosque is one of the oldest and largest in the world, widely regarded as Islam’s fourth holiest site. It houses the Shrine of St John the Baptist, a religious figure of importance to both Christian and Muslim believers. The tomb of the great Muslim leader Saladin in also situated within an adjoining garden. For centuries the site has been a place where both Christians and Muslims have worshipped alongside one another peacefully. Although it remains undamaged, fears for the site’s safety were raised in November 2013, after a mortar round landed perilously close to the mosque, killing several people.

Finally, the 60p stamp depicts the Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria. Although the current building was constructed in the 20th century, the mosque has been located at this site since 1265 CE. It is dedicated to and holds the mausoleum of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a military commander who led the Islamic conquest of Syria in the seventh century, putting an end to Byzantine rule in the region. During the Syrian conflict, the mosque was held by rebel groups and was shelled on a number of occasions in 2013, causing significant damage to the building and tomb.

Stamp depicting the Baal-Shamin temple, Shrine of St John the Baptist and Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque. Photo credit: British Library
Stamp depicting the Baal-Shamin temple, Shrine of St John the Baptist and Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque. Photo credit: British Library

Republic of Iraq

A notable set of stamps depicting cultural sites affected by the various conflicts in Iraq is the Republic of Iraq December 1, 1967 International Tourist Year series. The 15 fils stamp depicts the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. Established in 1172, the mosque was named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of Mosul and Aleppo who ordered its construction. Having undergone significant development over the centuries, the mosque was made famous by its leaning cylindrical minaret nicknamed “al-Hadba”, or the hunchback, which was covered with elaborate Iranian style brickwork and surmounted with a white dome. In July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance as Islamic State leader at the mosque and announced the establishment of a caliphate. Sadly in July 2017, Islamic State forces used explosives to demolish the site during their retreat from Mosul.

The 80 fils stamp depicts the Minaret of Samarra, originally part of the Great Mosque of Samarra, constructed between 848 and 851 CE. Though the mosque itself was destroyed in 1278 during the Mongol invasion of Iraq, its outer wall and iconic minaret known as the Malwiya Tower survived. Constructed of sandstone, the minaret is a spiralling cone 52 metres high and 33 metres wide with a spiral ramp. During the Iraq War, American troops used the top of the minaret as a lookout position, making the site a military target. Consequently in April 2005, insurgent activity resulted in the top of the minaret sustaining bomb damage.

Stamps showing the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and the Minaret of Samarra. Photo credit: British Library
Stamps showing the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and the Minaret of Samarra. Photo credit: British Library

Yemen People’s Democratic Republic

The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic’s December 15, 1998 International Campaign for the Preservation of Old Sana’a Issue, 75 fils stamp depicts the city’s skyline. Yemen’s largest city is recognised as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and contains many architectural wonders, including the Great Mosque of Sana’a, the ancient clay walls and the Yemen Gate, all of which are over a 1,000 years old. Declared a world heritage site by the United Nations in 1986, many of the city’s important historical sites, including the 9th century mosque of the prophet Shuaibi, are being destroyed or damaged by military action in the ongoing conflict in the country, largely a result of aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia with the backing of other nations.

Stamps depicting the cities of Sana'a and Shibam. Photo credit: British Library
Stamps depicting the cities of Sana'a and Shibam. Photo credit: British Library

The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic August 28, 1985 Unesco World Heritage Site 50 fils issue depicts the iconic skyline of Shibam, another of Yemen’s cultural sites at risk from military conflict. The city is famous for possessing some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, made from mud brick, many of which rise to between five and 11 storey’s high. Although the town has existed for almost two thousand years, many of these houses originated in the 16th century although they have been continuously rebuilt. These historic buildings have been at risk since 2009 when the site was targeted by Al Qaeda, and remain so due to the ongoing conflict in the country. Sadly, the destruction and damage sustained to many important heritage sites throughout these regions is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is a sobering thought that many of the cultural heritage sites depicted on postage stamps from these nations might not be with us for much longer.

Richard Scott Morel is curator of Philatelic Collections, British Library.

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.

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