Weird History

How Famous Monuments Got Ruined 

Gordon Cameron
June 18, 2020 105.5k views 10 items

When we look at old ruins, we may be tempted to think that time steadily wears down structures in an implacable, vague way. Let enough years go by and any building will crumble to its foundations or at least show severe wear and tear.

It's not necessarily true, though; some buildings and monuments have aged extremely well (check out the pristine 1800-year-old Pantheon in Rome, for example). Others, like the Colosseum or the Sphinx, look considerably more worse for wear - but it's not just the ravages of time that partially destroyed them. People actually damaged them at specific moments in history. Sometimes we know exactly when and how it happened.

Read on if you ever wondered why the Sphinx is missing a nose, or whether the Parthenon got all messed up in WWII. Answers (and a few new questions) await!

Parthenon is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list How Famous Monuments Got Ruined
Photo:  Phanatic/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 2.0

You might be forgiven for thinking that the Parthenon got its current battle-scarred look from WWII, but no: Athens fell to the Germans and Italians in 1941 without being bombarded.

The Parthenon is so badly damaged because of an event which occurred two-and-a-half centuries earlier, on September 26, 1687. A Venetian force led by Captain-General Francesco Morosini fired an artillery shell at Ottoman forces dug in on the Acropolis. The shell was a direct hit on the 2000-year-old temple. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Ottomans had been using the Parthenon as a gunpowder depot. Massive damage ensued, forever scarring an irreplaceable cultural treasure.

Great Sphinx of Giza is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list How Famous Monuments Got Ruined
Photo:  Hamerani/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 4.0

Popular legend claims that Napoleon's gunners - whether on purpose or accidentally - shot off the Great Sphinx's nose during his 1798 campaign in Egypt.

But sketches of the Sphinx, made decades earlier, show the nose was already gone. The culprit may be a man named Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, who, according to 15th-century Arab historian al-Maqrizi, took out the nose in 1378 because he was enraged after seeing peasants making pagan offerings to the ancient statue.

A less-exciting explanation is that simple erosion did the job. But where's the fun in that?

White House is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list How Famous Monuments Got Ruined
Photo: George Munger/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Everybody knows the White House was burned by British troops during their occupation of Washington D.C. in 1814, during the War of 1812. What's less well known is that remnants of the conflagration still exist today.

The original sandstone part of the structure was not rebuilt, and many of the blocks bear visible scorch marks from that fateful day more than 200 years ago.

Hadrian's Wall is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list How Famous Monuments Got Ruined
Photo:  Carole Raddato/Flickr/CC-BY-SA 2.0

Hadrian's Wall, built in the 2nd century CE to secure the nothern frontier of the Roman Empire in the British Isles, is impressive for its length but otherwise not a terribly imposing structure these days. However, sources say it was once as much as 11 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

After the Romans left Britain, the Wall's stone was used over the centuries by medieval Britons to build new structures. The stone, already cut, provided an easy resource for a population not particularly interested in historical preservation.

There are bits of Hadrian's Wall all over the region, in buildings like St. Paul's Monastery at Jarrow and Lanercost Priory. Not until the 18th and 19th centuries did the plundering stop, thanks to the efforts of conservationists like John Clayton.