Violence Against Knowledge

Aside from the obvious and horrific loss of human life that’s intrinsic to warfare, one of the most awful and frequent victims of humanity’s habit for violence is knowledge: for as long as war has been around, libraries, archives, universities, and other repositories of information have been destroyed. Usually, this occurs through collateral damage, but more often than not, it’s a deliberate act on the part of conquerors.

The following image from Global Data Vault, a business that provides data protection, gives a somber idea of only a handful of the many instances in which human progress has been stifled by the destruction of so much knowledge. In addition to listing the raw number of books, scrolls, or other mediums destroyed, it calculates the data based on gigabytes, which helps give a good idea as to the scale of the loss in a modern context (this was determined from the fact that the Amazon Kindle 3 can store about 3,500 books per 4GB).

The summary of this historical tragedy is as follows:

Throughout the ages, it has happened again and again. Whole libraries of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bark codexes and paper books have been destroyed by natural disasters, fire and war. The Royal Library of Alexandria, where the accumulated knowledge of ancient scientists, physicians and philosophers was stored, was destroyed by fire. The destruction likely started during Caesar’s Civil War when Julius Caesar purposefully set his own ships ablaze, and many scholars believe the library suffered numerous other tragic fires throughout history. More than 120,000 volumes written by classical Greek and Roman authors were lost when fire destroyed the library at Constantinople in 473A.D.. Virtually all of the codexes recording the history, beliefs and sciences of the Maya were intentionally destroyed by the Spanish as works of the devil. In World War II libraries containing millions of books were destroyed as strategic acts of war.

During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s, the 17,000 volumes of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo were directly targeted, along with the National Museum and National Library. The Iraq War saw the destruction of more than 400,000 books in the Iraq National Library, including priceless records of the world’s first urban, literate civilization. On 9/11, 21 libraries inside the World Trade Center, the records of 3,000 to 4,000 active cases before the Securities and Exchange Commission, files belonging to the CIA and EEOC, U.S. trade documents dating back to the 1840s, the offices and archives of Helen Keller International, $100,000,000 in privately owned artworks, thousands of photo negatives of JFK and more than 900,000 archaeological artifacts were all lost.*

Note once again that these are just some of the many high-profile cases of houses of information being destroyed. Other well-known instances for which there is no reliable date include The Library of Antioch in 363B.C., The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in 600 B.C., Imperial Library of Ctesiphon in  754 A.D., The Library at Nalanda University in 1193 A.D., and the House of Wisdom in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq, 1258 A.D.

One can only wonder how different the world would be had so much knowledge not been periodically destroyed over so many generations. It’s just another example of how our barbaric nature can often get the best of human progress.

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