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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Deconstructing a Civilisation

Medieval ruin on the south shore of Akko (adapted from Dainis Matisons from Mezares, Latvia, EU [CC BY 2.0 (])

When I was growing up in Melbourne there would occasionally appear on a fence or building façade a large sign informing anyone who might have an interest, that this particular building was about to be demolished. Almost always the signs had the same short text – “Whelan the Wrecker is Here”. Echoing the popular Australian graffiti text "Foo was here" that, accompanied by a bald face peering over a wall, was introduced by the Australian troops during the First World War and became popular among subsequent generations of school children, there was something upbeat about it. One almost felt like saying "What fun!", or something of the sort. The demolition company founded by James Paul Whelan in the 1890s was said to be responsible for 98 percent of demolition work carried out in the city between the two World Wars and continued to be active until the early 1990s. It gained a reputation through its signs with their text that ingeniously personified the destroyer (rather like the names given to destructive storm systems) and created a sort of Australian anti-hero - Whelan the Wrecker - not quite as prestigious as some other famous Australians like the bushranger, Ned Kelly or the luckless explorers, Burke and Wills, but a hero or sorts nonetheless, sweeping the dust off Melbourne’s aging streets, clearing out the old to make way for the new. In the process (and not unlike those personified storms), Whelan dismantled numerous landmark structures in the city, many of the grand old nineteenth century public buildings constructed after the Victorian gold rush and during the building boom of the 1890s, and many of the now treasured terrace houses with their distinctive and beautiful iron lacework.

The medieval Levant had its own "Whelans", and the scale of their destruction was vastly greater and more consequential. The destructive campaign initiated by the Mamluk sultan al-Malik al-Zahir Rukn al-Din Baibars al-Bunduqdari, and continued by later sultans, resulted in the dismantling of most of the coastal cities, all but a handful of the fortresses and much of the industrial and agricultural infrastructure of the former crusader states, culminating in May 1291 with the complete dismantling of Acre, the greatest port city in the Levant. It is remarkable to consider the extent of the destruction in Acre; of the hundreds of multi-storey houses, the tall, thick-walled towers, the Gothic churches, the grand palaces and massive citadels and fortifications, the covered streets and town squares. The aim was to prevent a return of the Europeans by leaving nothing for them to return to, and it is perhaps only the importance of Jerusalem to Islam that prevented it from suffering a similar fate to Acre. And indeed this "scorched earth" policy did the job, perhaps a little more effectively that even Baibars had intended. With the removal of cities and the urban, inter-urban and rural infrastructure, the region became as unattractive to Muslim rulers as to Christians. There are few comparative examples where so many entire cities, almost all of which had existed and thrived through numerous civilisations and over hundreds, even thousands of years prior to the two centuries of Frankish rule, were entirely destroyed. Commercial activity moved away, and even local trade was replaced by barter, farming descended into its most primitive form, industry became almost non-existent and of only the lowest, household technology. Towns were replaced by squalid, jerry-built dwellings scattered among the ruins, roads becoming hardly recognisable and often unpassable tracks, fields were reduced to wasteland, aqueducts collapsed, sand dunes and malarial swamps spread along the coastal plain and an educated urban population was replaced by a primitive, poverty-stricken peasantry. Syria-Palestine became a backwater and would remain so for over seven centuries.

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