• Adrian J. Boas

On the Fine Art of Destruction

Updated: Jun 21, 2019

Remains of the keep at Montfort Castle

One of my favourites among my father's childhood stories was about an acquaintance of his who "borrowed" some dynamite from the construction site of the Shrine, the famous landmark War Memorial in Melbourne that was under construction in the early 1930s, which he then used to blow up a new and fortunately not yet occupied suburban house. According to my father, whose stories frequently had a humorous twist and often seemed a bit far-fetched (a touch of the great Australian art of leg-pulling and tall-tale telling), the boy was later seen mingling with the crowd at the ruined building, inquiring loudly of the attending firemen regarding their thoughts on who might have been responsible.

There is something about destruction that thrills us. A child's instinct teaches him to knock down a stack of play-blocks even before he develops a desire to build with them. We are not inclined to admit it, but, while most people are full of pity for those who suffer, they are also excited and fascinated when witnessing destruction - as long, of course as they are not personally involved in it. The high ratings of "breaking" news reports, as well as of films and documentaries on natural and unnatural disasters, are proof of this distressing but widespread aspect of human nature.

Destruction is often entirely negative. There is nothing that can be said in favour of the events of 9/11, not even by those who regarded the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre to be a blot on the Manhattan skyline, and indeed, not by those who committed the act for a cause for which it brought absolutely no gain. But there can be another side to destruction. It can have positive aspects that outweigh the negative ones. The destruction of the Third Reich was positive in spite of all the suffering it incorporated, and the same may perhaps be said for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although there are many who oppose the extremity of the act and dispute the necessity for such a vast death toll. When a forest is destroyed by conflagration we can only feel regret for the loss it causes to the natural environment, but bush fires are sometimes essential for the rejuvenation of forest growth, and some man-made and natural disasters have unintended beneficial side-effects (an extreme example perhaps being the Chernobyl disaster which has among its many horrific aspects some possibly positive ones regarding wildlife).

It is easier to see the benefits in examples of destruction that do not entail the loss of life. The redesign by Georges-Eugène Haussmann of Paris in the nineteenth century is good case of mainly positive destruction that can be observed by any visitor to the broad vistas, parks, monuments and leafy boulevards; albeit, a beauty achieved through the dismantling of much of medieval city.

Often, destructive acts are extremely practical, at least, for the destroyer. Such is the case of destruction carried out by Baybars, the Mamluk sultan and the man who in the 1260s set into action the systematic occupation of the crusader possessions that culminated in the dissolution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the northern crusader states in 1291. Baybars regarded the dismantling of crusader towns and fortresses as necessary in order to prevent a return and reconquest by the crusaders such as had occurred after the conquests of Saladin in the previous century. If there would be nothing to return to, he believed, the Christians would cease to try doing so. And indeed he was right. The Mamluk "scorched earth" policy dismantled most of the castles, along with the coastal towns, the ports, the infrastructure, farming and industry, and virtually all of the vibrant commercial network that had made the crusader states possible and had kept them viable. It was unfortunate that this destruction also turned the region into a desolate backwater that it would remain for several hundred years. But that was a price that apparently was regarded as worth paying.

Baybars seems to have had destruction down to a fine art. He used no dynamite and it has long puzzled me how he was able, within the space of two weeks, to dismantle the huge structures of Montfort Castle without the use of any explosive material or mechanical means. The great keep on the east of the castle stood at well over twenty metres in height and had walls seven to eight metres thick. It was constructed with extremely strong cement and lined with massive ashlars many of which were over two metres in length and weighed around two tonnes each. A second massive three-storey structure further to the west rose to over thirty metres. Baybars employed undermining to bring the walls down and conflagration to literally burn the rock to powder, and evidence for the application and effectiveness of these techniques is abundant throughout the castle. Such is the trail of huge stones all the way down the slopes of the castle hill to the valleys two hundred metres below. Imagine the scene: the clouds of dust rising above the forest, the cracking of timber and the rumble and crash of the masonry as it came down, echoing back and forth across the valleys and between the tall hills that enclosed the fortress on the north and south. It could probably have been heard all the way to the Mediterranean coast.