WASHINGTON — In 356 B.C., the pride of the gleaming city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey was the massive Temple of Artemis, measuring 300 feet in length and 150 feet wide with more than 100 massive stone columns supporting a gargantuan roof.
But an act of infamy carried out by a young man named Herostratus reduced this great structure to rubble.
He succeeded in torching the temple, which was left in ruins. Historians have described Herostratus as a madman who saw destroying this landmark of antiquity as his only chance for immortal fame. His act was so horrendous that the citizens of Ephesus issued a decree that merely mentioning the name of Herostratus would carry the death penalty.
Throughout history, great landmarks have been targets for people or nations carrying out acts that today might be called terrorism. The Sept. 11 aerial attacks that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon outside Washington represent the latest in a long line of assaults on famed man-made creations.
In March, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, seeking to create a strict Islamic state, shelled and dynamited into rubble two of the most famed sculptures in Buddhism, which they deemed "offensive to Islam." The targets were the world's largest sculptures of the Buddha — carved from the sandstone cliffs of Bamiyan in the third and fourth centuries.
One of the Buddhas towered 175 feet and the other 120 feet. By way of comparison, the Statue of Liberty stands 151 feet tall. The Buddhas, once gilded in glimmering gold, had survived the centuries, even escaping the destructive wrath of Mongol leader Genghis Khan.
"Surely, every time a culture confronts another one that it doesn't understand, part of its initial instincts are to obliterate the other completely. It's kind of a human instinct that goes back into the dimness of time," said Lowry Burgess, professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Many stellar landmarks — temples, churches, mosques, palaces and others — have been lost to the ravages of time or destroyed in all-out warfare. But others have been selected for destruction — much like the twin towers and the Pentagon — for their symbolic meaning.
"There are some interesting parallels from antiquity to the tragic events of the 11th," added James Higginbotham, classical archeology professor at Bowdoin College in Maine.
History is brimming with examples.
In 1009 A.D., the Egyptian caliph al-Hakim ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — originally built in 330 A.D. by the mother of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. The church was said to be located at the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and burial. On al-Hakim's orders, the tomb of Christ was hacked down to bedrock.
In 1521, a band of Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes razed the Great Temple and the rest of the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital Tenochitlan, one of the world's most populous cities at the time and site of modern-day Mexico City.
In 70 A.D., Roman legions under the command of Titus subdued a Jewish uprising in Jerusalem and demolished the second Temple of Jerusalem. Soldiers carried off the temple's valuables. A relief carving on a triumphal arch still standing in Rome depicts the booty, including the temple's Menorah.