While I was lecturing on cultural heritage protection in southern Afghanistan in 2011, I spent nearly a week at Ghazni, midway between Kabul and Kandahar, which served as the capital of the Ghaznavid empire ca. 1000 A.D.
The site was filled with historic monuments, both Buddhist and
Islamic, and it had witnessed considerable armed conflict during the period of the Russian occupation in the 1980s. One of the most striking features of the landscape that surrounds the ancient citadel is a field of broken and partially dismembered Russian tanks that had been strewn along the highway in a way that captivated a visitor’s attention (fig. 1).
Monuments of Triumph
By C. Brian Rose, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
When I mentioned these to one of the Afghan soldiers who was traveling with us, he said that they had intended these abandoned tanks as part of an Afghan victory monument intended to highlight the decimation of their Russian opponents. What he hadn’t realized was that this kind of design for a war memorial was a very old one, reaching at least as far back as the Greeks and Romans. When the rulers of Pergamon, in what is now northwestern Turkey, wanted to highlight their victory over Galatian Celts in the early second century B.C., they carved a relief that showed the discarded weapons of the enemy in a large pile and set it up over the entrance to their sanctuary of Athena (fig. 2).
Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, followed the same model after his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra (31 B.C.), and so did the emperor Trajan after his triumph over the Dacians, or ancient Romanians, in the early second century A.D. (fig. 3).
Saddam Hussein adopted a somewhat similar design in Baghdad when he built a monument to commemorate Iraq’s alleged victory in the Iran-Iraq wars of the 1980s. Two identical triumphal arches were constructed at either end of a parade route, each of which consists of a pair of hands, modeled directly on those of Saddam Hussein, that hold swords crossing over the route’s central axis. The only
features that allude directly to the 1980s war lie at the base of the colossal bronze hands, where a series of nets are filled with thousands of captured Iranian helmets (fig. 4). Although the inspiration for this feature reportedly came from the Stele of the Vultures, a triumphal monument made in southern Iraq ca. 2400 B.C., the conception is not far from what one would have found in Greek and Roman triumphal monuments. The technology used in war may change over time, but the commemoration of the battles often stays the same.
Figure 1. Broken Russian tanks in Afghanistan
Figure 2. Relief of discarded weapons from Sanctuaryof Athena at Pergamon. Berlin Pergamon Museum
Figure 3. Trajan's Column celebrating victory over Dacians. Rome
Figure 4. War monument with captured Iranian helmets. Baghdad.
For more detail and other comparisons. see: C.B. Rose 2012, "Designing Monuments to War and Tragedy," In 65 Yafl›nda Ahmet Coflkun Özgünel’e Arma¤an / Festschrift für Ahmet Coflkun Özgünel zum 65. Geburtstag, pp. 315-325