During the last few weeks we have seen images in the media of public monuments linked to our historical past being defaced, damaged or destroyed including a statue of Winston Churchill.

This has triggered an important debate about whether we should rewrite history and judge historical figures by the standards of today. If so, how far should we go - would removal of statues from public places be enough or should this include museums too? How should we then deal with historical figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar if we judged them by modern values, were they bloodthirsty imperialist conquerors? In this revisionist view of history, how would we view anything Greek or Roman? Should governments also impose an alternative view of history in the classrooms? What about, for example, Venice (one of the historical icons of our time) since during the Medieval era Venice was a centre for the deeply repugnant slave trade (primarily slaves from Eastern Europe) and the Italian city-state benefited significantly from it? In fact, slavery was a permanent feature in Renaissance Florence too, as it was elsewhere and had been for thousands of years.

These are, understandably, uncomfortable questions when looked at through today's lens.

Our long history of conflict itself informs us that destroying monuments of the past (rather than preserving them) has been the norm. Of course, there have also been notable exceptions.

When in 1492 the Spanish monarchs Isabella (Castile) and Ferdinand (Aragon) took Granada, this was the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian peninsula. The Moors had, in turn, conquered most of Iberia over 700 years earlier from the Visigoths (who themselves invaded from Northern Europe). There followed centuries of intense military and religious conflict known through history as the 'Reconquista' (Reconquest). So when the Catholic monarchs entered the Alhambra palace in Granada, they could have reacted in much the same way as Alexander the Great did in Persepolis (then Persia), or even Thebes, by destroying the Nasrid palace, a reminder of Moorish heritage and dominion over the peninsula, constructed by Christian slave labour. Judged by the standards of religious and cultural intolerance of the day, which led to the infamous Inquisition, it is even surprising that they didn't and we today (over 500 years later) must thank them for it.

Isabella's and Ferdinand's grandson Charles V (known as the Holy Roman Emperor) would build his own Renaissance style palace next to the Alhambra palace - the two monuments standing side by side, a symbol today that two distinct (and for much of their history, opposed) cultures and religions forged the identity not just of Spain, but perhaps too of Western civilisation. I am also reminded that after the Renaissance cathedral nave was built in the middle of the magnificent Córdoba mosque, Charles V is reported to have exclaimed that this had destroyed something unique to build something that could have been built anywhere else. Whether he did say this we cannot know for sure, but he certainly did not order the total destruction of a building that was the most visual representation of Spain's Islamic past and in one of its most important cities. This was also at a time when conflict between the Muslim East (led by the Ottoman Empire) and the Christian West (now led by Spain, who had by then become the most powerful nation in Europe) was at its highest.

Maybe the Spanish monarchs were telling their Christian subjects that in the path to nation-building they could face the future with confidence without the physical destruction of the past. Of course, the Alhambra palace and Córdoba mosque (now cathedral) are present-day UNESCO World Heritage Sites and among the most visited tourist places in Spain (if not in the world). Some people may view both sites as part of our common Western-Eastern heritage; others as an affront to religious sensitivities or just simply as monuments of historical interest.

Today, common values underpinned by cultural, religious and ethnic diversity is what should unite rather than oppose us. Whilst we cannot erase the past, the past can certainly inform the future. If as a society we learn the lessons that history teaches us, we will not repeat the same mistakes again. To face the future with confidence without feeling threatened by the inequities of the past and resorting to the destruction of historical structures is also an attribute of civilisation. Or perhaps that is what allows a civilised society to flourish.


The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.