Among the myriad horrors perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, why does the destruction of ancient buildings provoke such special outrage? Every instinct tells us that old stones are as nothing against living human beings beheaded, mutilated or sold into slavery. Nevertheless, the dynamiting of places such as Palmyra stands out as uniquely appalling. While we value ancient buildings for their beauty and their historic, religious or cultural significance, perhaps the main reason we regard them as precious is the mere fact that they have survived, against what we know are near-impossible odds. They are tiny crumbs of endurance in an emptiness left by war, disaster, neglect and the clashing aspirations of different ages.
Most disappeared buildings disappear utterly, leaving no trace or memory of their existence. For some, however, destruction is only a beginning. And some need not have existed at all. James Crawford’s survey of the ‘lives and deaths’ of twenty lost buildings begins in the Iraqi desert, hunting for traces of