Lost Treasures is an engaging book, accessible thanks to chapters from six to fifteen pages that provide facts clearly and concisely to the reader. It does spurn academic language while being of scholarly quality; and each subject is condensed, leaving only the big picture. Complex issues are clearly laid out.
Facts and figures are given to help the reader comprehend not only the causes, but the extent of destruction.
The loss of mankind's heritage is quantified :
- Rome had 424 temples and 28 libraries in the 4th century AD, the largest containing 20,000 papyrus rolls.
Yet the first library of the Middle Ages in Italy contained only 120 books, and of the entire Roman Empire, the Pantheon is the only major temple nearly intact.
- Up to 97% of Greek written memory is lost, as well as about 80% of Roman history.
All of the remaining ancient Greek wisdom amounts to 3,773,000 words, about 60 modern books.
Compared to Alexandria's library, even in its lowest estimate of 40,000 papyrus rolls, the surviving words would only fill about 300 rolls, or 0,0075% of the library.
The sole “time capsule” of Antiquity, Pompeii and Herculaneum, opens a window to a world where a single villa's library contained 1,800 rolls, mostly on one subject, Epicurean philosophy, in part describing the world as being made out of atoms.
- In Egypt, a civilisation that lasted over 3,000 years, only four Pharaohs' tombs survived intact; and the complete oblivion of ancient Egyptian knowledge was only narrowly avoided by the survival of bilingual texts carved in stone by Greek Pharaohs.
- In the New World, Diego de Landa's auto da fé caused the near destruction of Maya history, and only four Maya books survive today.
The quest for El Dorado might have been fruitless, the Conquista nevertheless delivered great amounts of treasure : 180 tons of solid gold and 16,000 tons of silver arrived in Spain in the first century of the discovery of America.
- The reader travels around the world, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Russian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China till our time.
Lost Treasures also acts as a condensed read of the history of civilisation and art, giving readers elements to grasp how civilisations fall.
The past cannot be changed, but we certainly can learn from it. Understanding how the memory of past civilisations fell into oblivion and realising how much it impacts the present would hopefully help prevent further destruction.
Lost Treasures does not only list and quantifies destruction up to the Bamiyan Buddhas and Iraq and Syria, it also lists the responses of the Muslim world, the efforts made to avoid a tragic repeat of the destruction of monuments and mankind's memory.
Tales of Nazi destruction also serve as an illustration of the power of propaganda, as do the chapter on culture destruction and thought reform by Stalin and Mao.
Despite being about destruction, Lost Treasures remains an optimistic read, for not only allowing the reader to appreciate how rare are the surviving monuments and artworks, but by listing the efforts to avoid more tragedies, the religious edicts against destruction, and the solution : education and tolerance.
To let the facts speak for themselves, Lost Treasures directly uses the words of the actors of the past, extensively embedding quotes into each chapter.
“Send me some of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.”- Hernán Cortés asking gold from Emperor Moctezuma's envoys
“We found a great number of books in these letters, and since they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we burned them all, which they took most grievously, and which gave them great pain.”- Diego de Landa, about the books of the Maya he had burnt in an auto da fé
“We threw the huge Talmudic library out of the building and carried the books to the market place where we set fire to them. The fire lasted twenty hours. The Lublin Jews assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.”- Nazis about burning Jewish religious books in Poland
One quote can be applied to the majority of the monuments of Antiquity, the words of the architect who led the Acropolis restoration :- Dr. Manolis Korres, chief architect of the Acropolis Restoration Project.
“many later generations managed to transform one hundred thousand tonnes of sculpture and hewn marble, that had once belonged to the buildings of antiquity, into ten million shapeless pieces of one million times less value than the works destroyed in the process.”
“And at the next Carnival when it was the custom in the city to make little huts of faggots and other kinds of wood on the public squares, according to ancient use, to burn these, with amorous dances, in which men and women, joining hands, danced round these fires, singing certain airs the people were so inflamed by Fra Girolamo, and he wrought upon them so strongly with his words, that on that day they brought to the place a vast quantity of nude figures, both in painting and in sculpture, many by the hand of excellent masters, and likewise books, lutes, and volumes of songs, which was a most grievous loss, particularly for painting.”- the Bonfire of the Vanities during Carnival, Florence 1497
“The historical record is like the night sky: we see a few stars and group them into mythic constellations. But what is chiefly visible is the darkness.”- Roy Porter, about the medical history of mankind, but applicable to the loss of literature from Greece and Rome.