Deadly wildfires and extreme temperatures are threatening cultural heritage in parts of Italy, Greece, and the Mediterranean. Over the past several weeks, summer heat waves combined with an absence of rain have resulted in a string of fierce fires across southern Europe and northern Africa, displacing residents, driving away tourists, destroying neighborhoods, and laying waste to forests.
In addition to the rising death toll, the flames are endangering historic cultural sites in the region. In the last several years, record heat over the summer has besieged the European continent, in particular its southern countries, in addition to northern Africa.
“Many cultural and historical sites have been affected and the extent of the damages is still being assessed,” Ornella Trovato of Sicily’s Museum of Contemporary Art told Hyperallergic in an email. Soaring temperatures and successive blazes have especially devastated the Italian island, whose green hilly landscapes have been transformed into charred wastelands.
In the Sicilian Archaeological Park of Segesta, located in the northwest corner of Sicily, wildfires drew close to an ancient Doric temple that historians estimate dates back to 420 BCE. And in Palermo, the church of San Benedetto il Moro at the historic convent Santa Maria di Gesù was engulfed in flames on July 25 as winds drew a forest fire from Monte Grifone, a mountain southeast of the city. According to local reports, numerous artworks and architecture dating back hundreds of years were destroyed, including a 14th-century wooden statue of the Madonna and a painting by Baroque artist Pietro Novelli. The roof of the convent’s church also collapsed. Local initiatives to rebuild the cultural space are already underway.
Located in Catania’s historical sector, Sicily’s Museum of Contemporary Art has been shielded from the flames that have destroyed much of the areas surrounding the city. However, the fires have brought on other challenges for the institution and other supposedly safe parts of the island, in the form of days-long electrical outages and water shortages, Trovato explained.
Reduced tourism has also hurt the museum, as tourists account for most of the art institution’s visitors, she added.
The fires have resulted in hundreds of canceled trips to the island, which relies heavily on the busy tourism season for its local economy. The blazes have also disrupted travel for tourists and locals alike, as wildfires around the perimeter of Palermo, the island’s capital, forced the city’s airport to briefly close in late July, Euronews reported. Damage from an accidental fire earlier this month at Catania Airport caused additional complications, diverting more flights to other cities on the island like Trapani and Comiso.
Wildfires are raging in other parts of the world due to climate change. A record-breaking fire season has displaced Indigenous communities across Canada and left over 47,000 square miles of the country’s land scorched, according to reporting by the New York Times. On Monday, there were still 645 fires out of control, per the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre website. In early June, smoke from the Canadian blazes forced several arts institutions in New York to temporarily close due to air pollution concerns. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that the first three weeks of July were the hottest on record.