The Sho kings ruled over what is now the Japanese island of Okinawa for four centuries, overseeing the powerful Ryukyu Kingdom from a grand palace known as Shuri Castle. Following the kingdom’s demise, the castle became a popular tourist attraction: Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “great monument [symbolized] the pride of the Ryukyu people.” But on Thursday, a devastating fire broke out at the castle, tearing through several buildings, including the imposing main hall.
As Daniel Victor reports for the New York Times, the blaze was reported at 2:40 a.m. and extinguished by 11 a.m. Footage from the scene shows flames engulfing the site, reducing its structures to crumbling shells.
“I am utterly in shock,” Mikiko Shiroma, mayor of Okinawa capital Naha, said to reporters. “We have lost our symbol.”
Ryo Kochi, a spokesperson for the Okinawa prefectural police, tells Agence France-Presse that the fire started at the main temple but quickly spread “to all the main structures.” Preparatory work for a festival taking place at the castle was ongoing until 1 a.m., according to the Guardian’s Justin McCurry, but it remains unclear whether the project played a role in sparking the fire.
Per the Japan Times, authorities evacuated roughly 30 nearby residents but reported no injuries. Officials have yet to determine the cause of the disaster.
The Ryukyu Kingdom emerged in the 15th century following the unification of three warring kingdoms. Its rulers’ influence extended across the Ryukyu Islands, to which Okinawa belongs, until 1879, when the islands were annexed by Japan. Shuri Castle was first constructed more than 500 years ago, blending Chinese and Japanese architectural styles—a sign of the kingdom’s active involvement in trade with China.
Over the course of its long history, the castle has been destroyed multiple times, most recently during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The site underwent major restoration work in the 1990s, as did other historic Ryukyu locations that sustained considerable damage during World War II. Reconstruction efforts were so meticulous that UNESCO granted World Heritage status to several sites on Okinawa, including Shuri Castle, in 2000.
“The ruins of the castles, on imposing elevated sites, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period,” the agency says, “while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age.”
Sprinklers had not been installed inside the reconstructed castle, although some were placed under the roof of the main building to prevent outside fires from entering the structure, the Times’ Victor reports. Inspections of the site took place twice a year, with fire drills occurring at least once per year. (January 26 is officially “Fire Prevention Day for Cultural Properties” in Japan, and drills are carried out at cultural sites throughout the country.)
In the wake of the Notre-Dame fire this past spring, Japanese officials said they would conduct emergency inspections of heritage locations and implement additional security measures, including the placement of fire extinguishers.
“I have no words,” Masahiko Shibayama, a former education minister, wrote on Twitter after the Shuri fire, per a translation by Victor. “After the Notre-Dame cathedral fire, we’ve just started reviewing fire countermeasures at cultural assets.”
Government officials have promised to do everything they can to rebuild the castle, but some of its relics may be lost forever. According to Victor, Kurayoshi Takara, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, told national broadcaster NHK that the fire destroyed many artifacts.
Takara added, “I cannot accept the reality.”