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Bamiyan to Babylon: A Heritage Lost

July 10, 2009

Loss of lives and property in conflict zones capture the headlines. It is understandable that killings must be reported and as far as possible, avoided. War is ugly and leads to pressures that man seldom realizes he is facing. Apart from the loss of lives it is also found that conflicts are a threat to some of the most important heritage sites that are a reminder of our past. The loss of such treasures are seldom reported and taken account of. Even if they are reported, they are limited to an addendum in the top story which is invariably about the loss of lives and territory and the strategic gains or losses.

War and conflicts have been an integral part of human history. It is also true that during such times the priority is to save lives and gain territory. From times immemorial war was a time of pillage and loot. Timur and Genghis Khan ran over the whole of Central Asia. When they descended on any city, they razed it to the ground. That they plundered whatever they could find of value goes without saying. Here in India we had the Turks, the Afghans, the Mughals and others who came to India, killed and looted, pillaged and went back with booties on the back of donkeys, horses and camels. Many stayed back and became a part of the landscape.

History the world over is replete with instances of war when the victor destroyed all that came his way. The World War II was no exception. The difference was that Hitler, being an artist himself knew the value of art and got back artifacts’ and art works from the countries he entered. He knew their value and understood the importance of keeping our heritage alive. But many important art works and antiques were lost during the war and many have still not been recovered. The war in Cambodia damaged a good part of the Angkor Vat. Indian archaeologists along with their western counterparts have worked for decades trying to restore the ancient temple. More recently, the Gulf War I had had a devastating impact on the archaeological treasures of Iraq: Writes McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute, Chicago:

Bombs dropped into the ziggurat enclosure area at Ur created large craters, about ten meters in diameter and four meters deep, and one strafing run by a plane resulted in four hundred holes in one side of the ziggurat. Use of Tell al-Lahm, to the southeast of Ur, as a position for US troops was accompanied by machine-excavation of several large holes. Probably other tells suffered similar damage, but lacking a systematic study of the war’s effect on antiquities, as requested by UNESCO but denied by the U. N. Security Council, we cannot say for certain. Some standing buildings in Baghdad, Basra, and elsewhere were damaged by shrapnel, and many buildings received structural damage as the result of the continued shaking of the ground during the period of bombing. (Culture without Context; Issue I, Autumn, 1997)

Iraq is an archaeological treasure house and what has happened in Iraq vis-a-vis the loss of priceless antiques and archaeological sites is something that needs to be seriously looked at. In Afghanistan too many an ancient sites have been damaged. The Bamiyan Buddha was the most prominent one. The tragedy was that the criminal Taliban were firing rockets and shooting mortar on the Bodhisattva! A team of UNESCO experts are trying to restore the giant statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan since 2002. But the damage has been done. The latest news is that ancient Babylon has also seen terrible damage during the ongoing crisis in Iraq. The American forces had their camps near the 4000 years old site in Babylon. They dug trenches and American tanks were moving close to the site. European archaeologists carted away the Ishtar Gate, the city’s symbol, now in Berlin’s Pergamon museum. The Louvre in Paris got the giant stone slab on which King Hammurabi’s 4,000-year-old code of law was written. Reports Kim Gamel of the Associated Press:

“Iraq’s U.S.-led invaders inflicted serious damage on Babylon, driving heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, experts for UNESCO said Thursday. “The use of Babylon as a military base was a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site,” said a report which the U.N. cultural agency presented in Paris. UNESCO officials stressed that the damage didn’t begin with the U.S. military’s arrival nor fully end after it left. Archaeologists took away some of Babylon’s finest treasures in the 19th century, Saddam Hussein embellished the site with his own structures, and looters returned when the Americans handed the site back to the Iraqis 21 months after the March 2003 invasion. Now Babylon is the object of turf war between newly empowered Iraqi officials. At the national level, Iraq’s state antiquities office, focused on conservation, is up against officials of the province surrounding Babylon who want to attract tourists. They have already provoked concern by leveling a section of the site to create a picnic area. UNESCO aims to make the 4,000-year-old city fit for the coveted title of World Heritage site, and will work to enforce international conventions on the protection of historic sites “so that what happened to Babylon can’t ever happen again,” said Francoise Riviere, the agency’s undersecretary general for culture.

Archaeologist John Curtis of the British Museum, who inspected the site just after it was returned to Iraqi control, said it was too soon to assess the cost of restoring and fully protecting the site. Several initiatives to save Babylon have been announced in recent years, but have made little headway. Now, with the decline of violence in Iraq, hopes are pinned on a two-year, $700,000 project financed by the U.S. State Department to develop a program aimed at balancing tourism and archaeology at Babylon. The Future of Babylon Project is a partnership of the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit organization, and Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. A WMF team of experts toured the site last month and came away surprised at the extent of conservation problems to be tackled — some of them cases of good intentions gone bad, such as preserving walls with thick plaster. “On some walls, the plaster was too thick and fell off, pulling down part of the wall with it,” Gina Haney, a WMF expert on the tour, said in Baghdad. Much of the damage to the site, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad, is man-made.”

I may add here that the World Monuments Fund (site www.wmf.org), a New York based non-profit organization is doing a commendable job in identifying such endangered sites the world over and keeping a watch on the condition and upkeep of these vitally important heritage that future generations may never know if we fail to preserve them. I guess this one aspect of war is seldom discussed or pondered upon. The ongoing G20 summit that rightly gave importance to climate change and carbon emission should have also discussed the way forward for humanity as far as preservation of our heritage is concerned. Man can do little if there is a natural disaster and if some of these heritage sites are damaged thus. What we can do as human beings of the 21st century is to try and ensure that such pillage and destruction does not occur because of human error. We have a responsibility towards our future generations not only to give a green and clean planet but also show them where we have come from and what is the way ahead. Our heritage is our yesteryears that are treasures that define us as human beings. Must we not try and preserve whatever we can?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Ashish permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:00 am

    Good Article…..makes sense…

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