Five threats to cultural and historic heritage in 2013

Full confession: I kind of hate these year-end recap stories that crop up this time every year. I guess I object to the idea that the end of a year is some real event rather than a superficial cultural marker, and I feel like we’d all be better served to keep pushing on rather than acting as though something is “ending.” That said, I do understand how important it is to stop and take stock of what’s happened every once in a while, and if the end of a year inspires people to do that, so be it. In the spirit of the season, here are five stories reflecting the threats and challenges the world’s cultural and historic heritage has faced in 2013:

5. Looting and black market antiquities dealing

Presumably looting could make a list like this one any year, but the turmoil in places like Egypt and Syria (keep reading) made this an especially difficult year for curtailing the illegal trade in antiquities. Apart from those two places, which we will deal with separately, looting was also rampant in places like Macedonia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. Billions of dollars are being made illegally each year via the antiquities trade. Even in the United States, the issue of art looted by the Nazis and brought to American museums after the war is still relevant.

4. Egypt’s instability puts artifacts, sites at risk

It was a year of incredible change and turmoil in Egypt, with the elected but increasingly undemocratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being forced from power by the Egyptian armed forces in July. Dueling protests, both for and against Morsi and then, after the coup, for and against the new military government caused chaos in the streets of major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and threatened Egypt’s priceless stores of antiquities. In August the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was ransacked and looted. The museum has recovered some of its collection, but the search for the rest of its pieces is ongoing. Despite the chaos, and the promise of further chaos if Egypt is unable to transition from its current repressive military government to a stable democratic system, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was probably a good thing for Egypt’s antiquities. The Brotherhood is another offshoot of the same kind of ultra-conservative Islam that produces those Salafi groups that have damaged or destroyed precious historical sites throughout the Islamic World, and Morsi’s government showed little interest in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage from looters and developers, prompting UNESCO to threaten to remove several Egyptian sites from its World Heritage list. Perhaps the biggest loss, and risk of further loss, has been in regards to Egypt’s Coptic churches, which have been targeted by angry pro-Brotherhood protesters on religious grounds.

3. The pressures of development

All over the world we saw sites threatened and destroyed by unchecked commercial and industrial development. A 2300-year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was obliterated to make gravel. A 4000 year old pyramid at El Paraiso, Peru, was destroyed by developers. The threat of unchecked mineral mining has put ancient sites across Afghanistan at grave risk. Ancient burial mounds, some more than 4000 years old, are being destroyed by development in Bahrain. Prehistoric sites are being demolished by developers in the Bujang Valley in Malaysia. Developers plowed up a 2000 year old necropolis in Cyrene, Libya.  Sites from the earliest days of Islam continue to be destroyed in Saudi Arabia. America is not immune to this trend, as American Indian sites are being wiped out for things as frivolous as new Walmart warehouses.

2. Natural disasters destroy sites in the Philippines

In October, 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated heritage sites in the Philippine province of Bohol, in particular reducing several centuries-old churches to rubble. Two of these churches, the 17th century Loboc Church and the 18th century Baclayon Church, had been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status before they were destroyed. The devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, only a month later, compounded the challenge of recovering these sites and also damaged several other heritage churches all over the country.

1. Syria

If the civil war in Syria ended tomorrow the loss of Syria’s rich cultural heritage would still be incalculable, but the war continues and continues to destroy sites and artifacts that had survived for centuries despite doomed efforts to stave off the destruction. Entire sites have been heavily damaged if not destroyed in the fighting. The city of Aleppo and its millenia of cultural heritage is all but destroyed, and the Syrian government continues to batter it. The direct impacts of the conflict aside, the chaos created by the war has led to rampant illicit excavation and looting. The loss of Syria’s heritage is not just tragic from the standpoint of lost history and culture, but it is deeply harmful to the chances of Syrian society recovering from the devastation of the war, whenever it does end:

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

Travel Photos VI: Muscat, Oman

I wrote about my trip to Oman a while back but only covered the day trip I took to the town of Salalah in the southern part of the country. I actually spent the bulk of my time in and around Oman’s capital, the Gulf city of Muscat. Oman is really a hidden gem as far as I’m concerned. It’s a relatively sleepy place (Muscat is its largest city and clocks in at somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000 people) but boasts some spectacular scenery, plenty of opportunities to relax and soak up the sun if that’s your game, and a fair amount of interesting historical sites if that’s more your speed. The tourist scene is significant (and maybe much increased since I was there a decade ago) but you shouldn’t encounter crowds anywhere near what you’d find in other places in the region (Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, etc.). Muscat either takes its name from the Arabic word masqat, which can mean “the place where something falls” or “birthplace,” or from an Old Persian root meaning “strong smelling”–presumably the same Indo-European root from which we get “musk” today. Given the importance of both seafaring (making it a place where anchors fall, get it?) and the incense trade to Muscat’s history, these are both reasonable theories in my humble opinion.

Muscat itself is right on the Gulf of Oman, which is itself an inlet off of the Arabian Sea, and is right outside the Strait of Hormuz that marks the entrance into the Persian/Arabian (don’t want to offend anybody!) Gulf and its harbor offers some spectacular views. The city was controlled by the Portuguese from the early 16th century through the middle of the 17th century, and in order to defend the harbor from Ottoman incursions they built a number of fortifications on high points all throughout the city, so you can be walking along, look up, and there’s a centuries-old fort overhead, just sitting there. Very view of these places are open to tourists but they’re a very cool addition to the scenery.

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Fort al-Jalali, one of the Portuguese fortifications that actually is open to the public

Fort al-Jalali, one of the Portuguese fortifications that actually is open to the public

Another major Portuguese fort

Another major Portuguese fort

Scenery just outside of Muscat

Scenery just outside of Muscat

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, built in 2001, is massive and quite impressive, probably the nicest looking mosque I saw in the Gulf:

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There are several interesting sites in the area around Muscat as well. Maybe the most important of these is the Bahla Fort, an extremely well-preserved 13th-14th century fortress built by the tribe that controlled the region at the time and was openly resistant to caliphal, then Mongolian, rule. Bahla was a center of resistance to the caliphate going back centuries before this fort was built, and the fort preserves both a pre-gunpowder style of fortification as well as traditional Arabian water infrastructure. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see any of that infrastructure because, after falling into complete disrepair, Bahla became a UNESCO Heritage Site in the late 1980s and was closed to the public until just last year while undergoing extensive renovation. I did see the outside, complete with scaffolding, though:

Bahla Fort, from a distance

Bahla Fort, from a distance

Bahla, up close

Bahla, up close

There was more great scenery around Bahla to take in:

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The Nakhal Fort, about 75 miles east of Muscat, is another centuries-old fortification and has been much better maintained than Bahla; today it houses a museum that I think is primarily focused on gunpowder weapons. I mention Nakhal for anybody thinking about visiting Oman, but I didn’t make it there myself. It was either a day trip there or a day trip to Salalah and Salalah won out.

Another historical site near Muscat is Nizwa, which used to be the capital of inland Oman and sits on the caravan route from the interior of Oman to the port at Muscat, so as you might expect it’s known for its historic marketplace and fortress:

Ruins of the Nizwa Suq, or market; the modern Suq is still there and probably the most important market in Oman outside of Muscat

Ruins of the Nizwa Suq, or market; the modern Suq is still there and probably the most important market in Oman outside of Muscat

Nizwa fortress, built in 1668

Nizwa fortress, built in 1668

The courtyard of Nizwa Fort

The courtyard of Nizwa Fort

The view from the top of the tower of Nizwa Fort

The view from the top of the tower of Nizwa Fort