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.

Advertisements

Travel Photos IV: Delphi, Greece

I love Greece. Maybe it’s because when I was a kid I was really nuts about Greek mythology. Maybe it’s because I went on vacation there after months seeing nothing but Arabian and Egyptian deserts, so I was in desperate need of someplace a little cooler and greener. Maybe it’s because Greece was the first place I ever went on vacation with the nice lady who would, a while later, agree to marry me. Or maybe it’s a little of everything. Anyway, I love Greece.

These pictures are from Delphi, home of the world-famous Oracle where the priestess of Apollo was said to predict the future (after a nice donation, of course), and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were staying in Athens with no thought to leaving the city until our planned visit to the island of Santorini (Thira) later in our trip, but then I saw an ad for a bus tour to Delphi and we booked it the next day. Aside from the chance to walk in the ruins of a place that was once one of the focal points of Greek religion and culture, it turns out that Delphi is just really gorgeous. It was lightly raining the whole time we were there, but after you’ve spent enough time living around deserts you realize that rain is uncomfortable, but it’s also pretty irreplaceable as far as getting some damn plants to grow.  The site itself just hints at the grandeur that must have existed there once; earthquakes have taken their toll over the millenia. Also not helping preservation: in medieval times the village (known then as Kastri) was located right amidst the ruins, and residents reused the ruins and their materials to build and repair their houses. It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century that residents were convinced to relocate to the modern town of Delphi, just west of the ruins, and then only after another earthquake had wrecked the town and they were offered free new homes if they agreed to move off of the site.

Anyway, on with the photos:

Delphi scenery

Delphi scenery

More Delphi scenery

More Delphi scenery

Delphi: scenery and ruins

Delphi: scenery and ruins

Still more lovely Delphi scenery

Still more lovely Delphi scenery

The main building on the site would have been the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle’s predictions were requested and received. Only the outline of the structure remains today, but you get a sense of its size at least:

Temple of Apollo, from the rear

Temple of Apollo, from the rear

Remaining columns of the Temple of Apollo

Remaining columns of the Temple of Apollo

Delphi is also home to a stadium and an amphitheater; the stadium is estimated to have seated 6500 and the theater is set up so that the audience would have an amazing view of the whole temple complex as the backdrop to whatever performance was happening:

Delphi's stadium

Delphi’s stadium

Delphi's theater, from the top row of seats

Delphi’s theater, from the top row of seats

Because of time considerations, or the weather, or a bad tour guide (I don’t know, and didn’t know enough to complain at the time), we did not get close to the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, but Wikipedia has a good picture of it here. Actually they might have been doing restoration or maintenance on the site; this was just before the 2004 Summer Olympics and a lot of stuff (including the national museum, ARGH) was unavailable because it was having work done in advance of the Games. This is why I also have no good photos of the Treasury of Athens, built after the Battle of Marathon and mostly restored to its former glory now, but surrounded by ugly (but necessary!) scaffolding when we were there. You can see the scaffolding (on the far left), as well as the Sybil Rock upon which the priestess sat as she offered her predictions, in this photo:

The Sybil Rock, that large natural boulder in the center-left with the ivy growing beneath it, amidst some other ruins.

The Sybil Rock, that large natural boulder in the center-left with the ivy growing beneath it, amidst some other ruins (back part of the Temple of Apollo on the right).