Cultural treasures across Asia face multiple threats, from war to natural disasters, vandalism to banditry, writes Justin Huggler. Sometimes even Unesco World Heritage status cannot save them

Just five years ago, you could still go out to Palmyra and watch the sun rise over a Roman city in the Syrian desert, its ruins astonishingly preserved after 2,000 years. You could wander the souqs of Aleppo, the largest covered market in the world, where Indian spices and Iranian silk were sold for five centuries until the streets burned in 2012. You could look up at the slender minaret of the Ummayad Mosque, which stood for almost 1,000 years until it fell in 2013. All that is gone now, lost forever amid the greater human suffering of Syria’s civil war.

It is the wanton destruction of Palmyra by the madmen of ISIS that makes international headlines, just as the Taliban’s demolition of the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan did in 2001. But the truth is that, barely noticed by the outside world, similar priceless treasures are being lost every day in Asia – and not just to war.

Asia’s heritage is probably disappearing faster now that at any other time in history. From Turkey to China, the continent’s monuments are dying of neglect, government indifference, looting and vandalism.

In recent years, meetings of Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, founded by the United Nations to preserve such treasures, have been dominated by emergency appeals to protect Asia’s monuments as Iraq, Syria and Yemen slid into civil war. But last year an Asian site was inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage ‘In Danger’ list for altogether different reasons.

At times, the threat to heritage can seem insignificant amid the tragedy of war

The city of Shakhrisyabz, on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, may not be a household name, but it is a place that shook the world. Formerly known as Kesh, it is where Timur was born, and where he lies in a white marble tomb. Known in the West as Tamburlaine, he would go on to conquer Delhi and Damascus and found an empire that covered much of Asia. His summer palace still dominates the city; an inscription on it reads, ‘If you doubt our power, look at our buildings.’

ANCIENT RUIN: The 11th century minaret of the Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo (l), which was destroyed by shellfire in April 2013 (r)
ANCIENT RUIN: The 11th century minaret of the Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo (l), which was destroyed by shellfire in April 2013 (r)

But Unesco delivered shocking news in July last year. Almost a third of the old city, which had survived untouched for centuries, has been demolished. It was not a casualty of war or unscrupulous property developers. The historic houses were cleared away by the Uzbek government to make way for new hotels and tourist facilities. ‘It’s not the palace or the mausoleum alone that was inscribed as a world heritage site. It’s the entire historic centre, and the setting of these buildings in the city. This is a really tragic loss,’ says Dr Feng Jing, the head of Unesco’s Asia-Pacific unit.

Dr Jing sees three major threats to heritage in Asia: ‘War, natural disasters – and development.’ From across the continent come similar stories of monuments wrecked by government mismanagement.

In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has left a trail of vandalism

Last year it emerged that a 700-year-old stretch of the Great Wall of China had been severely damaged in bungled restoration work. Guard towers were demolished and the rest of the wall was encased in concrete to protect it from the elements. A stretch once called the ‘most beautiful, wild Great Wall’ is now said to resemble an elevated cycling path.

The head of the provincial government’s own antiquities office described the work as ‘an ugly repair job’; the vice-chairman of China’s Great Wall Studies Society called it ‘ridiculous’.

In Turkey, the government is preparing to destroy an entire ancient town in the name of progress. Hasankeyf, on the Tigris River, is believed to have been continuously inhabited for as much as 10,000 years. Soon, however, that history will end as it is submerged by a giant dam project. The Turkish government says the monuments will be moved, but since Hasankeyf’s most valuable treasures are cave churches, homes and Islamic tombs carved from the living rock, that will be impossible. Archaeologists say at most 20 per cent can be saved.

Hasankeyf’s death follows the loss of heritage to another Turkish dam in 2000. Archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Zeugma found a treasure trove of mosaics as the dam was nearing completion. They pleaded with the authorities to postpone the flooding, but were granted no more than a week. While volunteers from around the world worked frantically to recover what they could, many more mosaics are feared to be lost beneath the floodwaters.

The risk from development is not always so simple or easy to prevent. For several years, India’s Taj Mahal has been changing colour, its once ethereal white turning yellow. The cause is acid rain, a result of the severe air pollution that now affects vast areas of Asia — and experts say the only way to stop the damage is to reduce the pollution.

Taj Mahal Agra India
The Taj Mahal

The same thing is happening to China’s 1,200-year-old giant seated Buddha of Leshan. The Buddha’s nose has turned black from acid rain and curls have fallen from the statue’s hair. The authorities cleaned the statue in 2001 and again in 2007, but the discolouring keeps returning. Pollution is an even more serious threat to the Longmen Grottos, also in China, a series of caves filled with more than 100,000 Buddhist sculptures. Acid rain is eating away at the rock, and the grottos are in danger of collapsing.

CASUALTY OF MODERNITY: The ancient city of Shakhrisyabz
CASUALTY OF MODERNITY: The ancient city of Shakhrisyabz

The Chinese authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the sites, ordering all nearby factories and kilns to be permanently shut down, and banning cars. But it hasn’t worked. Even such strict measures cannot save the monuments from pollution generated by factories further afield, and the damage is continuing.

Sometimes the danger is beyond man’s control. Many of the priceless Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley were destroyed in last year’s earthquake, including the 1,000-year-old temple that gave Kathmandu its name. At other times, the loss could be all too easily prevented.

Antiquities from the 8,000-year-old settlement of Mehrgarh in Pakistan were found on sale in Rome in 2014

One of the oldest and most famous of Old Delhi’s havelis collapsed earlier in 2016 from sheer neglect. The havelis, traditional townhouses, are a Delhi icon. The one that collapsed, in Kucha Pati Ram, featured in the 2011 Bollywood movie Tanu Weds Manu. It was the venue for regular events commemorating the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, and was one of the last havelis still standing that dated back to the Mughal period. In 2007, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage listed 738 of Old Delhi’s havelis for protection. Nothing was done. By 2014, only 554 were still standing.

Yet government protection can be a double-edged sword, as the case of a 1,000-year-old Chola temple in south India makes clear. The temple, in Manambadi village near Kumbakonam, was scheduled to be demolished in 2013 to make way for a new highway. After a campaign by conservationists, the Tamil Nadu state government saved the temple by making it a protected monument.

But conservationists returning to the site in 2016 were horrified to find it being taken apart. Entire pillars and columns were missing. When they contacted the state government, they were told the temple had been ‘temporarily dismantled’ for restoration purposes – despite a Madras High Court ruling in 2015 banning large-scale renovation of ancient temples.

BATTLE SCARRED: Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader Castle in Syria, has suffered damage from modern air strikes and artillery fire
BATTLE SCARRED: Crac des Chevaliers, a Crusader Castle in Syria, has suffered damage from modern air strikes and artillery fire

At times, the threat to heritage can seem insignificant amid the tragedy of war. There were accusations that the West was more interested in buildings than people amid the global outrage over Palmyra. But Ahmed Sayyad, Yemen’s ambassador to Unesco, delivered an eloquent answer to such criticisms in 2015 when he made an impassioned plea for his country’s monuments to be protected as it fell into civil war.

‘Sana’a, Aden, Taez, Zabid, Saa’da and Marib are all my cities and they are all your cities,’ Sayyad said. ‘They are the past and present for all Yemenis. They are the past and present for every Arab, every Muslim. They are the past and present for every man and woman, whatever their religion or their identity. For this reason, the work to stop the destruction and to preserve is the duty of every Yemeni, every Arab, every Muslim and every man and woman.’

Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, is said to be home to the oldest skyscrapers in the world, stone tower-houses as much as seven storeys high that stood for 1,000 years – until 2015, when Saudi Arabia entered the war and reduced several to rubble in air strikes. Unesco has warned the 16th-century walled city of Shibam, known as the ‘Manhattan of the desert’, could be at risk too.

The toll from the Middle East’s wars on Asia’s heritage in recent years is shocking. In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State has left a trail of vandalism. Most of Doura Europos, site of the oldest Christian church in the world, has been lost. So has much of Nineveh and the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and the tomb of the Muslim prophet Yunus, the Biblical Jonah.

Other sites have been damaged in fighting. Crac des Chevaliers, once described by TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’, is now scarred by modern air strikes and artillery fire, many of its decorative elements destroyed.

Treasures looted from Syria and Iraq – often by the same Islamic State that claims to despise them – have turned up for sale on the black market in the West, but it is not only in war zones that looting is a risk. Antiquities from one of the oldest sites of human habitation in South Asia, the 8,000-year-old settlement of Mehrgarh in Pakistan, were found on sale in Rome in 2014.

China’s giant seated Buddha of Leshan
China’s giant seated Buddha of Leshan

In Gujarat in India, an entire architectural tradition is disappearing to looters. Traditional houses built by the Bohra community of Shia Muslim traders, a unique fusion of Hindu, Muslim and European styles, are being torn down so their elaborate wooden decorations can be sold in the West’s antique markets, robbing India of irreplaceable heritage.

Another danger is encroachment, as entire monuments are taken over and turned into illegal shops and houses. In Delhi in 2012, the courts ordered the removal of an illegal village of 60,000 people from Tughluqabad Fort.

In Karnataka, encroachment has prevented Bijapur, hailed as the ‘Agra of the south’, from being recognised as a World Heritage Site. The Indian government refused to put the city forward because a shocking 53 of its 80 heritage sites have been taken over by encroachers. Some have even been partially demolished. Bijapur finally made Unesco’s tentative list in 2014, after the Karnataka state government vowed to tackle the problem.

Georgia’s Bagrati cathedral before and after reconstruction
Georgia’s Bagrati cathedral before and after reconstruction

The lure of World Heritage status can help preserve monuments, but it is no guarantee of protection, as the case of Georgia’s Bagrati cathedral made painfully clear. The 1,000-year-old building was stunningly preserved until 2009, when Georgia’s then president, Mikheil Saakashvili, decided to rebuild it. Saakashvili ignored warnings it would irretrievably damage the site, even when Unesco took the drastic step of adding Bagrati to its list of heritage sites in danger. Today the cathedral is a Disneyfied version of itself.

For Dr Jing, Unesco’s greatest success in Asia has come at the site of an earlier loss: the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, where the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas in 2001. While the Buddhas were the most famous of the valley’s treasures, others remain, including smaller Buddha statues and caves with 1,500-year-old murals believed to be the oldest oil paintings in the world.

According to Dr Jing, Unesco’s success in protecting Bamiyan’s remaining treasures has come not from issuing pronouncements from afar, or working with the government alone, but from engaging the local community. Today Bamiyan is the most stable area in Afghanistan – generally considered safer than the capital, Kabul, and the only part of the country with anything approaching a fledgling tourist industry.

‘When we went into Bamiyan in 2002, we approached everyone and involved them in the project,’ says Dr Jing. ‘That’s why the project has been a success: the local people feel they have a stake in it.’

Justin Huggler was Istanbul correspondent of The Independent from 1998 to 2000, and reported on the Gezi Park protests in 2013. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Iraq. His first novel, The Burden of the Desert, set in occupied Baghdad, was published by Short Books in 2014.

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