Archive for January, 2016

Goodbye 2015, Hello 2016

2015 was coming closer to its end and it was time to reflect upon its main events.  Sunday Review of The New York Times had a special supplement titled “Year in Pictures.” The center spread showed a small Turkish boat arriving in Greece. It was overloaded with migrants  and a few of them were literally in the water. BBC.com had posted a picture of another group of migrants wherein a baby was being protected by a man, while another wearing a ‘USA Emergency Relief’ shirt was coming to help. The caption read “This year has seen an unprecedented number of migrants arriving in Europe. With the International Organization for Migration saying the figure rose above a million.”

Thousands have already perished from that million and added to them are massive deaths through other means: ‘Saudi Beheadings Soars in 2015” reported Dawn; The Calbuco volcano had erupted in Puerto Varas, Chile; an earthquake in Nepal had triggered an avalanche from Mount Everest. Amid these disasters and deaths, both man-made and natural, were a very few cheerful moments. Most touching of these was captured by Huffington Post, wherein a South Korean woman, after decades of separation, was meeting her relative in North Korea. As it is, happy moments do not last longer, in this case lasting only for few hours. I can imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing a wonderful story on this emotionally charged meeting.

Amidst all these grim pictures came a book with soothing images of Kythera, a peaceful island in Greece. The book was gifted to me by my dear friend Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory who has co-authored it with her husband Tim Gregory, both are archaeologists devoted to digging the ancient past of Greece. In their short visit to Columbus, I had two long meetings with them, but the conversation this time, apart from archaeology, also revolved around the refugee influx, the failure of European Union, the economic crisis in Greece. Reaching Greece is no fun, many had drowned on the way, Aylan Kurdi, the toddler was one of them. The picture of his body, washed ashore on the Turkish beach, had shaken the World.

I returned to the New York Times. On one of the pages, through the fog of dust, I could spot a few men desperately digging the debris of an archaeological site, they were not digging out the ancient skeletal remains, but the freshly buried survivors gasping for life. The caption of the picture explained it was a “UNESCO World Heritage Site that was obliterated by an explosion.”

I remember the 1980s when I wrote articles in the Dawn about the preservation of Moen jo Daro. It was about its protection against the natural foes- the salt borne air and water logging; today the site faces yet another threat-vandalism. In fact, more and more archaeological monuments, since the beginning of the 21st century, are facing man made dangers. It began with the destruction of the gigantic Buddha statues carved in the mountain walls of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Memories of Dalai Lama’s appeal to save these symbols of peace are still fresh in my mind.  By 2010 the danger had spilled over to Pakistan, hence, when I came across the website of CyArk, a nonprofit organization who had come to the  rescue of the ancient sites through 3D digital preservation, I wrote a blog  on it. It was an attempt to draw Pakistani government’s attention to preserve Moen jo Daro digitally.CyArk has now taken the challenge of preserving 500 sites and I have already submitted a letter to nominate Moen jo Daro in the CyArk 500 Initiative!

2015 will also be known for the destruction of the ancient monuments and the theft and illegal trade of cultural relics  . The crime has evolved and is no more limited to mere destruction, it is now notorious for  selling antiques, according to one estimate the stolen antiquities can fetch millions of dollars.  Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, states that this theft has led Iraq and Syria to suffer “cultural cleansing.” Sale of priceless figurines and carved cylinder seals has been reported in the Press. These are  being sold for “prices varying from a few dollars to up to several thousands.” Do the sellers even know how valuable these relics are? Or the significant role that these tiny seals played in the reconstruction of the larger picture of the ancient past. They are the evidence that have helped archaeologists to establish the ancient trade links between the Indus and the Mesopotamian civilizations. The discovery of the Indus type seals from a temple belonging to the period of Sargon of Akkad had established the chronology of the Indus civilization. It is through these seals that we know Indus was contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. Each seal whether Mesopotamian or Indus is carved with images that can tell us a small part of the story of our past. Their loss is therefore, a loss of a great source of prehistory.

But while not much could be done to stop the destruction and looting of the sites, some preventive measures such as the one of reviving the “Monuments Men,” can be helpful. Thanks to  George Clooney  for popularizing these dedicated saviors of world heritage through his movie. Incidentally, the first Monument Man was good old Sir Mortimer Wheeler who saved Roman Heritage sites in Libya from the destruction of the Second World War. In the 1950s he had also excavated Moen jo Daro and much of the site is known through his books.

CyArk’s collaboration with ICOMOS  announced in June at the 39th meeting of the UNESCO’ s World Heritage Committee  is yet another innovative measure designed for the emergency documentation of high risk cultural heritage.  The idea of this collaborative program  is that “while many heritage sites and museums are located in inhospitable conflict zones, there are many sites in the surrounding regions that are accessible and can be rapidly and inexpensively digitally recorded now as a preventive measure lest they, too, be targeted for destruction…The data can also provide detailed documentation of the sites and objects which can aide in countering illicit antiquities trafficking.”

As far as the actual recovery of the relics is concerned there have been a few instances that give some courage. In March Mark V. Vlasic a strong advocate of cultural preservation covered one of these. “Looted from Iraq, the ancient carving of Assyrian King Sargon II was to fetch $1-2 million dollars on the black market. Instead, thanks to the good work of the U.S. Departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, the treasure – and about 64 other looted antiquities – were returned last week to the people of Iraq. The repatriation was a small ray of hope, in contrast to the archeological crisis that now faces culturally-rich conflict zones in the Middle East.”

By mid-2015 the problem had magnified and drawn global attention which forced United Nations to unanimously adopt a resolution to combat this cultural threat. Soon after the Resolution the director general of UNESCO  warned that  “deliberate destruction” of cultural heritage is a war crime according to the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. Finally, it was in October 2015 that the first case of this specific war crime was brought before the Court.

And let’s not forget that at the end of the year even Pope Francis expressed his concern on the issue. In his Christmas message he slammed the destruction of cultural heritage.

2015 has not been a peaceful year. It will be remembered also as the year that disturbed the dead long buried in the archaeological sites, let’s hope that 2016 brings peace to the living and the dead.



Read Full Post »