Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Special Blog’ Category

I will be missing some of my favorite movies screened at the Film Forum in New York City. Beginning from October 27 through November 16, I am particularly interested in the vintage movies of Henry Fonda and James Stewart. New York Times rightly describes these as  “a companion series’ to the book “Hank and Jim” by Scot Eyman.  the book is about the friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart which  began during the Depression era and lasted for the rest of their lives.  Apart from enjoying the comforts of watching their movies in a theater, the audience will also have a chance to buy the book. What a novel way to present the movies of the two giants of Hollywood.

The first day started with the screening of back-to-back Hitchcock movies: The “Rope”starring James Stewart and the “Wrong Man” Henry Fonda. It is always hard to compare Hitchcock’s thrillers and that is the case here, both the movies are excellent, and both, Hank and Jim have done justice to their roles.

Another favorite that I will be missing is the “12 Angry Men” showing today. Being a fan of court room dramas, last week I incidentally watched on Netflix “Tokyo Trial.” For those who have watched the “Judgement at Nuremberg” must watch this to complete the story of the second World War trials. “12 Angry Men,” however, is about a young man suspected of murder. His fate is in the hands of a jury comprised of  “twelve angry men” Henry Fonda, comes to rescue him in the role of the most sane member of that jury.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Who’s Kazuo Ishiguro?  It’s not only the Japanese but many others around the world who might be asking this question. In the early 1990’s even I had no idea who he was; I just picked the book because of its beguiling title “The Remains of the Day.” It was an engaging story of a British butler told by a Japanese author. Apart from several praiseworthy aspects of the book , the best that I liked were the  well-researched details of the duties  of a butler who takes pride in his perfection of setting the table. Through such details Ishiguro builds the story to bring in smoothly a piece of history; an important dinner where the butler too plays ‘his role’ along with the international dignitaries including Herr von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister.  There is much more in the book that gives an insight of Britain’s social and political life in the second quarter of the twentieth century and the change that comes with the Americanization. Ishiguro shows all this through the little World of the Darlington Hall where change comes through the change of masters-from British to an American.

Ishiguro has written several books but my favorite will always be “The Remains of the Day” and, as he receives the Nobel Prize, I am planning to reread it. Those who do not have the patience of reading can see its film version, a beautiful Merchant Ivory Production starring appropriately the British actors Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins along with the all-American Christopher Reeve.

Read Full Post »

There was a preacher who, whenever he mounted a pulpit, forthwith would offer up a prayer for highwaymen.

“Lord,” he would cry, lifting up his hands, “visit with compassion the wicked, those who do corruption, the insolent sinners, all who make mock of the righteous, all who are infidels at heart, all who dwell in convents.”

Not one prayer he would say for the pure; his prayers were only for the depraved. Such conduct is certainly unusual, people protested. “It is hardly generous to pray for erring men.”

“Such are the sorts of men from whom I have derived most good,” he answered. “That is why I have singled them out for my prayers. They have wrought such depravity, oppression, injustice that they have violently flung me out of evil into good. Every time I turned my face towards this lower world, they would receive me with cuffs and blows; so I would take refuge from their buffering in the other side. It was wolves who brought me back always to the right road. Since they contrived the means of my salvation, it is incumbent on me, my clever friends, to pray for them.”

Every enemy you have is in reality your cure, your sovereign alchemy, your benefactor, your well-wisher.

(Jalal-ud-Din Rumi . A thirteenth century mystic poet and a great storyteller)

Read Full Post »

“Prince Mikasa, an imperial Army Veteran who turned pacifist…died in Tokyo on Thursday. He was 100.” On October 27th I came across this obituary in the New York Times. Until then all I knew of Prince Takahito Mikasa was that he had once visited Pakistan to participate in an International Symposium on Moen jo Daro and that he was a brother of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. However, now I am curious to see what bought him to Moen jo Daro.

I looked at his picture printed with the obituary, attired and armed in the traditional way, he looked boyish. “Prince Mikasa around 1930” the year printed in the label confirmed my guess.  It also revealed that he was the first Japanese royal to become a professor, and to get a driver’s license. I quickly glanced through the news: born on December 2nd, 1915, he was the fifth in line to the throne and was the uncle of present emperor, Akihito. The obituary any way was short and even looked shorter considering the stature of the late Prince.  I searched more about him on the internet. As expected, many pictures appeared;  in one, the young prince was dancing with his wife Princess Yuriko at a party,  in another both were riding on elephants in Sri Lanka. Fast forward, the couple grew old, the first picture to draw my attention showed them sitting on a bench sharing an album; in another both were standing and viewing the imperial costumes at a Museum, and finally the one from the last years of Prince’s life- he seated in a wheel chair, she holding on to her walker.

Prince Mikasa, served as a junior officer in the imperial army during its notorious invasion of Nanking, but he came to be more known for his views against the war.  He was a strong critic of Japanese aggression in China and after the World War Two had asked his brother to abdicate the throne.  In his Asokan moment he even thought of giving up his own title to live an ordinary life. He did not succeed in achieving the status of a commoner but he had the freedom to immerse in the vast ocean of knowledge to understand human history. He was tempted to reach the remnants of ancient past  for a glimpse of the beginnings of the modern world.

In 1954, Prince Mikasa established the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan. He taught at the Tokyo University, learnt Hebrew and  translated “a handbook of biblical archaeology.” Prince Mikasa’s major interest was the East and  in 1968 he also  became an honorary visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.  In one of his interviews he explained what attracted him to ancient  East, “The reason I studied Oriental archaeology was to seek out from the ruins of the Middle East and the Near East, the origin of mankind and civilization, the outlines of man and state, and to think over what man should be.”  He had found solace in history and antiquity and that is what had bought him to Moen jo Daro. I looked into the proceedings of the International Symposium on Moen jo Daro which were published as a book with the cover design printed with a collage of Indus seals. The Symposium was held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the excavations of the site.  The year was 1973, I was still a novice in archaeology.But today as I am reading the address of Prince Mikasa on Moen jo Daro I find it very relevant and  must share his views in his own words. Below is an excerpt from his address:

“May I be permitted to tell you about my own impressions?  When I received the invitation from the Government of Pakistan last year, my heart was filled with joy. As a student of the ancient history of the Middle East, I never forget the name of Moenjodaro, the most ancient and most elaborately planned and constructed city in this world, which has reminded Sir Mortimer Wheeler of New York’s Broadway Street. After going around the sites of the city, I realized how poor and how superficial was the knowledge obtained from books and photographs. Each block of bricks, rectangular or triangular, laid vertically or horizontally, the wonderful system of drainage in straight or loosely curved lines made a vivid impression on me. The dyer’s shop and the metal-worker’s shop remind the daily life of the artisans of Moenjodaro.

The Government of Pakistan and UNESCO have already done a great job to save this ancient culture. We, the participants, will do our best to co-operate with the Government of Pakistan and UNESCO in the noble task of preserving this universal human heritage.”

Read Full Post »

Through the decades that I had known Dr. N.A. Baloch, I know him best for his knowledge of culture, history and pre-history of the Indus region, particularly Sindh. His knowledge of Sindhi folklore, language and idioms provided me with new material to reconstruct the picture of the Indus Civilization.  Since my research is focused on the images engraved on the Indus seals, I found Dr. Baloch’s approach on this subject to be most logical and his source material most authentic.

Even though Dr. Baloch referred to himself as ‘a friend of the archaeologist,’ he had surveyed more miles of the Indus land than many other archaeologists and his understanding of its sites was vaster than a mere friend. Above all, unlike mainstream archaeologists who are following the trend to research Dravidian languages of South India to understand the ancient Indus script, language and civilization in general, Dr. Baloch draws our attention to seek clues in the indigenous languages specially Sindhi which has retained some of the most ancient words which can possibly be traced to the Indus Civilization. According to him “the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries[i].”

It is common sense that in order to understand the ancient past of a region one has to first consider the history, culture, languages, scripts and symbols which originated and evolved in that very region. Unfortunately, on this long journey of seal decipherment there have been some detours which have misled the researchers to distant places. Dr. Baloch rightly advises that “For the language of the (Indus) script, the scholars will have to abandon their wild-goose chase of looking for the proto-type in Turan and South India and look for the evidence within the land where the seals were made and discovered…this lock of the Indus script had apparently been prepared by the great smiths of yore that is not likely to yield to such foreign-made keys so easily[ii].”   Dr. Baloch has been a strong advocate of the inclusion of Sindhi language in the Indus seal research and as I proceed with my new book on this subject I sincerely feel that his approach has the potential of making a positive contribution towards the understanding of the Indus seals.  The mainstream foreign archaeologists may find this whole concept difficult to grasp but it must be shared.  As advised by Dr. Baloch, I have already made a beginning by drawing their attention to this approach in my book on Moen jo Daro[iii].

Dr. Baloch had also guided me on other periods of Pakistan’s past. For this I will have to go back in time to my first meeting with this great man at the National Museum Karachi.  It was the last day of 1978, the participants and guests invited at the three day UNESCO Symposium on Moen jo Daro were having their tea-break.  I spotted Dr. Baloch, standing next to Dr. Hamida Khuhro, he was conversing with a few participants.  I left my husband in the company of the Allchins  and walked towards him. I didn’t feel like interrupting and waited for a pause in his conversation. He was a thorough gentleman, for as soon as he saw a lady waiting to speak with him he excused himself and greeted me very warmly. I had no idea that he had already read my article on Chand Morya (Dawn October 13, 1978) and was in fact very supportive of my research. Now that he saw me at an international symposium his opening words were that he is very proud to see for the first time a Pakistani Sindhi woman ready to read a research paper on Moen jo Daro and the Indus Civilization. Apart from a few women guests and two female curators the only other woman archaeologist was Bridget Allchin wife of Raymond Allchin, the well-known husband wife British team who had arrived from the Cambridge University to share their research.  My first impression of Dr. Baloch was that he was very attentive during our conversation.

The next evening when the Symposium was over and my husband and I were still talking to a few guests in the garden of the Museum, Dr. Baloch was coming out of the parking lot. We walked towards him and in that brief encounter he asked me if I would be interested in applying for the post of a research assistant at the National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research in Islamabad. Dr. Baloch at that time was the chairman of this prestigious Commission of the federal government of Pakistan.  I thanked him for his generous offer and at the same time informed him that I am desperately applying to American universities and a few prestigious foreign institutes and if he could help me with that. He advised me that I should also be looking for positions in UNESCO and UN and he offered to write letters of recommendations, a few months later I asked him for a letter.  I must mention here that in 2007 I discovered that Dr. Baloch was also a very good record keeper. Through his letters published by the Institute of Sindhology I was pleasantly surprised to see my letter and Dr. Sahib’s response in his book[iv]. For the sake of convenience I am attaching our correspondence published in this book to show the picture of a great scholar guiding a curious student. These letters also provide me with a guideline to write this article.

In the two brief meetings at the National Museum I had already judged Dr. Sahib’s honesty, that he was not speaking to me as a mere formality but he believed in giving chance to a young struggling graduate and now through his letter he certified that how much he valued my research on ‘Chand Morya.’

Since my student days,  I had been working on the hypothesis that Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (340-297 BCE), who had established the first empire of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and who in his last days had abandoned the throne, converted to Jainism and migrated to an unknown destination, had perhaps reached lower Sindh where he spent his last days. My research indicates the possibility that the remote shrine in the Tharparkar district might be his gravesite.  My research was already known to Dr. Ishtiaq Khan, the Director General of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, but a few encouraging words of Dr. Baloch really boosted my morales.  Since he had personally surveyed the lower Sindh and was familiar with every inch of its land his acknowledgment meant a great deal.  In one of his books [v] he recalls his wanderings in Sindh: “As a student of Sindh’s history and folklore, I have roamed around in the Lower Indus Valley of Sindh for quite a few years, seen numerous sites and collected the current lore about settlements of the bygone times. As a friend of the archaeologist, I propose to share, in a layman’s language , information relevant to what I presume to be the potential Indus Culture sites contemporary with or successor to the great city of Moen jo Daro. ..A search for the location and identification of pre-historic sites can profitably be made, mainly along the old courses of the Indus. A guiding hypothesis may be formulated: if one follows the old beds of the Indus and its channels, it is very likely that the prehistoric sites are discovered.” The shrine of Chand Morya, located close to my village in the Tharparkar district, incidentally stands on the bank of the abandoned bed of Puran, an ancient tributary of Indus.

Dr. Baloch was also familiar with the most unknown landmarks of Pakistan and he drew my attention to the group of Chandragup mud volcanoes of Baolchistan. I was excited to learn that yet another version of the name Chandragupta exists in Pakistan and because of the sanctity attached to the highest volcano of this group and its proximity to the sacred cave temple of Mata Hinglaj, I found this geographical feature very interesting and relevant to my research. This is just one example how Dr. Baloch promptly came up with relevant information regarding topics on history and archaeology.

I had published two articles on the site of Chand Morya, one in the Daily Dawn and the other in the Pakistan Times, the idea was to make my research known to the public but these articles also showed me a path of how to share my ideas on archaeology, history and culture, hence I also got addicted to writing journalistic articles. My plans to work in a foreign institute had failed and freelancing was the only means left for me to keep bonded to the books. I finally felt that I should devote myself to something more academic and thus registered for a Ph.D. at the Karachi University.  It was during these years that one day, through the editor of Dawn, I received a letter from Dr. N.A Baloch. It was dated 25th January 1988, almost a decade after our first meeting.  Once again he appeared as a guiding light in my life as he suggested that instead of writing articles I should be writing a book on the Talpur History. I was little surprised because of the coincidence as a few weeks ago Justice Mir Khuda Buksh Marri had also made the same suggestion. Justice Marri, the Chief Justice of Balochistan High Court had not only served as the, governor and chief minister of his province, but he had also written the history of Balochs and was keen that the ‘golden period’ of Baloch history under the Talpur rule should be written in English by a Baloch.  It was obvious that because of the suggestions of two honorable Baloch intellectuals I will consider the idea very seriously, though I felt little incompetent for such an undertaking. So when I met Dr. Baloch again at an international seminar on Sindh held at the University of Sindh I told him writing a book is a long assignment whereas I am used to writing short articles. I had started the conversation on a negative note but he gave me hope by saying that I should not think I am writing a book, “think of writing just one chapter at a time, think you are writing a long article and call me anytime you need help.”  I promised Dr. Baloch that I will write the book. But I did not anticipate that my circumstances will suddenly change and push the freelancing, the Ph.D and the Talpur book on the back burner.

I moved to the United States in 1990 where the first seven years kept me busy with the research on Indus seals at the Cornell University, New York.  After the publication of my research reports in the Wisconsin Archeological Reports and a book from the Institute of Sindhology, I decided to call Dr. Baloch to say that I am now getting back to the Talpur History. I was little nervous to call as it had been so many years and I thought by now he would have lost faith in me. But that was not the case as he spontaneously responded by saying “You are a true Baloch, you have not forgotten your promise.” This is how in 1996 began another phase of correspondence between us. I mailed a letter along with a copy of my book on Indus seals[vi]. Luckily Dr. Baloch’s reply to my letter is also published in his book of correspondence and can be seen in the attachment. I also called him often for advice; he was always available and welcoming I still remember how on each call he said “very kind of you.”

In 1997 I made a short visit to Pakistan and made sure to meet Dr. Baloch and present to him the draft of my book.  He invited me over for a lunch at his bungalow in the old campus of Sindh University. The bungalow was located on a huge yard in the city of Hyderabad. It had an aura of peace and it was hard to believe the way it maintained such quietness in the heart of the city. This was the first time I visited Dr. Baloch’s house and met his wonderful wife Adi Khadija, a professor by profession and a very warm person. I found them to be a very hospitable couple. The lunch was very delicious and they even asked me to stay overnight as it will be tiring to return to Karachi on the same day. After the lunch three of us sat in the drawing room and the conversation revolved around a variety of subjects. I asked Dr. Baloch a few questions but to avoid shop-talk  never for once did I bring any reference to the Talpur book. He answered questions politely and in detail. I asked his opinion about a few people and he answered without any hesitation which showed his honesty. In this homely atmosphere I found Dr. Baloch to be a very interesting conversationalist.

A year or two later I had a few telephonic conversations with Dr. Baloch when he and Adi Khadija were visiting their son Fareed in USA. It was during this trip that I also emailed him my final draft.  The book was finally published by Ferozsons in 2002.  And then in 2003 I made the most sad call to Dr. Baloch, Adi Khadija had passed away, it was a condolence call. In the brief conversation I could feel the pain of his loss but he was going through the tragedy in a very graceful manner.

In December 2006, Dr. Baloch was the chief guest when I made a presentation on the Indus Seals at the Pakistan Study Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro. It was during this event that he suggested the idea of writing a book on Moen jo Daro for general readers.  The idea was very well-timed as I was to spend the year 2007 as a visiting professor at the Sindh University and this was to provide me the opportunity to revisit Moen jo Daro and enough time to receive guidance from Dr. Baloch.

I will never forget Dr. Baloch’s gesture of kindness when he visited me and my husband at the University’s guest house. He visited along with his daughter Adi Hamida and grandson Arshad Baloch, who I always saw on the side of Dr. Baloch on each university event he attended, surely Arshad is the upholder of the Baloch legacy.   Adi Hamida gave me a gift of beautiful Sindhi prints and told me about the school that her great father had established in their village, I always knew that he believed in educating the younger generation of Pakistanis.

This is a good place to mention Dr. Baloch’s great knowledge of etymology. During the conversation my husband told him how he appreciated his knowledge of Arabic and Persian languages which helped in the translations and interpretations of several important documents of history such as the Chachnama and Talpur period manuscripts. Dr. Baloch replied that one of his regrets is that he did not learn Sanskrit as that would have led him to the roots of many more Sindhi words. Nonetheless, he enlightened us on the roots of a few,  I still remember the two words that came under discussion- Runni Kote and Hurlo the word used for the Persian wheel. Dr. Baloch even emphasized that the concept of lifting underground water for irrigation has its origins in Sindh and the idea later went to Persia during the Achaemenid rule of Sindh. Next day, Dr. Baloch sent me his article “Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin: A Peep in the Past” published in 1982 by the Irrigation Research Council. This article explains in detail the word Hurlo used for the Sindhian wheel. Today, I am struggling to solve the mystery of the 600 wells discovered in Moen jo Daro, can these wells shed some light on the origins of Sindh’s wheel technology or at least the origins of the idea of such a technology? I have the article of Dr. Baloch in my hand and I am looking at his hand-written note at the end of the article where he writes “the origin of Urlo/Hurlo is defined. You will find some of your answers in these interpretations.”

Once again in 2007  Dr. Baloch invited me over for lunch and I had the honor of meeting his children and grandchildren, what a wonderful family,  I am grateful to Farooq Baloch and Arshad Baloch for staying in touch with me.  As I said Dr.Baloch will always provide me with tons of information and references on each query that I made and his answers will always open a new door of knowledge for me. In this regard I must mention how I was led to seeking clues of the past from folklore. It was the day we discussed the ideology of Moen jo Daro I asked what he feels about the Great Bath and if there was any water cult associated with it. Without any hesitation he said, water worship must have been central to the Indus culture and it is the most logical ideology due to the sanctity of Indus. He also felt it is the most lasting ideology as reverence for water in Sindh continued even after the advent of Islam, to illustrate the point Dr. Baloch quoted a verse of Shah Abdul Latif with his English translation:

One who does not make offerings to water
And does not light diyas (clay lamps)
Should not hope for union with the beloved
Returning safe from the journey overseas

The verse appeared to me as a lost letter unearthed from an ancient port town which could be Bhanbhore, Lothal or even Moen jo Daro. I began to read the Risalo as a source of history and archaeology. Latif’s  Bhanbhore, a flourishing emporium, where Sassui and Punhoon played their destinies can very well be mistaken with any ancient Indus city. I felt the verse had bestowed life to the deadness of archaeology and I explained these thoughts in greater details in my book[vii] on Moen jo Daro.

Dr. Baloch also believed that Moen jo Daro is a much larger city but in view of the continued ban on excavations, he had already suggested horizontal excavations to the relevant authorities. Incidentally, a couple of years later, UNESCO also suggested similar excavations in order to establish the limits of the ancient city.

I came to know many more dimensions of Dr. Baloch’s life and personality through his book “World of Work” which I received in my office at the Pakistan Study Centre, Sindh University Jamshoro. It was a fine spring afternoon of April 2007, I had just finished preparing the next lecture and therefore, had time to browse through it. There was an envelope that came with the book, inside was a letter requesting me to write a review of the book. The letter was by Dr. Shoukat Shoro the publisher of the book and director of the Institute of Sindhology. I am so thankful to Dr. Shoro for giving me this opportunity as the book gave me a chance to know more about Dr. Baloch’s life.

Dr. N.A. Baloch needs no introduction. He is known to all for his vast knowledge on a variety of subjects and for his passion for quality education to the younger generation of Pakistanis. For me he will always remain a mentor who put me on the path of writing books and who always acknowledged my work. It was very kind of him to refer to me always as “Dr. Talpur.” One day I took the courage to remind him and said “Dr. Sahib, it’s so nice of you to call me “Dr. Talpur” but I have not earned a Ph.D.” He replied quickly: “But you have done more research than a Ph.D holder.” This was an overwhelming acknowledgement. I was unable to say a word and after this I never even thought of a Ph.D. degree.

(Article contributed on the 5th death anniversary of Dr. N.A.Baloch)

Endnotes:

[i] N. A Baloch, “Decipherment of the  ‘Indus Script’ of the Sindhu Civilization” https://ia801709.us.archive.org/35/items/DECIPHERINGINDUSSCRIPTDRNABALOCH/DECIPHERING%20INDUS%20SCRIPT%20DR%20N%20A%20BALOCH.pdf Accessed on April 4 2013

[ii] N.A. Baloch.  Deciphering Indus Script. http://archive.org/stream/DECIPHERINGINDUSSCRIPTDRNABALOCH/DECIPHERING%20INDUS%20SCRIPT%20DR%20N%20A%20BALOCH_djvu.txt Accessed on September 2012.

[iii] Parveen Talpur, “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE)” SIJ Books, USA, 2014

[iv] N.A. Baloch,  “World of Work: Predicament of a Scholar” Institute of Sindhology, University of Sindh, Jamshoro, 2007.

[v] N.A. Baloch, Sindh:Studies Cultural. Pakistan Study Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro. 2004

[vi] Parveen Talpur, “Evidence of Geometry in Indus Civilization 2500-1500 BCE” ” Institute of Sindhology, University of Sindh, Jamshoro, 1994.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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 »

In Sesotho, the native language of South Africa, Naledi means the rising star but the cave named Naledi, tucked in the depth of earth, is almost a black hole. Millions of years ago, it had devoured many dead, though the exact date is yet to be established. Since last week so much of this dark chamber has been exposed in the media that my blog is not going to reveal anything new. But, still, since it has sparked some memories or thoughts in many of us, I would like to share mine.

To begin with, the news of the discovery of a new species of Hominin in South Africa has taken us back to the 1950s to East Africa, to Tanzania and the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey discovered hominin fossils and reconstructed a part of the human family tree. In September 1960, the National Geographic magazine covered their story and made Leakeys a household name and Africa the ‘Cradle of Mankind’. In 1999 another site, rich in fossils and located in South Africa, in the northwest of Johannesburg was declared ‘Cradle of Humankind’  by UNESCO, this is where Naledi is located.

Africa is also known to the world for its most precious animal bones. In the ‘Heart of Darkness,’ Joseph Conrad reveals their value through his protagonist Charles Marlow. As a child, Marlow had a passion for maps and he remembers several blank spaces – South America, Africa, and Australia. These changed as Marlow reached boyhood: “the map began to fill up with lakes, rivers and names…Congo appeared like a huge snake.” And the fascination of that great river leads him to Africa. What follows in the novella are the atrocities of colonialism and sufferings of humans and animals marked with the dreadful ivory trade. The legacy is not lost and elephants have become one of the most endangered species. This year, after an absence of three decades, Richard Leakey has made a comeback to head the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). An anthropologist and a son of Mary and Louis he is also known to be a strong voice against the poaching of elephants and other wildlife in Kenya.

While Leakeys’ research was building an impressive image of the African continent, Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian writer, was preparing a native’s response to Conrad’s fiction. In 1958, just a year before Mary Leakey discovered and reconstructed a 1.75 million years old skull, Achebe published “Things Fall Apart.” In this masterpiece of postcolonial literature while showcasing the Igbo culture, Achebe actually proves that before the emergence of imperialism an indigenous civilization existed on his land. These are but a few examples of individuals who have explored Africa in different ways and who came to mind as I read the discovery of Naledi cave. Perhaps, it is the ancient most cemetery on planet earth where dead were neither buried nor cremated, just thrown from above or pushed through a very narrow chute into the cave. Though Richard Leakey feels “there has to be another entrance” but others suggest that these “early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber.” If that is true, it will be very hard to conceive that Homo Naledi, with a brain which was half the size of modern humans, were capable of thinking and choosing a site of no return for their dead.

Regardless of all the argument, what is encouraging is the existence of a little window which allows a peep in our ancient past. When Lee R. Bergen first spotted the trove of bones through it, I am sure the moment for him was no less than Howard Carter’s lighting upon the treasures of Tutankhamon. There is no comparison between the two sites, but then from Naledi to Nile is a long journey in time. The good news is that many young men and women are still willing to explore that journey; Naledi expedition constituted a significant number of women in the position of ‘underground astronauts.’ Still  there remains a lot more to be explored in the land strewn with fossils and diamonds below and the rising stars above, Nelson Mandela being above all.

Read Full Post »