Monday, 21 May 2012

The Past in Ruins

Bay Ismoyo / AFP
Throughout Asia, historical marvels are being imperiled by threats both natural—floods, earthquakes—and human, as the populations of developing countries expand at an exponential rate. Now the Global Heritage Fund has highlighted 10 archeological sites at imminent risk of disappearing. They are not alone: the sites were ­selected from a list of more than 500 locations where the need to preserve archeological marvels is particularly great and where the funding for preservation is disproportionately low. While the following sites are at serious risk, they possess considerable economic potential; if managed properly, they could provide much-needed jobs to local communities as tourist destinations.
A holy site for both the Buddhist and Muslim faiths, Taxila served as an intellectual center for almost a millennium until its final demise in the 5th century. Situated at the confluence of three ancient trading routes, the site is currently facing a triumvirate of threats: terrorists, grave robbers, and urban development.
Shah Marai / AFP
The ancient Buddhist monastery of Mes Aynak lies on the Silk Road, 40 kilometers south of Kabul. In its 1,400-year history it has served as both a site for prayer and an Al Qaeda training camp. It’s also home to vast copper deposits beneath its hallowed walls. A Chinese extraction company is set to destroy the entire site within two years, in order to access the minerals. A team of French and Afghan archeologists have been scrambling since 2009 to excavate the area, but time is running out.
Courtesy of Global Heritage Fund
The 5,000-year-old site of Rakhigarhi contains evidence of the advanced urban infrastructure of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Currently lacking recognition and protection from the Indian government, local villagers use the deteriorating site to dry and harvest buffalo dung. With Delhi a mere 150 kilometers away, India’s population explosion is also threatening to further bury Rakhigarhi’s unexplored ­areas. To date, much of the site remains unexplored and underground.
Marianne Barriauxo / AFP
Widely considered to be one of the most intact examples of a traditional Islamic city, the Old City of Kashgar is being destroyed at a frightening pace. The Chinese government is currently in the process of reducing 85 percent of the old city to rubble, on the justification that the ­thousand-year-old mud-brick ­residences—which house half the city’s population—are vulnerable to earthquakes and must be razed.
Saeed Khan / AFP
The ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya is known today as “The Venice of the East.” Like its European namesake, it remains vulnerable to flooding, which has severely eroded the foundation upon which many of the 14th- and 15th-century monasteries and temples are built. The most recent floods in 2011 inflicted more damage upon the monuments in six weeks than water damage over the previous three centuries.
Michelle Butalon / AFP
The Intramuros Fortress in Manila serves as a testament to the country’s convoluted past. The stronghold was built by the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century in order to stave off British, Dutch, and Chinese attacks. Heavily bombed during World War II, the site remains underdeveloped. There is also a strong suspicion that the government will destroy its character by commercializing the area.
Jean Marie Hullot
Once a vital religious and commercial hub, Myauk-U was the capital of the Arakenese Kingdom. Here, royals built a stunning collection of pagodas, stupas, monasteries, and temples. Today these structures are threatened by the construction of a railway line through the area, which has irrevocably damaged many cultural sites.
Dating from the 3rd century B.C., Mahasthangarh is the oldest archeological site in Bangladesh, and it’s proving difficult to preserve. Although a legal framework to protect the ancient city was set up in 1920, the law only covers government-owned land. As a result, the lack of residential infrastructure is pressuring the site as Bangladesh’s population continues to rise.
CAMBODIAThe 11th-century Khmer temple of Preah Vihear straddles the hotly contested border of Cambodia and Thailand. Since an international court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, it’s regularly been ravaged not only by annual monsoons and a shifting climate, but also by the bullets and bombs of clashing Thai and Cambodian forces. Although the atmosphere has remained calm since February of last year, the opposing armies remain in place, defying an International Court of Justice ruling that both sides must withdraw from the area.
Thousands of jars litter the landscape at the Xieng Khouang Plateau, an Iron Age site in the country’s north. The megalithic structures, which have lent the area the fitting name of Plain of Jars, were presumably used in the funerary rites of the area’s ancient inhabitants. Carved from limestone, sandstone, or granite, the jars face an explosive threat: thousands of unexploded cluster bombs left over from the Vietnam War. The urns are also vulnerable to urban pressures: due to their shape, local villagers use them to collect garbage, or as chicken coops and animal troughs.

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