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Insight: The World's Most Endangered Sites Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by James Wiseman

[image] Bibi Jawandi tomb, Uch Monument Complex, Bahawalpur, Punjab, Pakistan. Burials in foreground (Courtesy World Monuments Fund) [LARGER IMAGE]

The preservation of the world's cultural heritage is one of the most daunting tasks facing us. It is not simply a matter of restoring and preserving a handful of neglected monuments possessed of some historic significance, or preparing a few archaeological sites for visits by curious tourists, or aiding less wealthy nations to protect their cultural heritage from looters and vandals.

It is not enough to assist countries in repairing cultural monuments damaged in war or some natural catastrophe. The fact is that in every part of our planet, cultural monuments and sites face myriad threats from nature and human society. The need is so great, the threats so varied, that governmental agencies alone (even if they had the will, skill, and resources, which many do not) cannot accomplish what is required; to do so will take the understanding, support, and active engagement of people everywhere.

One of the world's most effective private organizations in confronting the problem is the World Monuments Fund (WMF), which has its headquarters in New York City, with affiliates in France, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, and Spain. In addition to talking and writing about preservation, the WMF actually does something about it, using both financial resources and expertise to preserve and restore historic sites and monuments without regard to national boundaries. Because it is privately funded it is able to intervene, as Colin Amery, architecture critic for the Financial Times in London and a special advisor to WMF, has pointed out, "where governments are failing to act or where it may be politically sensitive for officials to act."

Rock-cut monuments at Petra, Jordan (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

In 1995, the WMF instituted the World Monuments Watch, a program that called upon every government in the world, preservation organizations, and other groups and individuals to nominate sites and monuments that were particularly endangered. At the same time, the nominators committed themselves to participate in a carefully planned preservation project. A panel of experts would select from the nominations 100 sites they considered the most endangered, and the WMF would then publicize their plight and help find the resources and expertise to carry out the preservation projects. The American Express Company was the founding sponsor, committing $5 million over a five-year period to the program, the largest single gift in American Express' history. Biennial lists of the 100 Most Endangered sites were issued in 1996 (see "Insight: Sounding the Alarm," May/June 1996) and 1998, and to date 71 of those sites in 43 countries have received funds for preservation projects, including $4 million from American Express, whose grants have attracted more than $6 million in additional contributions to endangered sites.

In September, the WMF simultaneously announced its list for 2000 and the award of a second $5 million, five-year grant to the program from American Express. The new list, selected from 350 nominations, includes 38 sites that had been on previous ones: 19 from the 1998 list and 11 from the 1996 list; eight were included on both. The great mark of progress is that the vast majority of sites on the first two lists are not on the new one because the conditions that threatened them have been mitigated. The Temple of Hercules in Rome, a victim of traffic pollution and erosion on the first list, for example, has been completely restored and is now free of scaffolding after nearly 20 years. Others from earlier lists have in some cases been improved, but still need more work before they are out of danger.

Criteria for selection to the list are the significance of the site, the urgency of the problem, and the viability of the proposal for action. The age of the site or monument is not an issue, so that those selected range from prehistoric archaeological sites to twentieth-century industrial structures. The great diversity of types of sites is one of the most striking features of the list; so, too, is the geographical distribution. There are nine sites in Africa, 21 in Asia and the Pacific, eight in the Middle East, 13 in western Europe, 24 in eastern Europe, ten in North America, and 15 in South America and the Caribbean. The following examples demonstrate both their diversity and the threats to their existence.

[image] Teotihuacan, Mexico (Courtesy World Monuments Fund) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the Czech Republic the eighteenth-century sculptures carved by Matthias Bernard Braun in the municipality of Kuks and the nearby forest are being destroyed by biodegradation of the stone surfaces. At Hierokonpolis the oldest (2700 B.C.) freestanding, monumental mud-brick structure in Egypt is collapsing because of a combination of natural forces including occasional torrential rains that have created vertical gullies down the sides of the walls, wind and sand scouring, and animal burrowing. What is more, its structural stability has been compromised by holes dug by archaeologists over the past hundred years to remove burials. Floods have damaged wall decorations and caused structural damage to many of the tombs of Egypt's New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, and even their continued existence is threatened; the most recent flood in 1994 utterly destroyed one tomb and severely damaged four others. At Gondar in Ethiopia, the Palace of Queen Mentewab (1730-1779) is in ruinous condition because of the deterioration of the lime mortar in its walls from excessive humidity, poor drainage, and luxuriant vegetation that has spread throughout the neglected structures. Wind erosion is helping to destroy three Buddhist temples in Basgo, the fifteenth-century capital of Ladakh in India. In the largest temple there is a 40-foot-high gilded, earthen statue of the Maitreya Buddha, regarded as the Buddha of the future and a symbol of hope and faith by the Tibetan Buddhist diaspora.

Air pollution, especially from the burning of coal earlier in this century, is the principal culprit in Leipzig, Germany, causing damage to the stone façades and statuary of the Church of St. Thomas (Thomaskirche), where J.S. Bach was choirmaster from 1723 to 1750. Restoration of this historic church was guaranteed even as the 2000 list was announced through a gift of $250,000 from the Robert Wilson Challenge Program (of WMF) to match a donation by the German bank HypoVereinsbank AG. At Thmar Puok in Cambodia near the border with Thailand, a Buddhist temple of the late twelfth-early thirteenth century with masterly reliefs including historical narrative scenes of the war between the Khmer and Champa kingdoms has been taken over by trees and other vegetation, and plundered by bandits during the past 30 years of instability in the country.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of Cinque Terre in Italy, covering some nine miles of the precipitous Mediterranean coast of Liguria south of Genoa, are in danger of major collapse because of the abandonment of cultivation by the local population and the lack of maintenance of the terrace walls. Landslides, which would destroy a cultural landscape that may be unique in the world and would threaten even the safety of the villages and their inhabitants, are considered imminent. A similar fate threatens terraced rice fields, some 2,000 years in the making, in the province of Ilfugao in the Philippines, where, as in Italy, sociological changes have resulted in the abandonment of many of the terraced paddies. The terrace walls here are further threatened by burrowing giant earthworms!

Prehistoric temple at Mnajdra, Malta (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Petra in southern Jordan, one of the world's most famous archaeological sites, faces several dangers. The site is subject to flash floods and earthquakes, and tourism and looting pose additional problems. A danger of even greater proportion lies in the erosion of the mountain and the many rock-cut monuments carved into the scarp's lower face. Uncontrolled tourism has already caused some damage to the remarkable 8,000-year-old engravings of giraffes near Agadez in Niger, and additional threats are posed by vandalism and animals walking over the engravings. The prehistoric (ca. 3600 B.C.) temple at Mnajdra on the southeast coast of Malta is afflicted by deterioration of the limestone building material and structural instability from environmental causes.

Teotihuacan, Mexico's largest and most visited archaeological site, is in a continuous pattern of destruction because its conservation has relied on a federal budget constrained by economic crises; discontinuity in federal administration has compounded the problem. Machu Picchu, the fifteenth-century Inka city in Peru, is threatened by a government-endorsed plan to build a cable-car lift to it from Aguas Calientes in the valley below the site, which could destroy Machu Picchu's serene, isolated quality and lead to an overwhelming increase of visitors. Other sites have suffered war damage, as in Bosnia and Croatia. Looting is a problem around the world, and is specifically cited in Cambodia, China (the Dulan royal tomb group), and at sites in Mexico. Sites are also threatened by industrialization and other development activities; lack of urban planning; dissension among preservation groups; and poorly performed conservation in earlier years. And, almost everywhere, there is a lack of funding.

The list of problems is long, and the number of other sites in danger is not even known. We should remember that the Year 2000 list includes only the 100 sites the selection committee deemed the most endangered, not all endangered sites; there no doubt are hundreds, perhaps thousands more, that were not nominated. Despite its successes, the WMF cannot solve all the world's problems of preservation. WMF president Bonnie Burnham commented in September that the "[World Monuments] Watch is a bold challenge to local and national authorities to step up to their responsibilities--and an appeal to the public to take immediate action--to save these irreplaceable sites that define the history and the humanity of the peoples of the world," adding: "Once these sites are lost, they are gone forever. They are the very definition of the word irreplaceable." She is right to make the challenge and the appeal. We might all consider how we can help save our cultural heritage for coming generations.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America