World’s cultural heritage endangered

June 13, 2007 at 3:00 am 1 comment

Cape TownThe World Monuments Fund (WMF) has just announced its 2008 Watch list of the 100 endangered cultural and historical sites around the world. The WMF has a long history of working to protect and save cultural, historical and archaeological sites that are threatened by war or natural disaster, urban development, vandalism and neglect, and appearing for the first time on its Watch list: global climate change. The list is announced every 2 years and is compiled by an independent panel of experts who investigate sites of all types—from ancient to modern. “Monuments” can be archaeological sites; residential, civic, commercial, military, or religious architecture; cultural landscapes; and townscapes.

The WMF has done some great work. Since the Watch List was first launched in 1996, more than 75% of the sites have been saved or intervention has halted the inevitable decline into dust.

So what sites are endangered? you can go here yourself to find all 100 sites (including photos) because if I include them all, this would be the longest blog post in history probably! So I’ll only include a selection of sites and leave you to explore the rest. I’ll start off with my own country: Australia:

  • Dampier Rock Art Complex, Australia: 10,000 BC to present. Third time on Watch List. Industrial development is the threat. Australian Aboriginals carved petroglyphs into the region’s numerous rock faces and outcroppings, giving this region the largest corpus of rock art in the world, with up to one million engravings. The site has been relisted for 2008 because the threat of industrial development of the area still hangs over it.
  • Brener Synagogoe, Moises Ville, Argentina: 1909. First year on Watch List and threatened by lack of maintenance and lack of resources. This synagogue was the primary place of worship for the Jewish community for some 70 years. It is an important symbol of the community’s history and its founders – the judios gauchos (or Jewish Cowboys).The current state of the building has forced its closure to the public.
  • Al-Azhar Mosque, Fez, Morocco: 12th Century. First year on Watch List. I’ve actually been here, so was saddened to see its appearance on the list. The mosque is in the centre of Fez and is an example of the austere Almohad style of architecture. The Almohad’s were a dynasty that ruled parts of North Africa and Spain between 1130 and 1269. The threat to the mosque comes from structural instability most likely caused by several adjoining houses collapsing onto the mosque in 2006.
  • Pella Macedonian Tombs, Pella, Greece: 4th-2nd Centuries BC. First year on Watch List and endangered by climate fluctuations, humidity and structural weakness. These subterranean tombs tell us about the design and construction methods of this period, which is knowledge lost to the world. The best-known tomb of this style is that of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.
  • Leh Old Town, Leh, India: 15th-17th Centuries. First year on Watch list, mainly due to development pressures and climate change. The Old Town of Leh was the capital of the once-independent Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. It is a rare example of an intact historic Tibeto-Himalayan urban settlement. 55% of the 189 historic buildings are in poor condition, victims of seismic activity and the impacts of climate change, which is producing heavy rainfalls, and accelerating the deterioration.
  • Modern Shanghai, China: 1920-1949. First appearance on list due to rapid urbanisation and development. Located at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is China’s primary economic centre. Between WWI and WWII, many famous architects experimented with ideas around space and form, new or unusual building materials – this resulted in an eclectic mix of modernity and traditionalism. Examples of buildings by architects such as Alexander Leonard, Laszlo Hudec and Doon Da You are at risk – the 1933 Grand Theatre and Dr Wu’s villa of Hudec being vulnerable. Although preservation of historic buildings is happening, there is a lack of awareness of the importance and richness of recent architecture from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
  • Scott’s Hut and the Explorer Heritage of Antarctica: 1899-1917. First appearance on list. Reason? climate change impacts, snow and ice build-up. Robert Falcon Scott, of course, was involved in a legendary race to become the first person to reach the South Pole, up against Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Scott left behind his prefabricated, seaweed-insulated wooden cabin, along with some scientific equipment – but he never returned to camp having died on the return journey. And the cabin was later occupied by Sir Ernest Shackleton during his Imperial Trans Arctic expedition of 1914-1917. Supplies from both the Scott and Shackleton remain as historic artefacts and witness to the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.
  • Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada: 1890-1907. First time on list due to climate change impacts – rising sea levels; eroding coastline; melting permafrost. Herschel Island was first inhabited a millennium ago by the Thule ancestors of the present-day Inuit. After the discovery of whales, the island became a major hub for commercial whaling and the first European/American settlement in the 19th Century. Many whaling related historic structures still stand and numerous archaeological sites of the Thule and Inuit are scattered over the island. Sea levels have risen 10-20 centimetres in the past century; sea ice is disappearing; and the island has experienced violent storms that are battering the landscape.
  • Historic Route 66, Chicago, IL, Los Angeles, CA: 1926-1970. First appearance on Watch List due to development pressures and general abandonment. I presume this is the Route 66 of song fame. Route 66 was originally a series of disconnected, unpaved local and state roads, which were commissioned to become part of the first Federal effort to develop a national US highway system. Route 66 facilitated westward mobility and was known for its roadside culture. During the 1930s Depression, the route was an escape from the so-called Dustbowl of the Midwest. It’s a symbolic image of American culture often referred to in literature, music and films.

Like the endangered species I recently blogged about, let’s hope these endangered cultural sites don’t meet a similar fate. Take the time to have a look at all 100 sites: it’s an eye-opener.


Entry filed under: Archaeology, Art, Climate Change, Education and Awareness, History.

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