How to preserve the national heritage?

Amal Chatterjee
12 min readSep 9, 2018

Source : Google photo of Palmyra, Syria before and after destruction

How to preserve the national heritage?

Synopsis : There are numerous world heritage sites like the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal that draw millions of tourists but there are many more that are being systematically damaged, destroyed and looted by the terrorists in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. These precious sites belong to all the humanity because they show the rich heritage that we should all be proud of but sadly some people do not value them.

Source : Google photo of some restored pyramids in Meroë , Sudan

When I was working in Sudan, I used to pass by the pyramids at Meroë that are a part of the national heritage. Meroë itself is a desolate place near the Nile but once it was a splendid city where the pharaohs built the pyramids just like in Egypt but much smaller in size. There was a time when the pharaohs of Sudan ruled a vast empire from Meroë that included the Upper and Lower Egypt so they wore the golden double cobra in their crown. Those were the glorious days thousands of years ago.

Looking at Meroë now, you will be utterly disappointed because nothing remains except some 30 or 40 pyramids clustered together and fenced in with barbed wire to prevent vandals from desecrating the monuments.

One day I ventured out to see the pyramids closely and trudged through knee deep sand to get there .The desert sand covers most of the area and covers some of the pyramids partially and may have covered other monuments entirely. I found the pyramids less impressive than those of Egypt but at the base of some of them I found exquisite carvings chiseled out of sand stone. Upon closer examination I noticed that someone had vandalized the carvings and had etched something like Fatima loves Ahmed or Mohamed was here etc.

The Muslims did not obviously value their national heritage and treated it callously with no respect for their ancient glorious past. The pyramids were in various stages of decay and were actually ruins because none of them were intact. Nobody knows what is buried there in sand as there are no excavations but I will not be surprised if they find other relics of the past or even treasures.

There are numerous sites in North Sudan where one can see the ruins of temple complexes, palaces or other places of great significance that are covered in sand but are slowly being cleared up by their archaeology department and with some help from abroad but a great deal remains to be discovered because the country is vast.

I have seen the sad state of monuments of tremendous importance in ruins and neglected in many countries due to lack of resources to excavate them and repair the damages caused by the nature or the people.

Source : Google photo of damaged Apsaras in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

If you visit the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap in Cambodia today, you will notice that many statues of Apsaras and other are defaced , broken or simply missing because during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, the monuments were vandalized and the thieves carted off the statues to sell them in the black market . You will see numerous such artifacts if you visit the Bangkok shops but they will not tell you how they got them.

There are broken statues and pieces of intricate carvings that litter the fields not too far from the famous Khajuraho temples in India indicating that there were palaces, forts and temples there long ago but now covered by growing vegetation and totally abandoned.

Some of the sites of great importance in Egypt and India are now under the sea because the sea level has risen. The remains of palaces of Cleopatra in Alexandria and Krishna in Dwarka are now under the water that can still be seen if you have the diving gear.

In some countries, people are very proud of their heritage and want to preserve it at any cost while other countries watch helplessly while the terrorists systematically destroy them like in Bamiyan and Palmyra. The priceless artifacts in the Mosul museum were destroyed by the terrorists to show their contempt for the past heritage that are pre Islamic therefore subject to destruction.

Source : Google photos of Bamiyan Buddha before and after destruction

What is so unfortunate is the fact that some people in China systematically destroyed and burned their precious manuscripts, books and such documents that were thousands of years old in the name of Cultural Revolution. True some of the people responsible for such destruction of their national heritage were caught and jailed but the damage was done.

The past tells us who we were because it records the history of people in stone. Who would have ever known if Taj Mahal was intentionally destroyed, what story it had to tell? Who will ever know the full glory of forts and palaces in Rajasthan if the vandals destroyed them? The Indian archaeological society that preserves the forts and other monuments all over the country is hard pressed to do its job due to lack of resources and trained manpower but they still have managed to preserve an impressive list of historical sites like Nalanda and Ajanta but thousand more are still waiting to be preserved.

The Muslim fanatics have been causing havoc to these glorious monuments that are a part of the World Heritage in the mistaken belief that they are not worth preserving because they are un-Islamic so subject to destruction. They show no reverence to the past in their own countries so you see the vandalism in Meroe in Sudan.

The UNESCO funds the rehabilitation of many such heritage sites in many countries and gives World Heritage site status to many sites to protect them and spends money to restore them but the UN is also starved of funds so they can only do so much.

Source : Google photos of Abu Simbel temple being restored in Aswan, Egypt.

They saved the Abu Simbel statues in Aswan in Egypt by relocating the massive statues to higher grounds due to the rising water level of the lake Nasser at a great cost. The Italian engineers were hired to cut up the huge statues who relocated and reassembled them elsewhere. But who can restore the great Bamiyan statue of Buddha that was totally destroyed by the Talibans in Afghanistan?

Historically the Western countries like England, France ,Spain and many others have looted the precious statuary and documents from Egypt and other countries to fill their museums and refuse to return them to the countries they looted them from. The famous Takht e taus or Peacock Throne was taken from India and now is displayed in some museum abroad while the famous diamond called Kohinoor is in England where the Queen has put it on her crown.

The worldwide loot of the heritage of countries during the colonial period and during wars waged by the European countries against countries of ancient civilization like India and Egypt permitted them to cart away the treasures to fill their own treasures and museums. There has been little or no restitution of the stolen artifacts. This destruction and theft still continues unabated in the Middle East and in many other countries where their own people are looting and selling off in the black market their own precious past just to make profit.

During the last world war, the Germans looted paintings, gold and silver artifacts and thousands of precious things from the occupied Europe and stored them away to fill their museums later but they lost the war so the hidden treasures remained hidden. Lately someone has found a stack of paintings in his attic worth millions of dollars that were a part of the German loot and has been returned to the museums from where they were taken. This was a lucky break.

Did you know that the interior walls of the Taj Mahal were studded with real gems that glowed in the candle light but were replaced by the British with glass beads? What happened to the real gems? Did you know that the Hope diamond was in the necklace of the Hindu God in a temple in India but was taken by the foreigners most probably British?

I was one day in the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. where I showed the Hope diamond to my children explaining its theft and history when an American behind me retorted in anger that the diamond was always here and it was never stolen from anywhere. How can people be so ignorant in the days of Google? I just kept quiet because ignorant people cannot be made to listen to history since education is not their strongpoint but our children knew.

Often the people in power were responsible for the grand theft of the heritage. I will give just two examples here to emphasize my point.

Case no. 1 : There was a great treasure buried in the fort of Jaigarh in Jaipur, Rajasthan during the time of the Moghul emperor Akbar who had asked his General Man Singh to go to Afghanistan and punish the invaders who were disturbing his empire and looting the treasures.

So Man Singh took a great army to Afghanistan and punished the rebels and also gave his army the free reign to accumulate any and all the gold and silver and gems they could lay their hands on which they did handsomely. Man Singh delivered a part of the loot to Akbar as per a previous agreement but kept most of it for himself and hid it somewhere in the fort of Jaigarh .No one knew where it was hidden and how much was it worth so it remained just a story for centuries because all the principal actors had died centuries ago burying their secret with them. But the stories of hidden wealth of enormous proportions remained .

During the leadership of Indira Gandhi, she ordered a thorough search of the fort of Jaigarh to find the hidden treasures so the fort was sealed off for months and digging started everywhere in earnest. We have been to the fort and believe me when I say that the fort is massive like most forts in India are.

One day as the story goes, they found the treasure and carted it all in many trucks with heavy armed guards in the middle of the night when the entire road from Jaipur to Delhi was sealed off so that the trucks could pass unnoticed. Then the treasure vanished. No one knows even today what happened to the treasure, how much was found and what was its worth.

A tour guide told us that there is a water tank built of solid masonry perhaps 100 feet by 100 feet just in the front courtyard of the fort as you enter through its gate. He showed us the tank that was empty but it is not unusual to find water tanks like this in the forts of Rajasthan where the rain water was collected through a system of channels carefully built on the ramparts and other walls.

What was unusual was that people had dug at the base of this tank that is built above the ground level and discovered the entrance to vast underground chambers two or three stories deep with stairs leading down into the darkness. They say that this is where the treasures were hidden in deep underground vaults and sealed forever or at least so they thought. We saw the stairs going down but were not allowed to go down there. We were also told that they have discovered secret tunnels from inside the palaces leading them to the underground chambers below the tank but now they are sealed.

This is how the heritage of one country is looted and hidden until someone finds it centuries later and takes it away.

Case no. 2 : During the last world war General Yamashita occupied the Philippines but it was only a part of the vast occupied territory of the Imperial Japan that stretched from Burma to Vietnam and Manchuria and China as well. It is said that Yamashita ordered the systematic loot of the gold and silver among other precious things from all the occupied territories and secretly buried them in more than 100 sites in the Philippines to be recovered later and brought to Japan but the allied armies controlled all the escape routes to Japan so the collected treasure remained hidden in the Philippines because the locations were kept a closely guarded secret by Yamashita. He had a hand written map with instruction in a strange cipher that only he and a few others in Tokyo could read and sent the original map to the Imperial palace in Tokyo where only one or two people knew about it.

This treasure known as Yamashita treasure was endlessly talked about and many tried to find it but no one succeeded until one day a Filipino living in Baguio hills found a mouth to a cave hidden in deep jungle and foliage. When he ventured inside alone, he found a solid golden statue of Buddha and numerous crates with numbers. He had spent nearly 9 years digging for it and had exhausted all his resources when he found the cave.

Soon the discovery was reported to Manila where the government quickly confiscated everything and put the poor man in jail where he was beaten and tortured to reveal what else he knew. After many years, he was released by the court order that also said that the solid gold statue must also be returned to him so a fake brass statue of Buddha was given to him by the government. He died in poverty and misery because he got nothing for his effort.

The Yamashita treasures found in Baguio was only a small part of the treasure buried elsewhere but never found. This treasure promptly disappeared and most likely siphoned out of the country and with it disappeared the national heritage of many countries.

The Spaniards were experts in looting the treasures of their colonies in Central and South America where the Aztec king Moctezuma filled up a whole big room with gold artifacts to pay for his release but he was promptly garroted by the order of the Spanish invader Cortés. Thus the great heritage of the Aztec empire was taken away and people massacred in Mexico but that is all history. This treasure was estimated to be worth over 4 billion US dollars today.

How to preserve the heritage ?

Now I come to the difficult part of this blog because it is easy to destroy and loot than to build the heritage. It takes centuries to build, accumulate wealth and leave behind something for the future generations to look at and be proud of. The heritage does not only include physical things like monuments and pyramids but also includes the history of the people, their great heroes, the achievements and its written documents all throwing light on the past of a civilization.

In India people wrote ancient Vedas and Upanishads on palm leaves that deteriorated over a period of time. No one knows why in spite of all their sophistication at that time, they chose to write very important documents on palm leaves and not on parchments. I have seen some ancient documents on palm leaves that have become very brittle and can easily disintegrate. They were also kept under very poor conditions.

Some are saved and displayed in the national museums while others remain hidden somewhere. The vast terracotta army in China was hidden carefully for centuries until a peasant digging for a well discovered it. The Dead Sea scrolls were hidden for centuries in caves in the desert in Israel until a Bedouin goatherd found the caves, climbed up the steep mountain side and discovered numerous clay jars filled with parchments.

Monuments made of stones last longer but they are vulnerable to destruction as we have seen above in Palmyra, Bamiyan and Angkor Wat. Some heritage is preserved because they are discovered by accident like in China but when they are destroyed intentionally to wipe out the past of a country, it is purely criminal and malicious.

We as people owe it to the future generation to preserve our past so that we know where we came from. Children should be taught the value of preserving the past so that one day they will grow up to be responsible citizens and not become the destroyers.

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