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'State vandalism' threat puts Pakistan's heritage sites on Unesco endangered list

Archaeologists and cultural commentators condemn failure to protect country's ancient monuments.

ISLAMABAD // When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, paid a state visit to Pakistan in October, his focus was undoubtedly on building a strategic relationship with a longstanding ally. He must not have had the slightest clue that, by dint of a dinner invitation, he would become an unwitting participant in what Pakistani archaeologists and cultural commentators call the "state vandalism" of rare heritage sites.

All Mr Erdogan did was attend a banquet hosted in his honour by Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, at the Lahore Fort, built in the 16th century by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. In fact, the VVIP diners were trampling around a monument placed on an endangered global heritage list by Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in 1998. Unesco had done so because of a growing tendency among Pakistan's politicians to view the icons of the subcontinent's Mughal past as symbolic platforms to project power from, whether of the state or individual personality cults.

Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, became the first in 1990 when he hosted a dinner at the Lahore Fort for Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the then head of the Ismaili sect. Mahmood Zaman, a retired journalist and author of a forthcoming book, State Vandalism on History, recalled the damage caused to three sections of the monument. "The next day, I went there and was horrified by what I saw," he said, showing an album of grainy photographs.

The pictures show piles of fruit peels next to palaces and pavilions. Cauldrons of food cooked on wood fires had blackened the Diwan-i-Khas, or hall of private audience. Diners were entertained by an orchestra inside the Jehangir Quadrangle, a grouping of red sandstone buildings considered among the most attractive parts of the fort complex. And the gala event was bought to a close with a fireworks display that damaged a corner of the Diwan-i-Aam, or hall of public audience.

Mr Sharif went on to host a meeting of opposition political parties in the court of the Shish Mahal, or palace of mirrors, in 1994, which left the delicate fabric of the monument badly damaged, according to government archaeologists. In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain had the dubious honour of being the first foreign dignitary to be invited to dinner at the Lahore Fort since the enactment of the 1995 Antiquities Act, a law that strictly prohibits such misuse of heritage sites.

She was also the last before Unesco finally sounded the alarm in 1998. The Lahore Fort was not the only Mughal monument to be placed on the endangered heritage list that year by Unesco. The Punjab provincial government, as part of a highway widening project, had that year demolished part of the Shalimar Garden, the only surviving royal pleasure park from the Mughal era in the Indian subcontinent. The Shalimar Garden, completed in 1642 on the orders of the emperor Shah Jehan, who went on to build the Taj Mahal at Agra, included a unique hydraulic irrigation system that was demolished to make way for traffic between modern-day Lahore and Islamabad, the federal capital.

Such thoughtlessness prompted Unesco to put on hold plans to extend World Heritage Site status to four other Mughal monuments in and around Lahore, a situation that persists to date, government archaeologists said. However, there is no sign of politicians or officials developing an appreciation of Pakistan's rich heritage. Government archaeologists are fighting a losing battle to stop the construction of a road through Moenjodaro, or "mound of the dead", the 4,000-year-old ruins of a city located 1,200km south of Islamabad.

Moenjodaro, a Unesco world heritage site, is remarkable for being the first known example of controlled urban planning, and demonstrates an Indus civilisation far more advanced than its historical contemporaries in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Government archaeologists said the site of the Moenjodaro ruins houses up to 40,000 residents in a circumference of about 9km. On the periphery is a regional airport.

Such encroachments by the state, and the overall deterioration of the site, too large to be cordoned off, had in 2009 driven Unesco to task the federal department of archaeology to determine the precise boundaries of the monument. Under Pakistani law, no development work can take place within 61.5 metres of a protected heritage site. "Instead, we are building a dual carriageway inside it," said Qasim Ali Qasim, a director of the archaeology department. "The vibrations, exhaust fumes and dust generated by traffic will irreversibly deface the site ."

The National Highway Authority has sought to bypass that regulation by acquiring airport land from the Civil Aviation Authority. Government archaeologists said the transaction between the two is illegal, but concede their only hope to stop the road from being built lies with Pakistan's ferociously independent Supreme Court. Acting on its own cognisance in 2009, the court had ordered the top administrators of Pakistan's four provincial governments to prevent illegal construction on heritage sites.

However, the Moenjodaro case is not on the court's agenda for the foreseeable future, according to the registrar's office. thussain@thenational.ae

Updated: June 20, 2010 04:00 AM

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