Out With the Old...
In a former Soviet Republic, authorities were hastily making last minute preparations for a visiting international delegation. Frenetic telephone calls were made and received. Bulldozers were in high gear, churning up the ground and hauling away unwanted soil. Soon, the once uneven landscape would be leveled to make way for an impressive rose garden and apple orchard.
The purpose of these hurried preparations? One might suppose this effort was for yet another Congressional delegation coming to visit one of the newly constructed pipelines that transports the region's abundant oil and gas supplies abroad. Or perhaps a ground breaking ceremony was underway for a new glitzy sky scraper in one of the more modern capitals.
Amazingly, this was the response of post-Soviet bureaucrats when they learned a team from the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) would be visiting one of the largest and best preserved examples of Persian architecture from the late 14th Century in Central Asia. Ironically, the purpose of UNESCO's visit was to assess the historical and archeological value of this site for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
In an effort to impress the folks who treat these types of sites with such deference that they use toothbrushes to delicately sift through shards of artifacts, the authorities here committed an act of archeological sacrilege. Apocryphal? Maybe. Indicative of how many of the former Soviet Republics treat cultural and historical sites? Absolutely.
Today, as many nations in Central Asia are struggling to find their footing as independent states, the interest in reviving cultural and historical sites is understandably at an all time high. In their search for national identity, these ex-Soviet states have also begun to deify their pre-Bolshevik heroes, and the architectural structures of their time.
Millions of dollars have been invested in reconstructing and refurbishing the ancient ruins originally built by the likes of Timur the Great. Few would argue that many of these structures needed some attention. While the Soviets were not known for preserving the local cultural heritage of the lands they conquered, during the end of the Soviet reign some money was, surprisingly, invested into restoring structures with historical significance. But Soviet planners approached the task with the same subtlety and care they gave to other ultimately disastrous ecological and environmental projects that made the term "Soviet central planning" so infamous. In the end, atheism combined with an almost masochistic sense of architectural design left most the Silk Road treasures of the past ignored and abandoned. Many of the region's famous mosques and mardrassas were turned into storage facilities and schools, or were simply shut down and left to decay.
Silk Road architecture is known for its legendary beauty and has captivated adventurous spirits throughout the ages. Alexander the Great was awed by the stunning architecture of Bukhara when he arrived in the 4th Century. And even Ghengis Khan, no stranger to plunder and destruction, reveled at the Kalyan Minaret after his armies discovered they could not put it asunder. For visitors today the beauty is still dizzying. Ancient mosques, mausoleums and madrassas are adorned with intricate tile work and the skyline is dotted with impossibly azure blue tiled domes.
But many are starting to question the price of this beauty.
Architects, engineers and historians are voicing concerns that as governments in the region rush to rebuild and restore their historical structures, they are destroying historical artifacts -- and the structures themselves -- in the process.
When I visited Uzbekistan last October, I spent the day with Davlat, a university student in Samarqand who works as a tour guide to help pay his tuition. As we walked through the sacred Shah-i Zinda Complex, an ancient necropolis, several dozen workers were eagerly unearthing structural foundations and carting away their remains with about as much care as construction workers at a Wal-Mart ground breaking. We watched as the soil, rock, ancient bricks and in all likelihood, fragments of pottery, tools and other artifacts too numerous to imagine disappeared. With a look of disgust, Davlat explained that the government was intent on updating the mausoleums, with little respect for preserving the historical value of the old site.
One of the most glaring examples of wholesale reconstruction can be found at the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarqand. Ironically, it is the story behind this site's original construction that has given rise to powerful local legends. According to these legends, Tamerlane's wife, Bibi-Khanum decided that while her husband was occupied with the task of conquering Central Asia, she would build him a great Mosque to honor his accomplishments and evince her love. During construction of the mosque, its chief architect fell madly in love with Bibi Khanum and refused to finish the structure unless she satisfied his one demand: a kiss. Timur's wife finally relented, but when the architect moved in for his smooch she held a palm up to her face to protect her skin. Unfortunately, the power of the architect's kiss was so strong it scorched through the palm and burned her cheek. When Timur returned he hung the architect and forced women to veil so that men would not again be tempted by the beauty of a woman.
Most locals will admit that there isn't much truth to this tale and that the mosque was actually built sometime after Tamerlane's return from the battlefield. They will also admit that the Bibi Khanam Mosque today bears little resemblance to the ruins that sat on the same site several years ago. In 2003, Uzbekistan unveiled its new and improved version of the mosque, rebuilt to former glory in anticipation of increased tourism. Concrete and metal reinforcements were used to reconstruct the building, ensuring a steady supply of tourist dollars, euro and yen. As for historical accuracy, it's anyone's guess.
Why should anyone care about modern materials being used to reconstruct sacred and historical structures from the Middle Age? Part of the answer lies in science - if we do away with the old, we lose the chance to learn from it. But there is more to it than that. Art and architecture define not only how a nation views its past, but also how it identifies itself today. A quick glance at UNESCO's World Heritage List reveals a collection of structures that are integrally tied to the culture of the land on which they sit: the Pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall in China and the Acropolis in Athens. Imagine if, in preparation for the Olympics, the Greek authorities decided to "update" the Acropolis. There would have been international outrage. And the Greeks would have lost an authentic tie to their past.
Of course there must be some restoration. Visiting an ancient land only to find plaques that read "famous mosque once stood here" won't pull in the tourists. At the heart of the matter, it is a question of balance. How can authorities preserve these truly magnificent monuments (and the artifacts that may lie beneath), yet at the same time avoid reconstructions that destroy the historical value? Thankfully, there are international standards and several international organizations are working to educate local governments on proper preservation and restoration techniques. The sooner governments adopt these standards and ensure compliance, the more likely it is that these irreplaceable treasures will be spared.
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Jessica P. Hayden is a freelance writer living in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Visit her website at www.jesshayden.com.
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Published on 3/17/05