This article was published in our newsletter. Sign up here.
It is now a decade and half since the world was shocked by images of huge Buddha statues being destroyed in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Islamist Taliban blew up the two sculptures, which were 55 and 38 metres tall. For many centuries, these world-famous statues had stood proudly in their rocky cliff-face in the Bamiyan Valley in the centre of Afghanistan. The Taliban destroyed them because they regarded them as the embodiment in stone of a “godless” culture. “The history of Bamiyan was destroyed in the process, as was the identity of the local people”, complained Habiba Sarabi, governor of the Afghan province, in an interview ten years later.
Hope for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage
The pain at the loss of this great cultural treasure is considerable. And yet there are now budding hopes that things might improve. This is thanks to a global commitment to protect destroyed and endangered cultural assets. Numerous institutions in Germany are involved in cultural preservation projects in many countries around the world. Among them are town planners and architects from RWTH Aachen University. With UNESCO support, they initially drew up a land development plan for the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan that is designed to preserve as much of the cultural landscape as possible. An international team of archaeologists rescued the rock fragments of the ancient statues and documented them. In June 2016, the foundation stone for a cultural centre was laid. The centre is dedicated to the Bamiyan Valley and its inhabitants with their rich cultural tradition. Among other things, it contains exhibition and education rooms for art, literature and ecology projects.
Specialists in cultural heritage preservation
Apart from terrorist-motivated destruction such as that which occurred in the Bamiyan Valley, there are further dangers to cultural buildings, effigies and documents: all over the world, cultural heritage is also at risk from vandalism, unauthorised archaeological digging and looting. In addition, there are environmental factors such as wind and rain. In some cases, cultural treasures suffer simply from the ravages of time. Divided among the fields of archaeology, architecture and historic preservation, more than 100 degree courses in Germany arm students with the knowledge and expertise they require to preserve our cultural heritage. These include methods of assessing the damage, restoring and preserving monuments, and conveying the value and significance of cultural treasures to museum visitors.
Preserving monuments with digital aid
One central scientific institution in Germany is the German Archaeological Institute(DAI). Among other things, its staff are committed to upholding artistic and artisanal traditions worldwide and to establishing international networks for cultural preservation. One initiative supported by the Federal Foreign Office is the “Syrian Heritage Archive Project” in which the DAI, working with the Museum für Islamische Kunst, is recording the great wealth of information – gathered during the course of more than a century – about the cultural heritage of Syria in digital form. The initiative is also providing Syrian colleagues with a foundation for reconstructing Syria’s cultural heritage at home.
How even packaging material can make a difference
At the moment, it is not so much a question of reconstruction in Syria but primarily of protecting historical buildings and artworks from destruction. In the spring of 2016, Syrian restorers visited the Archaeological Centre of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin – and asked their German colleagues for packaging material in particular. They are keen to protect the clay cuneiform tablets, which are up to 4,000 years old, that are to be found in their museums.
Reconstruction also marks a new beginning
Reconstruction in Syria has already begun, in people’s minds at least. And universities, research institutions, museums and foundations in Germany are also determined to support this process. A number of them teamed up in 2015 to form the Archaeological Heritage Network to offer continuing education for Syrian architects, archaeologists, preservationists, architectural historians, town planners and, above all, tradespeople. The training courses take place for the most part in Syria’s neighbouring countries that have taken refugees. Furthermore, the network awards scholarships for master’s degree courses in the preservation of historical monuments at Cairo’s Helwan University and at the German Jordanian University in Amman. The project was christened “Zero Hour“ – an allusion to 8 May 1945, which marked the end of the Second World War. Germany had been reduced to rubble. It was time to rebuild – marking a new beginning.
Comprehensive academic training in cultural preservation
The Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus is part of the Archaeological Heritage Network. The first degree course with a curriculum designed around UNESCO’s “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” was already established there in 1999. An interdisciplinary master’s degree course, taught in English, “World Heritage Studies” explores the concept of heritage, such as the links between culture and nature, tangible and intangible values, and conservation and development. An international PhD programme is also on offer at the Cottbus Cultural Heritage Centre.
Although many of the cultural treasures that are the focus of all the academic endeavours are centuries old, the project also looks ahead to the future: cultural preservation is important for a country’s population, for its identity and for its cultural, social and economic future.