Region must unlock the potential of its heritage sector
In one of his keynote speeches, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the significance of cultural heritage. “Art, literature, music, poetry, architecture — these are the hallmarks of our human existence. They form a common thread that unites all civilizations and cultures, a celebration of our emotional lives and the beauty of our natural environment,” he said.
Indeed, the tapestries of heritage suffuse our lives with values, memories, thoughts and aspirations that inform our lives. The Middle East possesses a unique heritage on account of the various empires that have lived on its lands since the birth of civilization. A number of characteristics define such a historic environment, as described by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The list includes places with historic character, historic buildings, historic industrial or transport systems, historic places of worship, monuments, archaeological sites, and historic parks, gardens or landscapes.
There are currently 88 sites in the Arab world that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. These include the city of Memphis, which was founded in 3000 B.C. and was the first capital of Ancient Egypt. It is embellished with heritage treasures such as pyramids, temples and funerary monuments. Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site was Hegra, which is recognized as the largest preserved site of the Nabataean civilization. It has decorated facades that date back to the 1st century B.C. The site also boasts about 50 inscriptions from the pre-Nabataean period, cave drawings, 111 monumental tombs and some astonishing water wells. We should also give credence to Babylon, situated just south of Baghdad, which was the capital of one of the most influential empires of the ancient world between 626 B.C. and 539 B.C. Its remains include some notable archaeological feats, such as outer and inner city walls, gates, palaces and temples.
From cultural sites to natural heritage, each of these places is a historical treasure that merits attention from regional governments and recognition by tourists from all over the world. Heritage sites are an integral part of our communities, imbuing locals with a sense of pride and identity, civic responsibility and cultural participation. They also attract investments and instigate urban or regional regeneration. From an economic perspective, heritage sites lure tourists, which consequently boosts job creation and economic activity.
Modern architectural ingenuity has also led to the creative adaptation and reuse of many heritage sites, merging the historic allure of buildings with complementary add-ons. There are many fantastic examples of this around the world. The City of Fashion and Design on the Seine in Paris has integrated a distinctive, vivid green structure with the exterior of old general storehouses. In Bucharest, several modern stories were built on top of the 19th-century French Renaissance-style Union of Romanian Architects building. Another example is the ultramodern stainless-steel facade designed by Zaha Hadid that bridges buildings within St. Antony’s College’s Middle East Centre at the University of Oxford.
Meanwhile, we have seen over the past few years some Arab governments spearhead a suite of heritage projects in an effort to leapfrog other nations. Saudi Vision 2030, for example, aims to double the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kingdom. The development of AlUla, in particular, has spurred much excitement thanks to its range of live performances, modern art exhibitions and cultural events at the Winter at Tantora Festival.
The Kingdom’s Heritage Commission is making great strides in the field of national heritage, with a number of strategic initiatives underway, such as the restoration of buildings and management of archaeological excavations. The commission’s dedicated efforts have led to many significant archaeological discoveries across different regions, including the discovery near Tobruk of the footprints of humans, elephants and predatory animals that date back more than 120,000 years. In 2021 alone, archaeologists successfully uncovered at least 624 historic sites.
However, heritage sites face a number of pressing challenges that threaten their sustainability. Financial assistance is needed to channel funds toward the conservation of heritage sites, training and development of technical staff, provision of experts and equipment, research projects, educational programs, and emergency assistance for sites that are at risk of suffering severe damage due to natural or man-made disasters. More partnerships are needed with government entities, philanthropic foundations, international agencies and private sector companies to inject sufficient resources into the heritage sector.
The identification of such sites is dependent on archaeological expeditions that uncover the rich history and treasures of various areas. Consequently, the successful conservation of these sites requires a team of competent and specialized experts, with rigorous training and experience in dealing with priceless artifacts and buildings.
Heritage sites are an integral part of our communities, imbuing locals with a sense of pride and identity, civic responsibility and cultural participation.
A robust regulatory system must be put in place to preserve such sites from unlawful acts. Moreover, university-level programs revolving around heritage management are needed to attract students who can eventually work in the heritage industry. Digital transformation can also be leveraged to promote heritage sites and catalogue artifacts on online platforms.
And it is important that educational resources highlighting the value of heritage sites are published for school students, tourists and the local community. Local communities should also be invited to exercise their civic responsibility by volunteering their time or expertise. Lastly, many precious heritage sites are susceptible to conflicts and pillage — this needs to be urgently addressed by regional and international players.
Considering the clear benefits of investing in the heritage sector, the region’s governments should not hesitate to unlock the potential of this lucrative opportunity.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.