Man-made wonders of the world under threat from war, want and tourism

By Ciar Byrne,Media Correspondent
Monday 14 February 2005 01:00

Some of the world's greatest man-made treasures are increasingly threatened by war, tourism and consumerism, the television historian Dan Cruickshank says.

Some of the world's greatest man-made treasures are increasingly threatened by war, tourism and consumerism, the television historian Dan Cruickshank says.

Cultural icons around the globe and across the centuries, from the Incan remains at Machu Picchu to tribal masks in Mali, are at risk, says Cruickshank, who has chronicled 80 of the world's most important artefacts and archaeological and architectural sites for a BBC2 series.

The threat of war in Iran is of particular concern, leaving a country with a rich cultural heritage vulnerable to bomb damage and looting, he adds.

Cruickshank visited 34 countries to make the series, Around the World in 80 Treasures, travelling from the Americas to Australia, south-east Asia, Africa and Europe, taking in India, China, Japan and former Soviet republics.

He described the scale of the threat to the heritage of these countries as "dismaying" and identified three main problems: war and its aftermath, mass tourism and the desire of tribal people to embrace Western culture. "When I was in Iran it was particularly alarming that there could be action that could put treasures at risk. To be reminded of the cultural richness of that part of the world and realise it could become a battleground is horrible.

In 2002, Cruickshank visited Afghanistan to investigate the damage wreaked by 22 years of war and the Taliban regime, culminating in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He warned that Iran could face a similar situation and is at particular risk of looting.

"I was worried about the direct physical threat," he says. "When there's chaos, there's huge looting and destruction. The biggest danger is looting, not necessarily bombing."

The treasures he visited in Iran include the Imam mosque in the Isfahan province, 250 miles south of Tehran, described as "possibly the world's most beautiful mosque" and cuneiform writing carved into the rock in the town of Bisitun, which enabled scholars to decipher the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Visits to tribes in the Amazon and Africa revealed the impact of "the almost insufferable march of materialism". The Umuhara tribe of Brazil, which makes ceremonial head-dresses from parrot feathers and women's hair, has survived despite the ruin of the rainforest.

But government-imposed conservation measures mean they can no longer hunt the animals on which they depend for their livelihood, including the parrots whose feathers are essential to the head-dress.

In Mali, the mask of the Dogon tribe was once a revered object to be hidden from view, but is now being bartered for Western goods. "My going there with my four-wheel-drive and wearing Western clothes was another nail in the coffin," Cruickshank says. "It's a culture dying with a sad whisper. You can't control the hearts and minds of the people."

One of his "blackest moments" came in Azerbaijan, in the Fire Temple at Baku. The 17th century shrine is built on the site of a much older Zoroastrian temple over a pocket of natural gas that fuelled a vent with an "eternal" flame. But in 1969 the natural supply ran out and gas is now piped in from the public supply.

The Andean mountain city of Machu Picchu and the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat are suffering from "the remorseless destruction of tourism ... thousands of feet pounding ancient stones".

But some corners remain unaffected by tourism. With no commercial flights, Cruickshank had to hire a plane to reach Torajaland in Indonesia, to see effigies of tribal ancestors, built by an animalistic society that celebrates death as the most important aspect of life.

The series also looks at "dark treasures" such as the 1851 Navy Colt revolver used in the American Civil War, emblematic of the association many in the United States make between guns and freedom.

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