The view west from the top of the 13th-century Tayok Pye Temple in Bagan, central Myanmar (Burma), is as breathtaking today as it must have been for medieval worshippers. Spread out over a plain are more than 2,000 monuments--glorious gilded temples, bulbous stupas, mysterious shrines, monasteries, pagodas and more.
Look north, however, and the majestic ruins are dwarfed by a shiny new viewing tower that looms above the oxen carts and cyclists weaving their way among the ancient monuments.
The viewing tower is just one of several new buildings at the former royal capital that have been greeted with cries of rage from Burmese historians and archaeologists, who fear that the country's greatest archaeological site is becoming a parody of its former self.
A new wooden 'palace', a stone's throw from the ruined foundations of Bagan's original palace, is also being built in the heart of the temple area. Due to open next year, the palace is little more than an imaginary recreation of the seat of an empire that once covered much of medieval Southeast Asia.
Christian Manhart, a programme specialist for UNESCO, has described the current programme as "a Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world's great religious and historical sites". Unsurprisingly, he was subsequently declared persona non grata by the Myanmar government.
Yet things could have been so different. Twenty-five years ago, it seemed that Bagan was shaping up to be a model of archaeological conservation. Following a major earthquake during the mid-1970s, UNESCO was called in to advise on restoration work and to train locals in conservation techniques. Toppled spires were re-erected, a fissured monastery was reinforced with steel braces and selected mural paintings were restored.
The UNESCO restorations of the late 1970s and early 1980s followed on from repairs that date back centuries, but they were the first to be carried out according to scientific and historical principles. In the past, temple committees were often criticised for random repairs, gilding of stupas and whitewashing of buildings with little concern for architectural integrity. The major Ananda Temple, for instance, lost its medieval wall paintings to an ill-conceived coat of paint.
With its new team of conservationists and Burmese and foreign archaeologists, UNESCO had hoped to overcome the errors of the past and manage change in Bagan to protect the site for future generations. Twenty years later, however, few could have predicted just how far Myanmar's isolationist government would go in ignoring expert advice.
Bagan's golden age
During its heyday, Bagan was the capital of the First Burmese Empire, a major centre for Theravada Buddhism and an important pilgrimage destination for Asian Buddhists. Its golden age began with the reign of King Anawrahta, who ascended the throne in 1057, and, with the zeal of a recent convert, embarked on an ambitious building programme. Among his first achievements was the graceful Shwezigon Paya, a prototype for later Bagan stupas, raised on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy.
In order to enrich his capital, Anawrahta shipped in a variety of priceless Buddhist artefacts, including 32 sets of Buddhist scriptures from the recently conquered Mon kingdom of Thaton in southern Myanmar. Thaton monks and scholars were also enticed or forced to come to Bagan to raise the kingdom's cultural and spiritual profile.
After Anawrahta's death in 1077, frantic building activity continued under his successors for another 200 years. According to an official count, at the height of its power, Bagan contained 4,446 monuments.
By 1300, however, Bagan was in decline. Historians disagree on the exact reasons for its demise, but there were almost certainly several interacting causes. The last king of Bagan's golden age, Narathihapati, who reigned from 1255 to 1287, feared a Chinese invasion and tore down several temples in order to use the bricks to build fortifications. …