Time Regained; a Historical Perspective on Cultural Sites and Monuments

Article excerpt

WHILE the cultural sites of the World Heritage List may be documented, analysed, catalogued and subjected to the hopefully beneficial processes of restoration, they must never be divorced from the destiny of man. These sites are permanent records of human endeavour, the material artefacts of world history. Here are displayed the deeds of mankind, from the noble and the spiritual to the heroic and the tragic. The cultural sites are visible demonstrations of the survival of the

past into the present era. The World Hertitage Convention is a valid attempt to recognize the unique qualities of this heritage and

safeguard its survival into the future.

Many of the great monuments and cities of the past, whether ruined or still in use today, are inextricably bound up with the careers of powerful individuals. Only emperors and princes, military commanders and generals, and popes and bishops could command the considerable economic and artistic resources that were essential for the erection of large-scale monuments, let alone the laying out of the public spaces and ensembles of buildings required for a city centre. Though many of the cultural sites on the World Heritage List have obviously been identified for the aesthetic quality of their architectural or urban character, their historical dimensions must never be forgotten.

The royal individuals who built splendid residences for themselves were sometimes visionaries. Their architectural legacy is often imposing and inspiring; sometimes it is intended to intimidate. Architecture here is truly in the service of mundane purposes. This is true of many of the palaces identified in the World Heritage List, from those of the Ming emperors in China, and the Mughals at Fatehpur Sikri in India, to the chateaux of the French kings at Chambord, Fontainebleau and Versailles, or the great houses of the English lords as at Blenheim. No less concerned with the expression of power are the ceremonial centres at Persepolis in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Teotihuacin in Mexico and Hampi in India, or the Great Wall of China and the fortifications of King Edward I at Gwynedd in Wales.

Governing nations in almost all periods of world history were concerned to develop an architecture based on power. Their military, administrative, judicial and ceremonial constructions are reminders of past ambitions, sometimes in eras of enlightenment, at other times in eras of oppression, but almost always in periods of intended glory. The ensembles of buildings that form the cores of such historic cities as Istanbul in Turkey, Aleppo in the Syrian Arab Republic and Fez in Morocco, for example, are testaments to continuous state patronage of urban architecture over lmany centuries. The same is true for the European cities of Toledo, Florence, Budapest or Cracow, in addition to Venice with its splendid lagoons which have miraculously isolated the city from the threats of motorized traffic.

Some rulers were of foreign origin and the architecture that they sponsored made intentional reference to other places and periods. The World Heritage List includes sites of colonial splendour such as the cities of Oaxaca in Mexico, Cuzco in Peru, Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, and even Quebec, all of which are distinctively European in style. Other urban examples have until recent years been overlooked by modern development; their buildings are sometimes described as traditional, meaning that they are identified with an unchanging social and cultural environment, even if this is more imagined than historically true. Thus the old walled cities of Shibam in Democratic Yemen, Esfahan in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Cairo in Egypt are not merely, repositories of domestic and civic monuments of undeniable qualities, they are also testaments to a past way of life that is fast disappearing. Such buildings cannot be di vorced front the lives of their inhabitants, even if these I'ves have inevitably become transformed in the late twentieth century. …