The Conservation of Ancient Cities

By Bouchenaki, Mounir | UNESCO Courier, August 1988 | Go to article overview

The Conservation of Ancient Cities


Bouchenaki, Mounir, UNESCO Courier


AMONG the many opportunities available throughout the world to the traveller or tourist of today, one of the most exciting is the possibility of visiting the remains of ancient cities and of lifting a corner of the veil that shrouds the civilizations of the past 'in mystery. Yet we are light years away from the era of romantic reverie among ancient ruins, from the time when the German poet Schiller could declaim:

Are we to find again that which was lost? Come Greeks and Romans, come! Lo, ancient Pompeii is restored, The city of Hercules is built anew!

Since the end of the nineteenth century, and above all during the twentieth, the development of the historical sciences and archaeological research, aided and abetted on occasions by chance, has led to decisive progress in our knowledge of ancient sites. Some sites, like those of Troy, in Asia Minor, and Nineveh, in Mesopotamia, had, to be sure, been brought to light at a time when enthusiasm for vanished civilizations, far from being widespread, was limited pri marily to curiosity-seekers and a handful of scholars.

In the contemporary world, however, there is clear evidence of an upsurge of interest in ancient ruins, in their safeguard and protection. How else can we explain the vast movement of international solidarity that sprang up during the 1960s and was behind the rescue of the famous temples of Philae and Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt from the waters of the Nile?

This feeling of solidarity enabled Unesco to develop the concept of a common human heritage and to establish a World Heritage List on which a number of major archaeological sites are inscribed. Sites such as Aksum (Ethiopia), Chan Chan (Peru), Hampi (India),Sigriya (Sri Lanka), Teoti huacin (Mexico) and Timgad (Algeria)are so prestigious that it hardly seems necessary to explain why they have been inscribed on the World Heritage List, or why the countries in which they are situated have decided to safeguard them. The one thing they have in common is that they are archaeological sites, that is to say that, apart from their attendants, they are entirely uninhabited and the only sound now heard in their streets is the echo of visitors footsteps. They could be dubbed "dead cities," since at some point in the history of each one of them, for reasons that are in some cases not clear, all activity ceased despite the fact that their ruins bear eloquent witness to the ingenuity and vitality of the people who dwelt there. These cities, once important centres of civilization, are now the domain of archaeologists and curators who supervise their preservation and their presentation to the public.

A rapid survey of these ancient cities reveals first of all the existence of great urban civilizations each of which is typical of the part of the world in which it is located. Thus, the ancient colony of Timgad, in Algeria, is a city whose structure reflects the values of Roman civilization into which has been incorporated the dynamic force of the indigenous people.

This site, whose symmetrical layout is still quoted as an example in architectural and town-planning manuals, is a product of a comprehensive theory of town-planning moulded by Oriental and Hellenistic influences. This theory precisely encapsulated the idea that the Ancients had of what a city should be. As the Greek geographer Pausanias wrote in the second century AD: -How could I grace with the name 'city' a place which has no theatre, no agora, no assembly rooms and no gymnasium?'

The plan and layout of the settlements at Aksum, Chan Chan, Hampi, Sigiriya and Teotihuacan have been preserved-like those at Timgad-although they belong to different culture areas and different historical periods, and are located in different parts of the world. They represent a valuable asset for modern man, since contemporary societies appear to have become aware of the values attached to archaeological remains, whose disappearance would be an irreparable loss for all humanity. …

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