Are the Criteria for World Heritage Changing?

Is the international beauty contest of natural and historical wonders also becoming an international platform for moral redress against the crimes of others?   Is Heritage itself being redefined? 

From  China Radio International (  

Unit 731 Ruins: World Heritage or Not?

    2010-07-15 10:38:27      Web Editor: Zhang Xu

China wants to turn the ruins of Unit 731, a camp where the Japanese Army conducted grisly human experiments as part of its germ warfare program, into a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. However, the application has aroused debate in China, the China Business Times reports.  

According to the report, Unit 731 was based in the Pingfang District of Harbin in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, and the use of its biological weapons during World War II resulted in possibly as many as 200,000 deaths of military personnel and civilians in China. The authorities of Pingfang District plan to triple the size of its Unit 731 memorial and turn it into a park to be registered as a World Heritage Site.  

”]The report noted that the ruins still fall short in several key requirements for the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and local authorities are stepping up efforts to meet the requirements.  

Jin Chenmin, an expert on modern history, told the newspaper that the Unit 731 ruins should become a base for worldwide anti-fascist education.  

“The ruins meet the list’s criteria, as it is associated with events of outstanding universal significance, just as Auschwitz in Poland and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan are on the World Heritage Site list. As the world’s largest germ warfare program site, Unit 731 should also qualify since the remaining ruins can serve as a reminder of the horrible atrocities Japanese troops committed in China” Jin said.  

However, a news commentator named Yan Yang disagreed with the application, considering the Unit 731 ruins as an evil legacy.  

“The Unit 731 ruins reflect bloody culture and it is not proper to list it as World Heritage.” Yan said.  

The report also said that some experts thought that the local authorities’ main motive in applying may be the tourism and economic effects of becoming a World Heritage Site.  

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And note that one of the proporties being presented for inscription to the World Heritage List this summer is Bikini Atoll.  



Who Owns the Shadows?

Too bad that we have never learned to separate “heritage” from “patriotism.”  Too bad that UNESCO member-states need to stick flags on every expression of cultural creativity.  No heritage is ever an inseparable part of any particular national culture– and none is ever completely unmixed.

From the Beirut Daily Star July 17, 2010

Greece claims Turkey’s intangible ‘Karagz’ as its own ‘Karagiozis’

ATHENS: Greece will press its claim to a shadow puppet theater that UNESCO has deemed to be part of Turkey’s cultural heritage, the Foreign Ministry in Athens said on Wednesday.

The puppet theater features Karagz (“black-eyed” in Turkish), a hunchbacked trickster who tries to make a living by hoodwinking Turkish officials and generally avoids all manner of honest work.

The setting is loosely placed during the Ottoman rule of Greece, from the mid-15th to the early 19th century. The Greek version of the puppet theater features Karagiozis (Greek for Karagz).

Infused with a cast of Ottoman-era social clichés – including a Turkish enforcer, a Zante dandy, a Jew and a rough-hewn Greek shepherd – it was a popular form of folk entertainment in Greece until a few decades ago.

“The UNESCO convention on intangible cultural heritage enables neighboring countries to also access the same commodity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras told a news briefing. “Greece has tabled a statement that the same practice exists in our country and a discussion … regarding this issue will take place in Nairobi in October.”

He added that the Karagiozis shadow theater is an “inseparable” part of Greek culture.

UNESCO last year placed Karagz on its list of intangible cultural elements, associating it with Turkey where the character was originally born.

In Greece, however, the character remains a powerful icon of resistance to authority even though Karagiozis performances are now only practiced by a few enthusiasts. Karagiozis is also a common byword for “fool” in Greek.

The origins of Turkish Karagz theater and its hide-crafted puppets are lost to history, though it is assumed that it was introduced to Turkey from Egypt.

Shadow theater is believed to have first surfaced in India over 2,000 years ago.

AFP, with The Daily Star

Isolated, Destroyed, and Forgotten

Beirut 1991 - Gabriele Basilico


At a time when the archaeo-scholarly world maintains its righteous indignation over the plunder of archaeological sites and against art collectors’ selfish vices; at a time when nationalists and zealots pounce upon uncertain archaeological fragments and declare them to be national treasures, there is a kind of material heritage that is being intentionally destroyed and forgotten, almost entirely lost to memory.     

It is the heritage of un-nationalism, of movement and mixture, of serrendipitous and often smile-producing cultural cocktails, that ironically laid the foundation for the national movements that would ignore them and stand aside as they were destroyed.     

In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where archaeology is an industrial undertaking and where it must serve national masters first (non-establishment political opinions being an obvious obstacle to the granting of excavation permits), ancient nationalities are as simplistically and perniciously concretized as are modern ones:  Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Edomites, Egyptians– Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Iraqis).  But there was a time, not so long ago that the human landscape  in port and capital cities was as diverse as it was uniformly scattered from Casablanca to Baghdad.  Urban colonies of intellectuals and merchants and artists and thinkers created a cosmopolitan ferment from which the individual liberating national movements would spring.  Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Turks, Syrians, and the odd ethnic renegade all contributed to a culture whose visual design was decidedly modern, attitude uncompromisingly idealistic, and whose fondness was for debating and thinking– preferably in favorite cafes and livingrooms filled with thick tobacco smoke.     

Of course the appeal of powerful new ideas for the future (not old grudges from the past) and effortless cross-fertilization of gthe region’s urban cultures is today frowned upon and indeed actively opposed by religious fundamentalists and militarized ethnic states.  Little wonder that the archaeology of a cosmopolitan world is a target for destruction.  Now I don’t count the repair of architectural facades or restored, reused building remains to be the only challenge here.  It’s the intangible aspects that are most important:  Reaching beyond the familiar and keeping the cultural bridges in use.      

Read these two tragic stories of the modern Middle East and you’ll see what I mean:     

From The New York Times May 21, 2010:     

In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge

The home of the renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was destroyed in an April 4 car bomb attack that also killed 17 people in Baghdad.  Photo:  Holly Pickett for The New York Times     


BAGHDAD — Report No. 25, dated April 4 and written by Col. Qais Hussein, was clinical, the anonymous survey of an explosion in a city where explosions are ordinary.     

Books and papers in Arabic and English litter the floor in the home.  Holly Pickett for The New York Times     

“Material damage: significant,” it declared of the car bomb that was detonated last month near the Egyptian Embassy, killing 17 people. “The burning of 10 cars + the burning of a house, which was in front of the embassy, with moderate damage to 10 surrounding houses.”     

Colonel Hussein’s report didn’t mention the hundreds of books, from plays of Chekhov to novels of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, stored in bags, boxes and a stairwell. It didn’t speak of the paintings there of Shaker Hassan, one of Iraq’s greatest, or the sculptures of his compatriot, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. There was no note of the stone brought from an exile’s birthplace in Bethlehem that helped build the house as a cosmopolitan refuge bridging West and East.     

Nor did Colonel Hussein’s report mention that the home belonged to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter, critic and translator who built it along the date palms and mulberry trees of Princesses’ Street nearly a half-century ago and lived there until his death in 1994.     

This is not a story about an outpouring of grief over its destruction. There were no commemorations, few tributes. As Fadhil Thamer, a critic, said, “People here have seen too much.”     

But in the whispers of friends and colleagues, who recalled Mr. Jabra’s listening to Bach as he wrote, the smoke of his pipe wafting through the room, the house represented something far greater that has been lost. To some of them, its destruction serves as an epitaph of sorts, the end of eras in Iraq and the Arab world and the eclipse, in war and strife, of the ideal he represented.     

For complete story, click here.     

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From the New York Times June 20, 2010:     

Alexandria Journal

A Draft of the Past Remains on Tap in Egypt


Like the city around it, the Cap d’Or’s better days are behind it. The bar was opened about 110 years ago by Greek residents.  Photo:  Scott Nelson for The New York Times    

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN                

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — These two women were veiled, true. They are religious, too, or at least as religious as their community expects them to be. But do not tell them they cannot stop into Sheik Ali’s bar and sit at a table and eat fried calamari and laugh over a glass of juice while surrounded by men drinking beer and whiskey.     

The women, Nelly Rafat, 52, and Magda el-Gindy, 52, are childhood friends who believe that while their religion prohibits alcohol, people are free to make their own choices. That is not the typical view here these days. But they sit, eat and enjoy, guilt-free amid the smoke-filled ambience of a hole-in-the-wall bar.

“If somebody else sitting here wants to drink, it’s none of my business,” Ms. Rafat said, as Ms. Gindy nodded in agreement.     

There is a lot of pressure out on the street, here and around Egypt, to at least appear pious. For women to wear a veil. For men to have a prayer bump, a dark callus in the middle of the forehead from bowing to the ground five times a day.     

And definitely, especially for women, to stay away from alcohol, and especially in a bar filled with men.     

“It’s not a Muslim tradition,” Muhammad Suleiman, 32, complained as he sat in a barbershop next door to the bar. “It should not be there. I don’t like it. It’s not our religion. I’d like it closed.”     

But that is not how everyone wants to live, not all the time, not even among people who agree to conform in appearance, like Ms. Rafat and Ms. Gindy.     

Especially not here, in Alexandria, a city built to look out to the world, not in on itself. The arc of history has been unkind to Alexandria, taking it on a long slow slide from the center of global learning in ancient times to a rundown, crowded metropolis on the Mediterranean.     

But no matter how the conservative social forces of modern Egypt press in, Alexandria cannot fully turn its back on a past so different from the present, when diversity and tolerance eclipsed conformity and tradition. The old Alexandria, the city built by Alexander the Great, set aside cemeteries in the 19th century for all its citizens, with separate ones designated for Muslims, Jews, Christians and “free thinkers.”     

Those days are gone, but are still embedded in the collective memory, and desires, of many people who live here, even people who are too young to remember when the tailors were French or Greek, the cooks Italian, and the Jews a large, vibrant part of the city.     

“We grew up in the hands of foreigners,” said Francis Zarif, 33. “That’s why I like it here. The feeling is the kindness of people in the past, the humanity.”     

For complete story, click here.