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Endangered heritage [May. 30th, 2017|01:06 pm]

Bolting together two posts which have been simmering for a little while, because they seem to fit together: in reverse chronological order, first one of a series of lectures organised by Durham's World Heritage Site management, then a two-part television series following the salt roads from Morocco to Timbuktu.

Wednesday's lecture was titled Syrian Heritage in Conflict: Destruction and Protection, and the speaker was Dr Emma Cunliffe, a member of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) Project. Her research looks at heritage destruction in peace and in conflict, and at ways to protect sites. Much of this involves analysing satellite imagery to assess damage to sites. She originally specialised in the archaeology of Syria, but now examines heritage destruction in a number of countries.

I'm relying heavily here on the advance publicity for the lecture, because why not? In fact, here's the summary of the talk: "The conflict in Syria has devastated both the people and the cultural heritage, affecting all of Syria’s World Heritage sites, and most of the Tentative World Heritage sites, as well as countless smaller sites. This talk will look at the destruction, examining some of the myths around it, the reasons why it happens, and highlighting the work being done all around the world to help Syrians protect their wonderful heritage."

If that sounds like a grim evening, bear in mind that this was Wednesday, and the suicide bombing in Manchester has been on Monday; by now we knew that the bomber had been Libyan. I don't think this was handled well, with introductory remarks from the WHS manager trying to connect our concern for those affected by the bombing with our awareness of the daily horrors of life in Syria, and then a short address from someone from the Cathedral (Durham's World Heritage Site is divided between the twin powers of the University and the Cathedral), ending with a "non-denominational prayer"

All the more contrast, then, when Emma Cunliffe spoke. She was terrific, very aware of all the conflicts and contradictions, both vivid and nuanced. She acknowledged the criticism that the west is more concerned about the destruction of buildings than about the deaths of people, and balanced it with the dedication of local residents to the buildings and historic objects that are part of their heritage, of their sense of who they are. Yes, ISIS have a deliberate policy of destroying the non-Islamic past, but their looting does as much damage as their theatrical gestures of destruction, and all parties damage the archaeology of the territory in which they are fighting, deliberately or because it matters less than the immediate military aim.

Yet there's something heartening about the idea that while all the chaos and destruction is at its worst, there's a team of archaeologists methodically working through satellite images, mapping sites of interest and what is happening to them.

During the previous couple of weeks, we had watched a two-part television programme in which Alice Morrison attempted to follow the old salt roads from Fez to Timbuktu: here's the Guardian's (favourable) review of part one. I'd never heard of Alice Morrison: the BBC describes her as "Arabist, writer, explorer and Marrakech resident" - which explains very little. Is "explorer" still a meaningful job title? On her website, she calls herself an "adventurer", and gives examples of some of her past adventures: the Tour d'Afrique (extreme cycle race), the Marathon des Sables (extreme foot race), the Atlas to Atlantic Trek (sponsored by an adventure travel company, Epic Morocco, who also helped organise this trip). So, someone who has managed to make a career out of doing the sort of things other people do for their holidays, cranked up to a pitch which few people have the fitness or resources for.

I've been fascinated by Timbuktu since I first began to find out about the place, through the Books of Outremer (and oh, dear, the number of broken links on that page is a clue to how very long ago that was). Since then it has been a war zone. The Guardian recently published an extract from The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English (whose style made me think it was building up to some big reveal, but it never got there, and it didn't need one - the story is impressive enough at face value). So I was going to watch just for an update on what's going on in Timbuktu, even before they threw in the added enticement of following historic routes. 'The Salt Road', like 'The Silk Road' is irresistible.

In terms of what it delivered, it was a very enjoyable programme: a chance to visit some interesting (and beautifully photographed) places in the company of a likeable, if rather over-enthusiastic guide. But it doesn't deliver on the original premise: you can not, at present, travel overland from Morocco to Timbuktu. This can't, surely, have come as a surprise to the team? The first programme made quite a feature of it: here we are traveling into the desert but - oh, here's a national boundary we won't be allowed to cross so instead we'll head east to this equally historic route... The opening sequence, repeated at the start of each programme, includes footage of the vehicle approaching a group of soldiers - but the programme itself never shows this. Instead, Alice Morrison persuades a local trader to take her to the furthest permitted point along the road, where she tells us that this is very frustrating, here is the junction of two ancient routes, and now she will take a plane to Bamako, the capital of Mali.

[personal profile] durham_rambler suggests that the original plan was for a three-part series, condensed to two when the travel plans didn't work out. This makes a lot of sense; in particular, I would have liked a lot more time in Timbuktu, with the buildings and also with the books, which occupied a rather cramped third place after the salt and the gold. As it was, I'd have welcomed a third programe about the 'Making Of'. I spent a lot of time trying to work out who was holding the camera. Passages in which Alice Morrison confides that she has just woken up, and goodness, it's cold (or, and now she's going to watch the sun rise over Fez and hear the morning call to prayer) could have been video diary, I suppose, filmed by Morrison herself. And there was plenty of 'we've got a drone and we're going to use it' overhead footage, less likely, but possible. But when we see Morrison in long shot riding a camel across the desert, or climbing what looks like a very arduous mountain pass, there must have been some unacknowledged hero Séamas McCracken, actually, acknowledged online though not on air) sharing the adventure?

There is, you won't be surprised to hear, a book, and I'd be tempted, if buying a book to fill in the gaps in the television programme didn't feel like a reward for bad behaviour. Despite all of which griping, two hours of television I'm happy to have seen.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.