How a country treats its cultural heritage is a proxy for how it feels about itself—much as how a person treats his parents is a proxy for how he feels about himself. Or so is my conclusion after decades of seeking out and writing about archeological sites in the developing world. National wealth plays a part, of course, but it isn’t the whole story. Tenderness to the past is related to pride in one’s current day country, and also to self-respect.
These reflections come from my recent travels, to some of Afghanistan’s most famous but least-visited ruins, around Lashkar Gah, the capital of embattled Helmand Province, and to Greek and Roman ruins in Libya, with a few days in Cairo in between.
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Each country has problems in conserving and presenting its historical past, though Egypt is light-years ahead of Afghanistan, and Libya is eccentrically on its own, as a rich state ruled by a maniac. When I visited Egypt the first time, in 1979, the area called Islamic Cairo was a mess. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it runs the gamut from a little over-restored (Muizz Street) to vibrantly authentic to still a mess (some of the side streets leading up to Bab al Nasr, where sewage pipes were being installed on filthy streets that are still dirt).
Beginning in 1997, Muizz Street was renovated between Bab Al-Futuh and Bab Zuweila. There are Arabic and English identification plaques on the monuments, a museum (Egyptian textiles, including the stunning Coptic weavings of the early Christian era), and even a boutique hotel, a self-named “riad” attempting to bring Marrakesh’s combination of chic and history to Cairo. There are no restaurants you’d want to eat at, but many antique shops, some with tourist rubbish and some with plausible bric-a-brac. And there are walls with maps at strategic intersections, so the visitor has a hope of finding particular monuments. In another decade, probably, Islamic Cairo will be too developed, but now it’s a good mean point between Western over-taming of the past (viz. Florence) and the way it was in the Seventies.
In Libya, the mix is different: a country with the money to preserve its past; a small, educated population; the overlay of the Qaddafi years. The ruins of four cities of the Greek pentapolis can still be visited—Tocra, Tolmeitha, Cyrene, and Apollonia. There I was there just weeks after Qaddafi’s troops had mounted a counteroffensive against Benghazi, just to the west, so all the museums were locked up tight. But the sites were enclosed (if carelessly), guards were on duty (though admission was free), and there were signs at most, though not all, of the sites (Tolmeitha’s remains are a mile down an unpaved road and if there is signage, it’s submerged in brush). A banner at each site announced an Italian-Libyan joint conservation effort.
The overall condition of all of the sites was decrepit, with the metal roofs designed to protect mosaics in Cyrene from water damage leaking onto the damaged floors, and 40-year-old, unsophisticated restorations. There was a lot of litter at Cyrene—which is usually a sign of anger, a passive-aggressive protest at local conditions. One of the first acts of the revolutionaries in Benghazi has been to organize volunteers (from what I could tell, privileged young people) to pick up the trash in the absence of the African migrant workers who usually did it.
The most positive sign was the presence of a large number of Libyan tourists at Cyrene and Apollonia, the most famous sites. As a part of the revival of national provide in eastern Libya following the area’s expulsion of Qaddafi’s forces, Libyans are falling in love with their own country. Upper class Libyans had told me in Benghazi that under Qaddafi, no one wanted to vacation on Libya’s 1,100 miles of Mediterranean coast, within site of all the ruins I visited. (Note to those priced out of the Hamptons: oceanfront houses are said to rent for $300 a month.) Libyans who could afford it went overseas, or to Egypt. But now Libyans are proud of themselves and their heritage, and I suspect this will lead to a lot more attention to excavations in the many unexplored areas—and a lot less litter.
Very few people have visited the ruins around Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, in recent years, because for long stretches of the last three decades the area was considered too dangerous. Now, however, it’s visitable, though local government insists that visitors take a police escort (one pays them $5 or $10 apiece for the day). My own sense was that the only dangerous people I met were not the impoverished locals, but the people working in the higher reaches of the government.
Driving south from the modern, American-built town of Lashkar Gah, you travel a half hour on an excruciating USAID-built cobblestone road to the now partially obscured ruins of the 9th to 12th century Lashkari Bazaar palaces. In 1972, when Nancy Hatch Dupree published her canonical guidebook, these sites were easily found, and you could climb to the second story of the central palace. Now you can see them in the distance, but a half mile of newly built houses extend right up to their foundations. Displaced families have even built crude mud-brick partitions within the palaces and set up housekeeping.
It wouldn’t take much money to rehouse the half dozen or so poor families who live in the palaces (without sewage, running water, or electricity). In fact, there’s supposed to be a Helmand Province program to provide free land to the homeless. Meanwhile, the US has paid for an enormous provincial government bureaucracy that sits in air-conditioned offices just a few miles away, ignoring the condition of the ruins.
I saw one tiny hopeful sign at the ruins of Bost Citadel, which sits another twenty minutes south of the Lashkari Bazaar palaces. The citadel is the home of the Bost Arch, a national symbol from the 12th century, and a unique, 130-foot-deep step well. One of the five Afghan policemen who accompanied me and two others to the ruins finished drinking a bottle of water and tossed it to the ground right on top of the citadel. I began to say something, and he understood and picked it up.