HARKING BACK: Palmyra might bounce back, but will Lahore?

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 4, 2017

On Thursday last I was attending a seminar in Cambridge on the threat to historical monuments in Palmyra in Syria, which amazingly focussed on the best way forward. In the meeting, to my surprise, mention of the threat to Lahore’s historic monuments was made.

Dr. Ross Burns, a former Australian diplomat, is a Palmyra expert with three excellent books to his credit. His presentation on the damage to Syria’s world heritage sites made grim viewing. How could in the 21st century humans even think of destroying their heritage. The view that prevails among academics is two-fold. Firstly, that it could be a reaction to western interest in these monuments, and, secondly, it is surely a case of theft of heritage by crooked people in religious guise. My view is that besides theft, it is promotion of a deviant creed that seeks to destroy all symbols of admiration. The meeting was shocked when told that almost all the major historical sites within Mecca, except for the Kaaba, have been flattened. In short, the meeting concluded that it is a way of thinking that will ‘self-destruct’.

Almost every academic in the meeting, most of them authorities in their own fields, blamed the financial sponsors of these religious extremists and their supporters, including a super power, for the carnage. In a similar manner mention was made of Lahore and one could not but agree that culture and historic heritage is under threat because the people of Lahore talk a lot and do nothing about it. They are just not willing to take on mindless rulers, influenced as they are by profit and religious fanatics.

My discussion with Dr. Burns centred on the central proposition of the best way forward. So we discussed a comparison of the Syrian carnage with the Lahore tragedy. Let me put down a few basic facts about the people of Syria, and the people of Lahore. It could make interesting analysis, which is if we are in the mood to move forward.


In Syria the ‘Saudi-financed rebels’, to use a mild term, move in by first surrounding a historic site. Be it Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi’s historic fort, or Palmyra’s historic pillars, the Aleppo sites, and other sites, or Mosul’s monuments, and once surrounded they dig tunnels from their positions to reach beneath their target. There they packed the tunnel with a massive amount of explosives and detonated it. The result is a complete collapse, virtually into dust, of entire complexes. Money for this undertaking is not a consideration for they are well financed and provided with the best ‘foreign’ explosives by a ‘super power.’

If you use the internet to view the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures taken by various sources of different Syrian monuments, it puts before us the situation as it stands on the ground today. Take Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi’s fort near Al-Haffa. This was relatively recently saved and brought to the highest international conservation standards by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the same organisation that saved Lahore’s Shahi Hammam from official neglect. At the exquisite ‘hammam’ wedding functions were taking place and government lunches and dinners hosted with the walls being white-washed to make them look clean. Our bureaucrats are certainly not driven by rules, but by corrupt rulers, who are driven by traders with a lot of money.

The Palmyra structures, almost all over 2,000 years old, have been treated to these tunnel bombs. Amazingly, a few pillars remained because vertical structures seem to resist shocks from the ends. Mortar shells did a ‘better’ job. The ones left survived “because the rockets missed their targets.” Dr. Burns has calculated that about 17 per cent of Aleppo and 36pc of Palmyra sites have been destroyed. The Ayubi Fort withstood the assaults and the damage could be classed as “very much reversible”, though a nearby church was demolished as was the historic mosque with its unique minaret. The carnage of the ancient land of Syria is still on and now the two super powers, and the minor local powers, are still at it. The good thing is that the academic world has started thinking of how to bounce back. “Bounce back Syria will, for its people are amazingly well-educated and care for their culture and heritage,” opined Dr. Ross Burns.

Now what about Lahore and its threatened monuments. These face rulers obsessed with returning to power on the face of ‘development’ that is visual. The brain has never interested them, nor those before them. Let me explain. In the world’s finest universities ‘chairs’ are created for research and excellence. India has 125 such chairs all over the world. Pakistan has 12 chairs at the world’s finest universities. Every Indian chair is filled. All 12 Pakistani chairs lie empty, a vivid picture of the mindset of our rulers.

The world of academia seems very worried about the ‘orange rail line’ that threatens to damage, in a slow Sicilian sort of way, 12 important heritage sites, two of them on the world heritage list. In October, a special conference on this subject is planned in Britain with leading experts on Lahore participating. Such is the level of concern. But why have the people of Lahore allowed this situation to come about? This is the question which needs to be understood, especially when compared to the Syrian example, even though surely the contrast is stark.

The answer seems to lie in three factors. Firstly, because of foreign invasions over the last 2,500 years, the population seems to accept, surely with exceptions, that nothing is permanent. Our heroes remain invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni, Taimur and even Babar, the Mughul invader. All these invaders did a splendid job in completely razing to the ground the walled city of Lahore and converting its population to slaves for the lucrative Central Asian markets, with rape, like they have been doing in Iraq and Syria, being part of the carnage. Such a mindset means we as a people remain detached from our heritage. The only ones with some iota of concern are those who live, or have lived, in the walled city. Even for them tourism has never been the money-spinner it surely can be.

Secondly, the population of Syria, or what is left of it, is entirely literate and well aware of their heritage. Even now school children visit the damages sites. This is not the case in Lahore where visiting cultural sites is not the ‘in’ pastime for government, and even some private, schools. For starters the teachers have no idea about their history. Functional literacy, as per UN measures, stands at less than one per cent, probably the lowest in the world.

Lastly, in Syria it is the people who will rebuild, for they have the skills and the physical resources, and most importantly the willingness, to carry out conservation. Everyone has pledged some money for the ‘future enterprise.’ In Lahore, people with money seriously think “why waste it on heritage”. The people concerned with heritage and monuments face rulers who care little about it, let alone finance it. So while Syria might surely one day bounce back, how will Lahore fare is for all of us to think about.




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