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Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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Hilal English

Preserving Pakistan

April 2024

World Heritage Day, celebrated on April 18, highlights the importance of preserving humanity's rich cultural and natural heritage. Pakistan boasts six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Mohenjo-daro, Takht-i-Bahi, and Lahore Fort.  Celebrating World Heritage Day involves advocating for investment in conservation, responsible tourism, and education to safeguard these invaluable treasures for future generations.



On April 18, World Heritage Day will be celebrated worldwide to educate communities about the rich tapestry of human civilization and the diverse cultures that have shaped our world. From ancient mosques and temples to medieval castles, palaces and forts, and sweeping landscapes, each World Heritage site tells a unique story of our history and encourages us to recognise and treasure its immense diversity and value.
In 1982, during the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) General Conference, April 18 was designated the International Day for Monuments and Sites, now more popularly known as World Heritage Day, to raise public awareness about protecting our cultural assets, including ancient structures, historical monuments, and natural heritage. World Heritage status is prestigious and bestows global recognition of sites of 'Outstanding Universal Value', attracting attention from researchers, students and tourists across the world.
Pakistan is proud to be home to six of the 1,199 World Heritage Sites, each of which tells us so much about our history, cultures and connection to this ancient land. Mohenjo-daro, Takht-i-Bahi, and the Neighbouring City ruins at Sahr-i-Bahlol and Taxila were inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1980, Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens in 1981, and the Makli Necropolis in 1987. 
Pakistan has tentatively listed further 26 sites for potential World Heritage inscription in the future. World Heritage status is a challenging goal to aspire to. The lengthy and challenging process becomes apparent when observing the dates of the original submissions of each of Pakistan's tentative sites. 
Gilgit-Baltistan
▪   Baltit Fort, January 30, 2004
▪   Central Karakoram National Park, April 12, 2016
▪   Deosai National Park, April 12, 2016
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
▪  Archaeological Site of Rehman Dheri, January 30, 2004
▪   Shahbazgarhi Rock Edicts, January 30, 2004
▪   Mansehra Rock Edicts, January 30, 2004
▪   Archaeological Site of Ranigat, January 30, 2004
Punjab
▪   Badshahi Mosque, Lahore, December 14, 1993
▪   Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore, December 14, 1993
▪  Tombs of Jahangir, Asif Khan and Akbari Sarai, Lahore, December 14, 1993
▪   Hiran Minar and Tank, Sheikhupura, December 14, 1993
▪  Tomb of Hazrat Rukn-e-Alam, Multan, December 14, 1993 
▪  Tomb of Bibi Jawindi, Baha'al-Halim and Ustead and the Tomb and Mosque of Jalaluddin Bukhari, January 30, 2004
▪   Archaeological Site of Harappa, January 30, 2004
▪   Tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, January 30, 2004
▪   The Salt Range and Khewra Salt Mine, April 12, 2016
▪   Derawar and the Desert Forts of Cholistan, April 12, 2016
Sindh
▪   Rani Kot Fort, Dadu, December 14, 1993
▪   Shah Jahan Mosque, Thatta, December 14, 1993
▪   Chaukhandi Tombs, Karachi, December 14, 1993
▪   Port of Banbhore, January 30, 2004
▪   Nagarparkar Cultural Landscape, April 12, 2016
Balochistan
▪ Archaeological Site of Mehrgarh, Balochistan, January 30, 2004
▪   Ziarat Juniper Forest, Balochistan, April 12, 2016 
▪  Hingol Cultural Landscape, Balochistan, April 12, 2016
▪  Karez System Cultural Landscape, Balochistan, April 12, 2016
Some of these extraordinary places, including the exquisite Badshahi Mosque, have been on the Tentative List since 1993, having never progressed to an actual nomination and, possibly, inscription. Thirty-one years is a long time to wait for recognition, and the question arises as to why that is. The simple reason is that the process is complex. The journey from the Tentative List to inscribed World Heritage status involves a rigorous evaluation process by UNESCO to meet at least one of ten strict criteria. It requires extensive research and documentation of a site's ability to be considered 'Outstanding Universal Value' and a consensus among national and provincial stakeholders for a nomination. Developing comprehensive nomination dossiers and managing conservation efforts for each site demand substantial resources. Like many countries, Pakistan faces limitations regarding funding, expertise, and infrastructure for site restoration and conservation, so in the face of competing economic priorities, heritage preservation is often the loser.


In 1982, during the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) General Conference, April 18 was designated the International Day for Monuments and Sites, now more popularly known as World Heritage Day, to raise public awareness about protecting our cultural assets, including ancient structures, historical monuments, and natural heritage.


Although Pakistan has diverse cultural and natural sites, prioritising which ones to nominate can be challenging. Some potential sites, which on the surface are obvious candidates, face significant conservation challenges such as inadequate maintenance, encroachment, or environmental degradation. Addressing these issues is crucial before seeking World Heritage status. While physical attributes of sites are essential, intangible cultural expressions such as music, poetry, and traditions also contribute to a nation's heritage. Their uniqueness must be clearly defined, and the global context matters. Sites facing conflict or natural calamities may find it harder to progress beyond the Tentative List.
Countries compete fiercely to achieve listing for heritage within their borders. Of the 195 State Parties (countries) that have ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention, 168 have submitted Tentative Lists. Pakistan ratified the World Heritage Convention on July 23, 1976. This significant step allowed Pakistan to participate in global efforts to safeguard and preserve cultural and natural heritage sites. Since then, Pakistan has actively engaged with UNESCO to advocate for our World Heritage sites and the need to recognise the immense global value of both preservation and conservation.
To initiate the process, an applicant country must first prepare an inventory of its important natural and cultural heritage sites, forecasting possible future nominations. The next step, often with the advice and assistance of the World Heritage Centre, is to prepare the comprehensive documentation and evaluations required to move to the nomination stage. Only then can the nomination be submitted to the World Heritage Centre for review. The World Heritage Centre then shares the file with the appropriate Advisory Bodies; International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). Once their evaluation is completed, the World Heritage Committee will decide on its inscription at their annual meeting. 
But being inscribed (listed) is not the end of the story. World Heritage status can be revoked if the site deteriorates due to neglect or other reasons detected by UNESCO inspection teams in subsequent monitoring missions. More than one of the sites in Pakistan has found itself at risk of having its World Heritage status suspended or revoked in the past. The threat of suspension focuses national and provincial stakeholders on the need for urgent remedial efforts to get back on the List. Fortunately, Pakistan's sites have retained their status despite some shaky moments. Excavations, restoration and conservation activities continue at all sites. 
The best way to understand and celebrate the wonders of these ancient places in Pakistan is to take a road trip to explore them. Only then can one grasp how incredible the earlier inhabitants of this ancient land were and the cultural and natural wonders. Before visiting, a little homework will be helpful to know more about the history and what to look for on the visit. UNESCO provides extensive information on its website for those who want to dig deeper into the treasure trove of information and documents on each inscribed site and those on the Tentative List. To summarise the extensive details provided by UNESCO, the following paragraphs provide quick insights into the history and outstanding universal value of each of the six which have achieved the ultimate status.
Pakistan's most ancient and best-preserved urban ruins date back to the 3rd millennium BC. Located 510 km northeast of Karachi and 28 km from Larkana in Sindh Province, Mohenjo-daro was the metropolis of the Indus Valley civilization, which flourished between 2,500 and 1,500 BC. The discovery of the extensive Mohenjo-daro ruins in 1922 revealed evidence of a well-planned metropolis of great importance that enjoyed a well-organized civic, economic, social and cultural system. Mainly built with baked bricks, modern-day visitors marvel at the city planning, with its well-laid-out streets, public baths, a college of priests, an elaborate drainage system, wells, sewage disposal pits, and a large granary bearing testimony to an ancient but civilized society. Much of the original city remains unexcavated but will reveal further wonders about this ancient civilisation.


Pakistan is proud to be home to six of the 1,199 World Heritage Sites, each of which tells us so much about our history, cultures and connection to this ancient land.


The Buddhist ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and the Neigbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are some of the most imposing relics of Buddhism in the Gandhara region of Pakistan. They are composed of two distinct components dating from the same era. The Buddhist ruins of Takht-i-Bahi (Throne of Origins) are a monastic complex founded in the early 1st century AD. The site is spectacularly positioned on various hilltops ranging from 36.6 metres to 152.4 metres in height, typical for Buddhist sites, and covers an area of around 33 hectares. The Buddhist monastery was in continual use until the 7th century AD. The buildings were constructed of stone in Gandhara patterns using locally dressed and semi-dressed stone blocks set in lime and mud mortar. Today, the ruins comprise a central stupa court, a votive stupa court, a group of three stupas, the monastic quadrangle with meditation cells, a conference hall, covered stepped passageways and other secular buildings.
The second component, the Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol, is the ruins of a small ancient fortified town of the Kushan period covering an area of 9.7 hectares. 
The UNESCO listing notes that 'the Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol in their setting, architectural form, design and construction techniques, are the most characteristic examples of the development of monastic and urban communities in the Gandharan region between the 1st to 7th century AD'.
Approximately 25 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, Taxila is a vast site with a Mesolithic cave and the archaeological remains of four early settlement sites, Buddhist monasteries, a Muslim mosque and a madrassa. Situated strategically on a branch of the Silk Road that linked China to the West, Taxila peaked between the 1st and 5th centuries. Today, it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia. The ruins of the four settlement sites at Taxila reveal the pattern of urban evolution on the Indian subcontinent through more than five centuries. One of these sites, the Bihr mound, is associated with the triumphant entry of Alexander the Great into Taxila.
Taxila illustrates the different stages in the development of a city on the Indus that was alternately influenced by Persia, Greece, and Central Asia and which, from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD, was an important Buddhist centre of learning. 
The site also includes Khanpur cave, which has produced stratified microlithic tools from the Mesolithic period, Buddhist monasteries, and stupas from various periods. Buddhist monuments erected throughout the Taxila Valley transformed it into a religious heartland and a destination for pilgrims from as far away as Central Asia and China. 
Rohtas Fort was built by Sher Shah Suri, the founder of the Suri dynasty in the 16th century, on a strategic site in northern Punjab. Rohtas is an exceptional example of early Muslim military architecture in central and south Asia. The main fortifications of this 70 hectare garrison consist of massive masonry walls more than four kilometres in circumference, lined with 68 bastions and pierced at strategic points by 12 monumental gateways. A blend of architectural and artistic traditions from elsewhere in the Islamic world, the Fort profoundly influenced the development of architectural style in the Mughal Empire.
The garrison complex was used continuously until 1707 and then reoccupied under the Durrani and Sikh rulers of the 18th and 19th centuries. No other surviving examples of military architecture of this period on the subcontinent are on the same scale and with the same degree of completeness and preservation. 
Lahore Fort and Shalimar Gardens are masterpieces from the Mughal civilization, which reached its height during Emperor Shah Jahan's reign. The design of the monuments of Lahore Fort and the features of the Shalimar Gardens exemplify the Mughal civilisation at the height of its artistic and aesthetic accomplishments in the 16th and 17th centuries. 
The Lahore Fort, situated in the northwest corner of the old Walled City, covers a site occupied for several millennia. Assuming its present configuration during the 11th century, the Fort was destroyed and rebuilt several times by the early Mughals from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Twenty-one monuments survive within its boundaries, comprising an outstanding repertory of the forms of Mughal architecture from the reign of Emperor Abu'l-Fath Jal ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1542-1605) through that of Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Shah Jahan (1627-58).
The Shalimar Gardens, constructed by Shah Jahan between 1641 and 1642, are a Mughal garden. They layer Persian influences over medieval Islamic garden traditions and bear witness to the height of Mughal artistic expression. 
Makli Necropolis is located in southeastern Sindh, approximately 98 km east of Karachi, near the apex of the Indus River Delta. This remarkable funerary site, one of the largest in the world, contains more than 500,000 and possibly as many as 1 million tombs and graves built over 400 years across about 10 square kilometres. 
Royalty, governors, saints, scholars, and philosophers are buried in brick or stone monuments, some decorated with dazzling glazed tiles. Among the outstanding monuments constructed in stone are the tombs of Jam Nizamuddin II, who reigned from 1461 to 1509, and of lsa Khan Tarkhan the Younger and his father, Jan Baba, both of whose mausolea were constructed before 1644. The most colourful is that of Diwan Shurfa Khan (who died in 1638). Preserved in a state of exceptional integrity, Makli is an outstanding example of the civilization of the Sindh region from the 14th to the 18th centuries. When visiting Makli, the beautiful Shah Jahan Mosque, completed in 1659 and located nearby in Thatta, is also a must-see. This beautiful mosque has also been tentatively listed for nomination. 
World Heritage sites are facing numerous challenges in the 21st century. One of the biggest is climate change. Rising temperatures, melting of glaciers, changing rainfall patterns, intensifying storms, and floods pose significant risks to preserving these cultural landscapes and architectural marvels. In the 2010 floods, 400,000 people took refuge for months on the higher ground surrounding Makli to escape the flood waters. This massive influx of people caused significant damage to the site. In the wake of the 2022 floods, which inundated much of Sindh and other provinces, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, visited Mohenjo-daro to view the devastation to the protective outer covering on the historic structure and excavations. He promised assistance, but given the funding challenges to UN agencies, this is minor compared to the damage. These global climate-related challenges have grown in size and severity across World Heritage Sites. The threat is real for Pakistan, which already faces increasing climate change devastation and is high on the list of most affected countries. 
Earthquakes, pollution, wildlife poaching, uncontrolled urbanisation, theft, rubbish dumping, poor restoration and conservation efforts, and unchecked tourist development also pose significant problems to World Heritage sites.1 Over the centuries, many ancient sites around the world have already been seriously damaged or destroyed by armed conflict and invading armies, and this trend continues into the 21st century. 
In the global economic downturn, acquiring funding from governments and organizations for conservation and restoration work has become increasingly complex. There is no doubt that World Heritage sites hold immense significance beyond their cultural and natural value and are worthy of funding. Their role in sustainable development and economic prosperity cannot be understated. The sites generate employment opportunities, including roles for restoration staff and contractors, tour guides and hospitality staff, and indirectly through related industries such as agriculture, food production, creative arts, and retail. Although efforts to increase tourism revenue are an obvious answer to improving funding, it is essential to balance increased visitor numbers with the conservation efforts critical to ensure the integrity of these sites. 
Let us celebrate World Heritage Day by cherishing these extraordinary relics of the country's ancient heritage, encouraging governments to invest in preservation and conservation to maintain sites, and the resources to progress other sites from the Tentative List to the nomination stage, educating communities, being responsible visitors, and doing all possible to continue preserving them for future generations. Once they're gone, they can never be replaced.


The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]


Note: Further additional information:
1. Explore Global World Heritage Sites at https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/
2. Discover World Heritage Sites in Pakistan at https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/pk


1.  UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2009. “World Heritage in Danger.” Unesco.org. 2009. https://whc.unesco.org/en/158.
 

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Jennifer McKay

The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

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