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The past is not just made of stone


El Parque nacional de Tongariro, Nueva Zelanda
© UNESCO/S.A. Tabbasum

The world’s heritage is about more than monuments and natural wonders — the intangible ideas and beliefs that make up our collective memory also have their rightful place.

by Léon Pressouyre 

What is the common thread running through the UNESCO World Heritage sites featured in this issue, which have inspired a constellation of writers and artists fascinated by their unique and irreplaceable nature? The sites may not be stars on the tourist circuit, nor are they formally connected with each other, but they are telling examples of some recent changes in our attitudes towards heritage. 

One is the steadily vanishing One is the steadily vanishing division between cultural and natural heritage.The other is a growing awareness of the value of intangible heritage, which is being undermined and too often brushed aside by the unstinting advance of globalization.

The World Heritage Convention, adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 1972, fashioned a vital, ground-breaking idea into an international legal statute. But it defined humanity’s heritage very conservatively under two headings: the cultural and the natural. This marked the culmination of a long tradition and of a more recent intellectual effort to match the splendours of art with the wonders of nature.

Humanity’s admiration for its own creations was displayed as far back as the second century B.C. in the famous list of the seven wonders of the world — a world narrowly confined to the eastern Mediterranean.

Tides, phoenixes and volcanoes: proof of divine power in nature

Few people are aware that the wonders of nature were in fact listed well before the modern era and the birth of environmental awareness. A 12th century Latin manuscript held in the French National Library, for instance, contrasts the seven destructible man-made wonders with seven wonders of nature which, the author says, are proof of divine power.

On the list are tides,plant germination, the phoenix (the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes), a volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily), a hot spring near Grenoble (France), as well as the sun and the moon. These were wonders unaffected by age or accident, the author maintains, and their demise could only come with the end of the world, whereas the man-made wonders were destined to disappear well before then.

The 1972 Convention reflects this dual European tradition. It was not the product of a debate among philosophers, historians and sociologists about the concept of heritage, but simply the convergence of two schools of thought.One came directly from the 1931 League of Nations conference in Athens, and concerned preserving cultural heritage as defined in terms of classical notions of a “ masterpiece” or  “wonder of the world.” The other stemmed from the first international conference on protecting nature, in Bern in 1913, which was followed up by the Brunnen conference in 1947 and the foundation the following year of the World Conservation Union, whose aim was to pass on to future generations “unspoiled” natural sites untouched by humans.

Vineyards and rice terraces find their way onto the List

This division between cultural treasures (thought of as monuments created by human beings) and natural ones (which owed nothing to human involvement) long dominated the application of the 1972 Convention. In 1994, nearly half the sites on the World Heritage List were cultural ones within Europe. Nothing could have been further removed from the spirit of the Convention.

When in June 1994 the World Heritage Committee adopted the recommendations of experts who had looked into how representative the List was, it absorbed the very different conception of culture espoused by anthropologists and ethnologists, one that encompasses a complex mixture of social organizations,ways of life, beliefs, know-how and expressions of past and present cultures.

The accession to the List of cultural landscapes, such as the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras and France’s Saint-Emilion vineyards, is one of the positive outcomes of the 1994 change in guidelines. A few years earlier, even though public interest in historical gardens (such as those of Shalimar, in Lahore, Pakistan) was fully recognized, sterile debates would probably have prevented them gaining a place on the List.

The same goes for industrial heritage. Before they began being put “openly” on the List, industrial sites were admitted in disguise: the salt mines at Wieliczka, in Poland, and the royal salt works in the French town of Arc-et-Senans, for example, were accepted in 1978 and 1988 on the basis of their architectural merit. Meanwhile, the prestige of monuments declined as interest grew in roads, railway networks, rivers and canals — all of them long neglected by the List,perhaps because of legal problems involved in preserving them.

Moving away from classical definitions of a masterpiece

Such choices reflect a significant change in our concept of heritage.By finally questioning the idea inherited from ancient times and firmly rooted in European culture of what a masterpiece is, the World Heritage Committee opened the way to a more balanced picture of humanity’s heritage. A shared and indivisible heritage, where the
interaction of people and nature is fully recognized, is gradually winning converts from the incomplete vision of heritage that the 1972 Convention perpetuated despite its best intentions.

No longer is the sacred Maori mountain in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park seen as very different from Mount Athos, in Greece,even though the forests and volcanic craters of the first aremonuments steeped in sacred meaning while the second houses the world’s largest collection of Byzantine art.

Legends, beliefs and traditions: safeguards to our collective memory

So intangible heritage — the amorphous body of beliefs, legends, written and oral traditions along with forms of behaviour that make up our diversity — has made a vigorous comeback onto the World Heritage List. The 1972 Convention made only passing mention of intangible heritage and tied it to the existence of material evidence. But after long neglect it now seems that intangible heritage is the key safeguard to humanity’s collective memory, precisely because of its very vulnerability.

What would happen to Marrakesh — whose city walls, mosques and palaces are preserved like museum pieces — if the Jemâa-el-Fna Square was no longer a vibrant and colourful meeting place of cultures, filled with music and hubbub and the aromas of several worlds that we are lucky to know?

What would the Sri Lankan city of Kandy be like without its annual pilgrimage that draws thousands of the faithful to venerate the remarkable relic that is the Buddha’s tooth? And what would become of the World Heritage site of Sukur, in Nigeria, if the highly structured society living there suddenly lost all its centuries-old traditions?

Back to the issue Seven writers in a world of wonders, December, 2000.

Léon Pressouyre

A professor at the Université Paris I,Léon Pressouyre is president of the Commission for the conservation of Bosnia- Herzegovina’s national monuments, within UNESCO. He was the ICOMOS coordinator (International Council on Monuments and Sites) for the World Heritage Convention between 1980 and 1990 and represented France on the World Heritage Committee from 1990 to 1997. He is the author of The World Heritage Convention, Twenty Years Later (UNESCO, 1993).