Wednesday 3 June 2009

Kashgar archaeology

Kashgar, China — A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same. […] Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. […] In its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture “to preserve the Uighur culture,” […] No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.

I really cannot believe I read that. Unbelievable. Scandalous. Quite apart from the human tragedy of communities being uprooted and the destruction of part of the cultural landscape, the foundations and infrastructure of “midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture” will irreparably damage the archaeological record of two millennia or more of events under today’s houses and streets in the town centre. Within those layers will be enormous quantities of archaeological evidence, finds, environmental samples (and yes, items that could be counted as "ancient art"). Nobody can say whether this evidence would change our knowledge of this place or not until the material has been documented and studied. Eighty five percent destruction of the archaeological record means there must be archaeological mitigation of damage to eighty five percent of the archaeological record.

In any case, having worked on a number of urban projects in the past, I very much doubt anyway if the Chinese government knows “everything” about the archaeology of Old Kashgar. Let us see the international community challenge the Chinese government to justify this view before they do any earthmoving here.

But this evidence does not just refer to one place, Kashgar has the potential of revealing much about the rhythms of exchange of various products along one of the most spectacular and interesting of the long-distance trade routes of the ancient world. Destroying the archaeological record here is not just destruction of evidence about Kashgar, its implications go much wider. To commit such a culture crime would be highly irresponsible on a scale much greater than the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas. What on earth is the Chinese government thinking about?

This is the head of the Chinese government President Hu Jintao.

And here is his political creed, the Ba Rong Ba Chi: "Eight Honours and Eight Shames":

Love the country; do it no harm.
Serve the people; never betray them.
Follow science; discard superstition.
Be diligent; not indolent.
Be united, help each other; make no gains at others' expense.
Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.
Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.
Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

I think Mr Hu's government has just added a ninth shame.

It is pure hypocrisy to demand that cultural goods in outside markets return to China, while China wantonly destroys hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of the unwritten history of part of its territory in the form of 85% of the archaeological heritage of a site of national significance like Kashgar. How much else of other less prominent sites is going under the bulldozer as I write?

Photo: death of a town.

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