Sunday, May 25, 2014

Silk Road inscription into World Heritage list "hopeful"

The multinational campaign to include the Silk Road into the World Heritage list has entered the final countdown, with officials and experts sanguine about its success.

Jointly submitted by China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the application for adding part of the millennium-old trade route into the UNESCO list is expected to be finalized by a vote in June, when the World Heritage Committee convenes its 38th session in Doha.

Tong Mingkang, deputy director of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, was optimistic about the result as the route had won recommendation from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which serves as an important reference during the vote.

"We're now emphasizing conservation and management of the relics, and solving some technical problems," Tong told Xinhua on Friday during a seminar on the protection of Silk Road cultural heritages held in Xi'an City in northwest China.

As it is the first time China has cooperated with foreign countries for a World Heritage nomination (also the case for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), Tong described the Silk Road project as "very difficult", as the nominated heritages are often in different protection states, face different threats and are of different natures.

The application consists of 33 historical sites along the route, including 22 in China, eight in Kazakhstan and three in Kyrgyzstan. They range from palaces and pagoda sites in cities to ruins in remote, inaccessible deserts.

"It required large amounts of collaborative efforts to make the world recognize their values and significance," he said. SEEING THE DAWN

Once treaded by camel-driving merchants carrying silk, porcelain and spice, the about 2,000-year-old Silk Road was an important corridor for trade and cultural exchanges between Asia and Europe. It fell into disuse in the age of sailing in the 16th century.

The route once again came into the global spotlight after China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2011 formally launched the project to apply for adding "Silk Roads: Initial Section of the Silk Roads, the Routes Network of Tian-shan Corridor" into the World Heritage list.

An Jiayao, archaeologist with the Institute of Archaeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said success of the Silk Road campaign would be like "seeing the dawn" for researchers who have worked years, and even decades, on excavation and conservation of the relics.

Many Chinese archaeologists, including An, have taken part in UNESCO-initiated research on the Silk Road relics since 1990, but many of her colleagues have not lived to see the success which is almost on the horizon.

"They would be very glad if they knew that the Silk Road application for World Heritage eventually sees the dawn," An said at the seminar.

She said the nomination process has ushered in better protection for the relics, some of which had remained in oblivion or in a poor state of repair in the past.

Taking the Daming Palace as an example, the 67-year-old recalled when she joined its excavation in the 1990s, relics of this Tang Dynasty imperial palace in Xi'an, a starting point of the Silk Road, was encroached by graves and shantytowns.

Its fate was changed in 2007, when the Xi'an city government, in an effort to prepare the site for World Heritage status, began relocating locals to make way for a park, which opened in 2010 to better conserve and display the relics. STARTING POINT

In an evaluation report filed to the World Heritage Committee, the ICOMOS recognized the outstanding values of the Silk Road, saying they "contributed to the development of many of the world's great civilizations" and "represent one of the world's preeminent long-distance communication networks".

Still, experts with the ICOMOS expressed concerns about the threats facing properties, including urbanization, expanding roads and railways, and surging tourist numbers.

"In some places, there should be limits on the number of tourists to prevent damage to the ruins, while some others lack roads, facilities and management to receive visitors," said Rii Hae-un, executive committee member of the ICOMOS.

If the Silk Road gets enlisted, it will only be "a starting point", Rii said, urging the three countries to continue to work closely and address the insufficient protection at some nominated sites.

"From the beginning, the World Heritage List was created for the protection and conservation of heritages," Rii said, warning against neglecting conservation and management after inscription. Reports of such cases had prompted the committee to attach more weight to this regard during nomination and keep a close watch after inscription, Rii said.

Archaeologists also hope the expected inscription can inspire the protection of other sites along the Silk Road, many of which failed to enter this year's nomination list but carry no less historic value.

Tong said the Chinese government has put in force management plans for all the 22 nominated sites, while provincial and city governments administering them have signed agreements to better cooperate in protection.

Preparation for the inscription has also accrued experience for cross-boundary application for World Heritage status. The Maritime Silk Road, which also involves many countries, will surely benefit from the nomination of its overland peers, Tong said. 

Maritime Silk Road

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