Books: Modern African Architecture

A few weeks ago we’ve had an interesting discussion at the Forum about the unfulfilled potential of African sites as future WHS. With some creative thinking we easily came up with possible additions to tentative lists. But especially ‘modern’ sites, connected to for example modern architecture and urban planning, seem to be few and far between. Coincidentally, a recent publication on global heritage matters adresses just this issue.

Global Heritage Assemblages: Development and Modern Architecture in Africa by Christoph Rausch is the publication of a PhD thesis. After a longish introduction of the theoretical framework, the second part of the book focuses on 3 case studies on Modern African Heritage. The most captive is the story of Asmara, up for WH nomination this year. The author shows how both the transnational organizations such as the World Bank and the EU ánd the Eritrean government use the cultural heritage of the Modern Architecture of Asmara for their own purposes.

The early 20th century Italian colonial urbanism of Asmara is seen by the transnational organizations as a globally shared heritage, of importance to both colonizers and colonized. This is founded on a “nostalgia for colonial utopias of progress” and on the other hand on the creation of a “new blank canvas” for economic development (for example via heritage tourism and jobs in conservation).

But while the Eritrean regime welcomes the money that comes with this appreciation, it has its own agenda with Asmara – and it certainly doesn’t want to share! Its reference to the Italian colonial period legitimizes the existence of Eritrea within its current borders and thus enstrengthens nationalism. This difference in views even went so far that Eritrea has not wanted to nominate Asmara for WH status, fearing the responsibilities that come with it and “erosion of sovereignity”.

So one of the pitfalls is that ‘modern’ sites in Africa are often linked to colonialism – which isn’t something fairly recent independent countries creating their own identities want to be associated with. A different book, Modern architecture in Africa by Antoni Folkers, tries to highlight the 'other' modern African architecture. Folkers is a Dutch architect and founder of ArchiAfrika, an organization which also features in the book of Rausch. His knowledge is based on his own experiences in a dozen African countries.

This attractively illustrated 350 page book is a very enjoyable read, both for its insights in architecture and world history. An intriguing map of medieval African cities looks like a WHS map with names such as Mapungubwe, Kilwa, Marrakech and Ghadames. At least those seem well-represented on the List.

What about ‘modern’ cities? Casablanca is brought forward in the book for its urban planning and origin of the term ‘bidonville’. It’s on Morocco’s Tentative List, although its future track is unsure as Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle has already been brought forward relatively recently. African metropolises such as Kinshasa and Johannesburg have had to develop their own solutions for urban growth, though no outstanding example of this jumps out. To get away from the colonial bias and the difficult issue of ‘shared heritage’, one would be looking for architecture designed by Africans for Africans in African circumstances. The author critically looks upon the many preserved colonial fortresses, which seem to get more funding by the former colonizers than strictly African sites.

Few outstanding individual buildings are discussed in the book (which is more about urban planning). Noteworthy though are the Kaedi hospital (Mauretania), Gando school and the Koudougou central market (both Burkina Faso). The first two were designed by African architects. They are among the very few Subsaharan African constructions in the wider Islamic world awarded with the Aga Khan award for Architecture. None of them are TWHS, so there might be something to gain here.

Published 18 February 2018 Leave a Comment

Responses to Books: Modern African Architecture:

WHC 2017: Dilmun Burial Mounds

The Burial Ensembles of Dilmun and Tylos (renamed to: "Dilmun Burial Mounds") are nominated by Bahrain to become a WHS later this year. This move forward is quite surprising, as in the past these burial fields have been known as sites with ‘issues’. “In a New Age, Bahrain Struggles to Honor the Dead While Serving the Living” wrote the New York Times in 2009, while CNN similarly reported in 2013: “In Bahrain, development chips away at world's largest, oldest burial site”.

Hamad Burial Mounds

The Dilmun civilization existed in what now is Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and coastal Saudi Arabia. It controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes and was an important trading center from the late fourth millennium to 800 BC. Tylos was the name used by the Greeks to refer to Bahrain after the Dilmun period (ca. 6th to 3rd century BC). While burial mounds or tumuli are quite a common sight all over the world, these Bahraini ones from the Dilmun and Tylos eras “have the highest density of mound fields in a limited territory and the highest concentration of mounds in one single field”.

The excellent Bahrain National Museum is a good start for learning about this ancient period and the tradition of tumulus construction - they even have an original burial mound on show that has been moved from Hamad. During my visit to Bahrain in 2011 I further visited 5 out of the 11 locations that are part of this Ensemble: the A’Ali tumuli, the Hamad Town Tumuli (cluster of 3 locations) and Saar Heritage Park. The latter two are also separately on Bahrain’s Tentative List.

Sign prohibiting the extraction of sand and stones (A'Ali, 2011)

In my memory, the visits to Hamad and A’Ali have blurred into one. I can only distinguish between the photos of the two based on the digital time stamps. Both are dusty fields in an urban setting, and I found them as neglected as is described in the reports above from the NYT and CNN. The high density of the mounds is the most distinguishing feature of the sites, like a giant mole has been at work. Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now.

The other burial site is located at Saar. Saar Heritage Park consists of the remains of a village, with streets, a temple and a cemetery. It appears that only its cemetery will be part of this nomination. It is characterized by two large tumuli. Saar definitely is the most interesting site to visit, though it all has to be considered from an archaeological perspective.

One of the tombs at Saar

There’s no doubt that these are important archaeological sites in Bahrain and the wider region. So why have they suffered so much neglect? Partly of course this is because of the growing pains of a fast developing and overpopulated country. It also seems that local people that live next to the locations have little appreciation and awareness about the mounds. For WH inscription, the main question will be whether the Bahraini state has turned the conservation issues around and have presented a perfect picture to the visiting inspectors from ICOMOS.

Published 11 February 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHC 2017: Dilmun Burial Mounds:

Els Slots (12 February 2017):
This is the source that I used:

Solivagant (12 February 2017):
Am interested in this comment above - "Technically though they weren’t constructed as mounds or tumuli: they were cylindrical stone towers, surrounding a grave chamber. Only natural erosion and the drifting sand has turned the landscape into what it looks now."
Do you have a reference for it?
We have both seen the mounds in situ and the cut-away reconstructions in the National Museum and my understanding was that, although there are different types of interior tomb and mound size across many centuries and that they have no doubt become eroded from their original pristine shape, they all were indeed "mounds" and not "cylindrical stone towers". Inside, beneath the earth, are different types of interior chambers according to period and status of the family but externally all were covered by earth/sand to create a proper "mound".

Now of course it is possible for "Mounds" to have low "side walls" keeping the mound "neat"- I think of some Korean tombs and also the Etruscan ones at Cerveteri (though those walls tend to be carved into rock with an earth "dome").

This is the "best" academic article I have been able to find on the subject and it contains cut-away diagrams of early and late mounds
Figures 2 A and B would seem to show that both early and late tombs were presented as "mounds".

WHS #625: Par force hunting landscape

“You don’t need luck. You need good shoes!”, fellow WH traveller Nan e-mailed me when I told him to wish me luck ticking off the Par force hunting landscape. He was so right, and I’d like to add to others that plan to visit this WHS: also bring snacks, something to drink and a smartphone with GPS. And do read up a bit about what par force hunting entails beforehand.

From the 3 main components of this WHS, I had set my sights on Store Dyrehave (“large deer park”). Both Store Dyrehave and a formerly connected second component, Gribskov, lie near the town of Hillerød (the third, Jaegersborg, is located closer to Copenhagen, sees a whopping 7.5 million visitors a year and is already well-covered on this website).

Entering the forest of Store Dyrehave

Getting to Hillerød already did not prove to be as easy as internet research had lead me to believe. Part of the direct S-train route was blocked, so passengers had to be transported by buses to the final destination. This added another 20 minutes to the 1 hour trip from Copenhagen Airport.

Having finally arrived at the station in Hillerød, you'll just have to walk. There is no signposting at all. Beforehand I had carefully studied the route to the deer park and downloaded a map of the area to my phone. Both actions proved necessary, not at least to find the "right" patch of forest: a remarkably similar forest lies on the other side of the main road Københavnsvej - but that is not part of the WHS.

Using my sense of direction (and the help of the GPS on my phone) I hiked towards the center of the park. I had given myself a time-box of two hours to catch a glimpse of the meager remains of this former hunting landscape. Those being – according to the nomination file – “markers”, “numerical place names” and “an emblematic marker (Kongestenen)”. It’s like doing a treasure hunt with no clues. So I was quite happy when I came across an original marker for road #8 after a while: these numbered stones signal the 8 main radiating roads that lead to the central point.

A first marker!

Store Dyrehave now is used mainly by mountain bikers and joggers. The distances are actually a bit too long to enjoy for hiking and the landscape too monotonous. After an hour though I was rewarded for my efforts: I found the central point, the intersection where the 8 roads diverge in a star shape. I was really pleased with myself, and even rather impressed by the ingenious lay-out of the lanes and the original star stone at the center. Here, the ritual slaughter of the captured animal by the King would have taken place to end it all. It reminded me of a children’s TV series from my youth (‘De Zevensprong’ – Crossroads of Seven Roads): each episode started and ended at the crossroads of 7 roads in a mysterious forest setting.

On my way back I took road number 6, one of the other main lanes. It ends at the northern end of the park, where part of the original stone fence is still visible. Close to this exit is a parking lot with an information panel in Danish and English about the park's WH status.

The Apotheosis

In hindsight and comparing the experiences of other reviewers, Store Dyrehave may be the best among the locations to understand what this WHS is about. If you arrive by car (recommended), park it at the main parking lot along Overdrevsvejen.

Answering a recent observation by Solivagant (how to handle trips to European WHS that aren’t among the continent’s highlights): I ‘did’ this as a day trip from my home, flying to Copenhagen early morning and returning early evening. My plan was to spice it up a bit by combining a visit to this WHS with the Islamic art of the David Collection. In the end however the WH visit took so long that I didn’t have time left for the museum.

Published 4 February 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #625: Par force hunting landscape:

Completing Europe

Covering Europe is key to a high WHS score: the List is definitely eurocentric, and the high density of sites combined with good infrastructure and relatively short distances make for easy pickings. I like to set myself (travel) goals, and was wondering how long it would take me to see all WHS in Europe using only (sometimes longish) weekend breaks. Earlier I have written about how I choose destinations and prepare for my longer trips. Here’s my plan for the shorter ones in Europe. All with one goal in mind: ‘completing’ Europe!

Density of WHS locations in Europe

Narrowing it down

UNESCO has divided the WHS into their own version of ‘continents’, and now has 499 sites in 'Europe and North America'. On this website I have 500 as the total number because of Jerusalem, which is attributed to Jordan on the UNESCO list while I have it linked to Israel. That’s not meant as a political statement, but a mere practicality in the database. It doesn’t matter anyway for this description of achieving my goal, as I have been to the Old City of Jerusalem WHS already.

When you leave out the sites in the USA and Canada from the list of 500, there are 461 sites left in Europe. Of these 461, I have already visited 357. Looking at the general overview, my Europe score is relatively high. It’s also clear that one needs a high score in Europe to be among the top WH visitors.

This means there are 104 WHS left ‘to do’ for me. Six of these however lie in “colonies” in geographical different continents. I will deduct those as they logistically need different trips. They are: the Lagoons of New Caledonia, the Pitons of Réunion, Willemstad (Curaçao), Henderson Island, Gough and Inaccessible Islands and St. George. (Bermuda).

So I have 98 left!

Hard to access: Wrangel Island (satellite view)

Making a plan

I started working on a plan to cover these final 98 sites. I created yet another spreadsheet, and divided these remaining 98 WHS into 3 categories:

1. Weekend trips (without taking a day off from work, so Fri evening - Sun evening)

2. Long weekend trips (3-4 days, Thur – Sun, making good use of public holidays)

3. Short breaks (up to one week)

The smaller blocks (category 1) are actually preferred because they won’t cost me vacation days. Of course one could lump a number of the weekend destinations together into 1 or 2 week trips, but that’s not what I want (I need those for destinations further away)!

What becomes clear quickly is that the countries on the fringes of Europe (such as Russia, Turkey, Georgia and Israel) warrant full trips on their own. They do not share the same characteristics, are more challenging logistically.

Two sites are even impossible to visit within one week: for Wrangel Island cruises take about 14 days for a roundtrip and Putorana Plateau costs at least 10 days if you can arrange it at all. Derbent also seems terrible to get to under your own steam, although more due to safety than remoteness.

Should be an easy one: Visby

How long will it still take me?

It would take me a daunting 65 different trips all together to ‘complete’ Europe:

17 different weekends

30 different long weekends

16 short breaks

2 specials

At my current level of some 7 weekend trips a year, it would cost me at least 10 years (assuming I can find time in my travel schedule to fit in those one week short breaks). Even without any work or money or stamina limitations, it would still take 294 days to string them all together in successive visits.

But this whole excercise has made me more aware about the logistic possibilities, and I found out that there are more weekend trips still doable for me than I thought. So watch out for WHS reports of the Parforce Hunting Landscape, Burgundy and the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans in the coming weeks!

Published 27 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Completing Europe:

Solivagant (29 January 2017):
Another aspect of the “unvisited 98” which might be worth having a bit of a discussion about is the number of “mediocre” ones included within – hardly surprising in that the European “stars” are likely to have been already picked up by Els. Unfortunately the “Top 200 List” format on the Web site doesn’t facilitate analysis by Continent - but I wonder how many of the 98 are on it? I suspect the majority are going to be those on the “periphery” of Europe!
Now of course, to a committed “WHS traveller”, the mere fact of being inscribed provides some intrinsic value and that “tick” has its own “value” but how many of them would one really go out of one’s way to see if one didn’t live only a “Short weekend” trip away from them or if one wasn’t passing by as part of a longer visit to the country?
I did a quick “personal” subjective assessment – We have already visited 59 of the 98 and, of these I would only place 14 in my “highest recommendation” category ( Mt Athos (sorry Els - you are only ever going to see it from the boat!), Meteora, Thingvellir, Surtsey, Scelig Michel, Masada, Bib Tells, W Nor Fjords, Kizhi, Baikal, Troy, Catalhoyuk, St Kilda, Orkney). Of the remaining 39 I would only place 8 among my “top unvisited” list (Vezere, Pont d’Arc (but then there is the “replica” issue which somewhat degrades the value), Svaneti, Su Nuraxi, Solovetsky, White Monuments, Kamchatka, Lena Pillars). So, as with Els, Russian WHS remain a significant gap (at least in our perception!) - but we have already visited the country itself at least 6 times across the past 50 years so it would have to be a visit mainly to see these “gaps” with a “take” on contemporary Russia as an additional driver – not a really storng dirver with other sites around the World calloing. Svaneti was “closed” when we visited Georgia - I think we are unlikely to kindle enthusiasm to revisit just for it. Which leaves Su Naraxi – I guess we need to start looking at the Ryanair/Easyjet schedules to do an “Els Weekend” there!!

Els Slots (29 January 2017):
@Alexander Barabanov: Indeed Russia is a particular weakness of mine (as well as not having been to Egypt yet after almost 30 years of travelling). The sites surrounding Moscow and Kazan should be relatively easy to cover though. But I'd rather save them for a longer trip, stringing them together with a Transsiberian Railway route to Vladivostok.

@Solivagant: "And across the next 10 years Europe seems likely to add another say 8 pa average (?) = 80"
Oops - I forgot about that. Sigh.

nan (28 January 2017):
I would also exclude sites that aren't geographically in Europe. Personally, I rather try to finish a country than a continent ;)

Solivagant (27 January 2017):
Even across 10 years there is a fair bit of optimism there! Despite my reputation for travelling fast I am not sure I would want to combine Orkney and St Kilda as a combi in a single week-end, flying into/out of Inverness from NL. And it isn't quite clear whether the "combi" of Surtsey/Thingvellir is a "Short break" or a "Long w/e". As you have commented on posts for similar subjects "WHS" aren't the only reason to visit a country and to go all the way to Iceland and then try to do it in a "short break" (Let alone a "long week-end"!) would be a bit of a waste. The same point applies elsewhere.
And across the next 10 years Europe seems likely to add another say 8 pa average (?) = 80. With previous wide travel and good planning a fair number might be achievable without many more "week ends" but there will always be the odd one tucked away in "European" corner not otherwise being covered - e.g Gran Canary??!
Anyway - plenty to keep you going for a fair number of years to come

Alexander Barabanov (27 January 2017):
So much of Russia to be covered!
As I understand, Russia usually issues single visa, which is very expensive, correct? Would be especially difficult to tick off remote Russian sites, which require multiple trips, like Lena Pillars or Sikhote-Alin..
In my management file I separate Europe and Asia and categorize everything to the right from the Ural mountains as Asia (e.g. Putorana; Lena Pillars, Baikal, etc.). That's why I only have 416 European sites..
In fact yes, it could only be faster if you only concentrate on Europe, but it's not realistic, given other interesting destinations...

WHS #624: Royal Joseon Tombs

With the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty, I ‘finished’ South Korea’s batch of 12 entries on the current World Heritage List. Like many of the others – 6 to be precise – it lies well within the range of the Seoul Hotspot. The Joseon Tombs comprise 18 different locations, of which I chose the Donggureung Cluster to visit - “the largest and most attractive” according to the Lonely Planet ánd our own South Korea expert Kyle Magnuson.

Overview of the basic lay-out of each tomb

Donggureung lies in Guri, a city typical for the Seoul metropolitan area with its many numbered grey high-rise apartment blocks. The bus driver alerted me where I had to get off the bus, but I had seen it already myself as there are big signs in Korean and English pointing to this royal cemetery. Despite the urban setting, this is a peaceful location in a forested area. There were few other visitors when I arrived on a Friday morning, only a couple of the ubiquituous Korean pensioners and even a small group of birders. Entrance costs a nominal 1,000 Won (ca. 0.80 EUR).

Donggureung literally means "East Nine Royal Tombs”: there are 9 tombs that hold the remains of 17 Joseon kings and queens. Each of the nine has a separate setting in the forest, and they are linked by paths. The paved paths behind the entrance gate to each tomb follow the same principle as those at the Jongmyo Shrine: the central path is for the spirits (not to be walked on by mere mortals), the one alongside is for the kings (which nowadays may be used by normal visitors). Each path ends at a pavillion, and behind it lies the actual tomb on a hill. One of the unfortunate circumstances of Donggureung is that it is forbidden to get close to the hill-tombs - you have to stay behind a fence.

Mongneung tombs

The most interesting among the tombs here, one with a real Wow-factor, is that named ‘Mongneung’. It has 3 different graves in a wide open, grassy area. Each is located on a separate hill. The furthest of the 3 is the only one in the whole area that can be climbed, so you can have an up-and-close look at the stone objects that decorate the graves. Many of these are similar, and represent soldiers and government employees that stand guard.

I also enjoyed just roaming the paths of the forest where the tombs are located at. In addition to a few bird species, bigger animals seem to visit the grounds too: I noticed signs (in Korean only) displaying a warning about a beast resembling a wild boar.

Close-up of the stone figures "guarding" the grave

Like Korean food, most of the Korean WHS are not as accessible as their Japanese or Chinese counterparts and require an ‘acquired taste’. In contrast to the other main Northeast Asian countries, Korea isn’t overly Buddhist (Christianity even is the main religion nowadays) and the sites in and around Seoul are mostly Confucian - with its often difficult to grasp concepts and rites for an outsider. To me though, these Joseon tombs are very much worth their spot on the List for their atmospheric setting and testimony to a very distinct royal burial practice.

Published 21 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #624: Royal Joseon Tombs:

WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju

The Baekje Historic Areas cover 8 archaeological sites in 3 clusters, representing the 3 former capital cities of this historic kingdom. During my stay in Seoul, I visited the Gongju cluster on a day trip by public transport. It was my first experience with Korea's long-distance bus system since my earlier visit in 2001, and it was a real pleasure to be transported on-time for only 7.20 EUR on a luxury coach with wide and comfy seats. It took 1.5 hours from the Seoul Express Bus Station to Gongju Bus Station.

Lotus Pond at Gongsanseong Fortress

Gongju nowadays has an odd city plan, with the river splitting it in two. A quick look at this provincial city proves that not everywhere in South Korea is as modern and prosperous as Seoul. The two components of the WHS are clearly visible from afar, each covering a hilltop near the river bridge closest to the city center. I first walked to Gongsanseong fortress. As I had spent the day before at Namhansanseong, I couldn’t bring up much enthusiasm for yet another Korean fortress. The flags are yellow here (“the national colour of Baekje, representing the center of the universe”), the walls steep and the main area without much sites of interest. Very little reminds of the Baekje area: the absolute low point is the “Site of Baekje Building”, which is just a flat piece of grass land.

After half an hour or so I decided to move on to the second component of the WHS and the renowned Gongju museum. As said, this part is also clearly visible on a hill – but how to get there? I went on foot from the fortress, and quite nearby there’s a sign pointing to ‘Jeongjisan Archaeological Site’. However I ended up in a residential area with fiercely barking dogs, and never found any access to the WH area from this approach.

Reconstructed tomb of King Muryeong

I had brought a sketch of a map with me, and it seemed to show the main entrance of the complex to the back of the hill. So that meant another rather long walk on the Gongju pavements. Finally I ended up at the Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri. The area seemed deserted, but when I approached a ticket seller lifted the shutter of his booth and sold me a ticket. Then a trail awaits along the underground exhibitions and the tumuli outside. The interiors of the tumuli are all closed off nowadays, so the underground exhibition is the only way to admire the creative, Chinese inspired way of burial chamber design of the Baekje. Undoubted highlight is the tomb of King Muryeong: it looks as if he was buried in a book case!

The outdoor area is nice enough for a short stroll, but doesn’t bring more than a series a grassy bumps that cover the original graves. The trail along the tumuli ends at the far end of the archaeological area, and that’s where the entrance to the Gongju Museum lies. It’s a gigantic modern building. At the entrance I’m overloaded with free brochures, including a map of the whole Baekje area (including the other former capitals next to Gongju). The main hall on the first floor is dedicated to the findings from the Songsan-ri tombs. The most impressive one is that of the aforementioned King Muryeong. He and his wife were buried with many of their possessions such as weapons, tableware (from China), jewelry and shoes. A couple of the exhibits are currently away on loan to the National Museum in Gongju, where I had also admired them about a week ago.

Baekje crown ornaments in National Museum

So that’s all there is. I must say that the museum exhibits and the underground reconstruction of the tombs were the most impressive. There’s not much left of the structures that the Baekje built. For future visitors to Gongju and both WH locations, I’d like to suggest taking a taxi or local bus (101 apparently) from the bus station to the Gongju National Museum. I walked everywhere, and especially the way back from the museum to the bus station across the river is tiring.

Published 14 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju:

Kyle (winterkjm) (13 January 2017):
"it looks as if he was buried in a book case!" I love this description, great pictures by the way.

WHS #622: Namhansanseong

Namhansanseong was the ‘contingency capital’ for the Korean Joseon Dynasty, built as a mountain fortress in the early 17th century. I visited it on a day trip from Seoul – although it lies only some 25km outside of the capital, it took me 1.5 hours to get there by metro and bus. Looking at the number of large parking lots and restaurants, the site must see huge crowds during the weekends (over 3 million visitors already in the year 2010, before WH inscription!).

Entrance to Emergency Palace area

On a weekday though, the place is the domain of elderly hikers. Most of them actually got off one bus stop earlier than I did, for the start of the trails that run on and alongside the walls. I eventually found myself at the roundabout of a tourist village, wondering what to do. I noticed some more traditionial looking buildings a bit to the north. These turned out to be the newly restored Emergency Palace, plus ticket and information stalls. I first went to get a ticket, which I was given for free although there is a usual entry fee of 2,000 Won. Maybe it was a special day, or were they just happy to welcome a foreigner? The ticket by the way is for the Emergency Palace only, the rest of the site is free of charge.

At the entrance of the Palace an older man in traditional custome was strategically posted to catch any innocent visitors. He turned out to be an official guide with good English. So he enthousiastically took it upon him to show me around the Palace and tell all about it. Besides an ancestral shrine and offices, the Palace contained modest living quarters for the king and the crown prince – I gathered from the guide that their wives stayed in Seoul! The buildings have been freshly painted and just as many other South Korean sites are a bit dull in decorations.

Woodwork at Emergency Palace

After the Palace I went for a walk. One can hike the whole wall along the four entrance gates. That was too much for me, so I walked from the center outwards first to the East Gate and later (after lunch) to the South Gate. The route to the East Gate goes on a normal pavement through the not so interesting parts of Namhansanseong’s tourist town. The gate itself, though spectacularly located against a steep hill ridge, lies next to a heavy travelled road.

The South Gate is (according to the nomination file) by far the most visited of the gates. It seems to be the preferred starting place for hikers, the trails aren’t so steep here. I didn’t really know where to go and quickly retraced my steps to return to the bus stop.

At the South Gate

Looking back after having now visited all South Korean WHS, I must say that I found Namhansanseong the least interesting (although it has some competition of other recent nominations). There is actually a second location to this WHS (“the remains of two Sinnam advanced defensive posts”) which none of the reviewers has checked out yet – so maybe we can get a new angle from that?

Published 11 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #622: Namhansanseong:

Kyle (winterkjm) (10 January 2017):
I think I am in the minority, but Namhansanseong is far more interesting to me than Hwaseong Fortress, which was never actually used for anything. Granted, the gates at Hwaesong do stand out!

1) There are vast sections of wall that are basically in ruins (outer wall), other sections are moderately restored and reflect early 17th century fortress design in Korea.

2) Namhansanseong is a Provincial park and the nature can be stunning, particularly in Spring and Fall.

3) The fortress was under siege for a month in one of the most famous battles on the Korean peninsula.

As Els mentioned, there are at least 2 downsides, the tourist village in the fortress center is not particularly interesting or scenic. Secondly, the reconstructed Emergency Palace, which was criticized by ICOMOS is an example where Korean enthusiasm for cultural heritage and tourism runs a fine line between education and lack of authenticity.

Perhaps I am biased after 2 visits and a 5 hour hike. That much effort requires positive affirmations!

Palau and the Yapese Stone Money

Palau’s best chance of a second WHS is the serial transnational nomination of the Yapese Disk Money Regional Sites / Yapese Quarry Sites. This collection of 4 locations in two countries has already been brought forward in 2010, but ended up with a Deferral advice from ICOMOS and a subsequent withdrawal of the nomination by the Federated States of Micronesia (representing Yap) and Palau. They will try again in (possibly) 2018.

Orrak Island with overgrown causeway

Palau played an important role in the origin and practice of the use of stone disk money on Yap. Although the island state lies almost 500km away, with its fine limestone it provided the source for producing the large disks that were used on Yap as stone money. In 1883 it was reported by judicial commissioner G.R. Le Hunte that he found around 100 Yapese at Palau cutting stones and preparing them for transport.

The two locations on Palau included in the original nomination are called ‘Uet el Doab ma Uet el Beluu’ and ‘Chelechol ra Orrak’. After the discussion we recently had on the Forum and some further research, I’m quite sure that both are located on the island of Orrak (the former in the interior, the latter near the beach). I found the original ICOMOS evaluation of 2010, which sheds further light on the boundaries of this nomination. The locations on Orrak Island are both quarry sites.

Approach to Airai

Orrak is a tiny island, which was connected to Airai Village in Babeldaob “by a prehistoric causeway constructed of coral rubble now covered in mangrove vegetation”. From the harbour of Airai this causeway is still visible, although it’s also easy to see that it is broken down by water in one or two places.

The Yapese did not just go and take the stone disks from Palau: they had arrangements with the traditional owners of the lands for the quarrying rights, and brought gifts from the chiefs of Yap to the chiefs of Palau. In the case of Orrak Island, this meant the chiefs of the village of Airai. In its evaluation, ICOMOS argues that there is at least an intangible relationship between the quarry sites on Orrak and the village of Airai. Therefore the village itself could be part of the revised nomination or at least the buffer zone.

On my first day driving around Babeldoab, I checked out Airai too. It has probably the finest example of a traditional bai (men’s meeting house) of Palau.

Airai Bai

Unfortunately I did not have the time to arrange a visit to Orrak Island while on Palau, although I was tempted to speak to one of the fishermen present at Airai to take me across. Which locations finally will end up in the new nomination is not clear: ICOMOS requested a further justification of the selection of these two sites on Orrak Island, as there are at least nine other documented quarry sites on Palau (including the already inscribed Omis Cave (part of Rock Islands WHS) and the one tourists get sent to, Metuker ra Bisech).

Published 7 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Palau and the Yapese Stone Money:

WHS #621: Rock Islands

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon so far is Palau’s only WHS. It encompasses a marine area south of the nation’s main islands Babeldaob and Koror. The lagoon is a maze of some 445 karstic islands, of which many show a typical mushroom-like shape. The site is a mixed WHS: some difficult to access archaeological sites are part of the core area too, mostly on Ulong and Ngeruktabel islands.

Typical Rock Island

The WHS cannot be visited under your own steam: you have to join a tour, hire private boat transport or step on the state ferry to the outlying island of Peleliu that only runs twice a week. I visited the Rock Islands with Impac Tours – this may be Palau’s largest and most professional tour outfitter, aimed especially at a Japanese audience but other nationalities are welcome too. On my tour an English speaking guide and a Chinese & Korean speaking guide supported the Japanese head guide. The cost was 95 USD for the tour, plus 50 USD for a special conservation permit.

I joined 20 other tourists on the ‘Rock Islands plus Kayaking’ full day tour. Around 9 a.m. each day you’ll see many boats leaving the tourist resort of Koror – one hardly has the lagoon (which isn’t too big by the way) to itself. But it must be said that the Impac guides tried to avoid anchoring at places where there were already other boats. Probably the best part of the day was the hour that we spent kayaking. A kayak gets you up and close with the islands. You’ll notice the sharpness of their limestone ridges that protrude above sea level, you can touch them with your hands. We kayaked into a small bay, where we were in for a surprise as I spotted a smallish crocodile on the shore! According to the nomination file, only 500-750 saltwater crocodiles inhabit this conservation zone.

Kayaking is the best way to explore

For lunch we stopped at one of the bigger islands, one of the few that has a sandy beach. This also presented an opportunity to have a closer look at the flora of these islands. All Rock Islands are lush and green – it rains a lot here. Huge ferns and palm trees are prominent, but so are exotic-looking flower and fruit bearing plants that I do not know the name of.

Most tourists visit Palau and the Rock Islands because of the excellent diving opportunities. On this tour we had the chance to sample some underwater life at two different snorkeling spots. It was my first time to snorkel and I could not really get much pleasure out of it (I'm not really a 'water person'). But it may be clear that marine life is both colourful and abundant here.

Lush and green

The Rock Islands have been compared to Halong Bay, but Palau's remote location in the Pacific guarantees that this area stays much more pristine than the Vietnamese tourist trap. The shapes of the karst islands are different as well. Unfortunately, the Rock Islands’ distinctive marine lakes cannot be visited (the only one that generally is open to tourists, Jellyfish Lake, is still recovering from 2016's El Niño effects).

Published 4 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #621: Rock Islands:

Els (4 January 2017):
It may be allowed (with a permit), but I guess you'll have to be a strong kayaker to do it and know your way around in the maze of islets.

Wojtek (4 January 2017):
Actually, Rock Islands can be visited on your own. You have to pay for a permit and then you may go with your own kayak, camping on the beaches of some bigger islands.

Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin)

Palau’s Stone Coffin or Tet el Bad is one of the strangest entries on any Tentative List. It may be the smallest object in size: it measures 233cm by 66cm, at a height of 40cm. And it is a moveable structure, not only in theory but also in real life as it has been moved for research to a museum in Koror in the 1930s. It has stayed there until the 1980s, when it was transported back to its place of origin on northern Babeldaob. Despite its flaws, I am going to write a full 500 word blog post / review about it!

The Object

The coffin lies on Palau’s main island, Babeldaob. When I was young I was active with geofiction, and Babeldaob could have been a creation of mine (its name sounds like fiction already). Somehow the countries I created were always islands, often located in the Pacific. Always round or oval-shaped, with points of interest scattered around evenly across the surface. For sure I would have designed a flag for it, another one of my childhood interests.

Finding this stone coffin required some determination. I had rented a car from my hotel in Koror (on a different island, but connected to Babeldaob via a bridge), and drove all the way north to the ‘state’ of Ngarchelong. Possibly due to its long connection with the USA, Palau calls its communes ‘states’ – each often having not more than a few hundred inhabitants. There is only one main road into Ngarchelong, so that part is easy. To get to the coffin, you have to drive on to the hamlet of Ollei. This lies further north (but along the same road) as the Badrulchau Stone Monoliths and the ruins of a Japanese lighthouse. I had to ask for directions at both sites, as the Stone Coffin is not signposted.

Approach to the Stone Coffin

The fifth or so building after the turn-off to the Japanese ruins is the village house of Ollei, and that’s where the coffin lies behind (still without any sign). When you face the building, there is a patch of grass to the right and from there you’ll see a path going uphill. This is the trail that you need to take: the coffin lies some 20 metres to the left and is in the process of being overgrown by weeds and plants.

Surprisingly little can be found about the history of this stone coffin. It originates from Medong in Ngarchelong, which may or may not be a different place from Ollei where it is located now (one source has it that Medong is a terrace system on Ollei). Traditionally on Palau, people were buried on specific burial platforms on modified ridges or earthworks. The coffin’s current location can be seen as a kind of stone platform too. Its age is unknown, but it probably was carved after the Palauans had contact with Europeans and Japanese and adopted (forced or willingly) their burying practices. The stone coffin effectively mimicks a European-style coffin.

Badrulchau Stone Monoliths

The coffin resembles a sarcophagus, it is hollow inside and has a lid with two knobs on each side that can be taken off. It is made out of basalt. Apparently the coffin contained the remains of two individuals which were brought to Japan for study in the early 1900s, but much of the information has been lost. The individuals might have been a female and a child another source says. The Palauans were expert carvers, using the abundant soft stone on their islands. The nearby Badrulchau Stone Monoliths are another example of this: their date of origin is also unknown, and it is uncertain whether the monoliths and the stone coffin are related in any way.

Published 1 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin):

wojtek (3 January 2017):
What a story, I feel ashamed that mine was so short. But this magnificent object certainly deserves attention :)

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