The most recent Art + Culture blog post focused on the Palestinian bid to gain UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (which it has since been awarded). The contentious politics involved in the move were further sharpened by recent comments from PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad describing the bid’s success as “the most remarkable event on the path of Palestinian state-building since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.”
The Church of the Nativity is not the only controversy surrounding a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as Islamist groups have recently targeted the shrines of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, Mali.
The UNESCO designation in Mali has been helpful in drawing attention to the situation unfolding inside the country. Both this incident, and the Palestinian bid, underscore how sources of contemporary political legitimacy are often built upon historical and cultural narratives. By attacking the Sufi shrines, Mali’s conservative factions are not just trying to erase a part of history. They are also trying to obliterate a specific component of the past that both helped make Timbuktu an important urban center and also directly contradicts their worldview. For these individuals, it seems that destroying evidence of contradiction is simpler than trying to reconcile these differences.
Over and over again, it seems that fundamentalists all over the world try to explain their worldview as a bid to restore a previously lost golden age. These individuals are, however, rarely open to the idea of fully engaging with the details involved in those earlier periods. Historical revisionism, whether through attacking the shrines of Timbuktu and Mecca, destroying statues in Afghanistan, or rewriting history textbooks in the United States, has important political connotations with very real ramifications for the present.
In another take on Heritage Sites, this week Al Jazeera’s 101 East profiled the impact of increased tourism on several sites in South East Asia.