There’s this feeling that I sometimes get when visiting a World Heritage site that it’s been frozen in time. This is particularly true in places like Venice that are open-air museums and largely operated for tourists, but it seems to happen everywhere. In some ways this is excellent – World Heritage listing is an important way of ensuring that properties are maintained by their governments and it gives a pathway for supporting their upkeep via tourism.
But it does raise the question – what version of the past should we be preserving? Time is a river and we’re all floating down it – nothing lasts forever, or even stays the same. Consider the Acropolis in Athens.
I visited in 2002, fresh off a 32 hour flight from Melbourne. It was the start of a long trip through the Eastern and Central Europe and I was excited. My background in Classical studies had prepared me somewhat for seeing the place that is portrayed as the origin of all that is good in Western culture.
The Acropolis is lit up at night and can be seen from all over Athens. The word refers to the rocky outcrop, but most people use it as shorthand for the Parthenon, the main temple on the summit. It’s a beautiful sight, and instantly recognisable. The structure of the Parthenon is a kind of shorthand for the golden age of Athens – its perfect measurements and sublime sculpture reflect the literary and cultural achievements in the fourth century BCE. I had a film camera and a shonky tripod, but I managed to take a photo of myself by the side of the road with the temple in the background.
I visited the next day. It was a shock.
Up close the place was covered in rubble, cranes and hoarding. As a site it’s in constant renovation and restoration, but is moderately tourist unfriendly. Walking around was mildly hazardous due to the risk of tripping. The temple itself was a shambles, in far worse repair than I had imagined. It seemed like a strong breeze would blow the entire structure down in an explosion of marble dust. Most of the sculptures have been removed from the site. The “Elgin” (or “Parthenon”) marbles were taken to London in in the 19th century, much to the Greek Government’s disgust and the remainder are located in a nearby museum.
I would say that it was a disappointment, but I knew better. The truth is that nothing is forever – the structure of the Parthenon was damaged by an ammunition explosion in a war between Ottoman Turkey and Venice in the 17th century. Combine that with the removal of the sculptures and general neglect, and this thing that we think we’ve preserved is little more than a shell.
But even beyond that we need to think about which version of the past we’ve preserved. By glancing at the property you wouldn’t easily realise that it has been continuously inhabited up until the recent past. The current Parthenon was built over the top of a series of other temples, dating all the way back to a Mycenaean fortress from the 2nd millennium BCE. The construction of the Parthenon has been followed by two thousand years of other uses of the site – Byzantine, Frankish and Ottoman. All traces of these periods have been expunged in an effort to restore the site to its “original” form. What you are seeing now is perhaps no less of a theme park than the total reconstruction of the Warsaw Old Town.
Things change, even when we think we’ve frozen them in time in some ideal configuration. Consider the World Heritage sites in nearby Syria. Two of them have been destroyed in the current war and the remainder are under threat. Leave it long enough and everything is gone – Africa will crash into Europe and the human race will have relocated to space or gone extinct.
I don’t for a second suggest that attempting to preserve the past isn’t important. But we might be wrong about both what’s worth preserving, and also our ability to do so.