Though the recent Sindh Cultural Festival won its organisers international limelight, its launch on the ruins of the world heritage Moenjodaro on February 1 continues to worry many at home and abroad – foremost the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Two days later an alarmed UNESCO inquired from Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) how the inaugural ceremony of the festival could be held on the 5,000-year-old Moenjodaro site it had declared a world heritage in 1980, and if the event caused any damage, reports Pakistani daily Dawn after seeing documentation.
“It is requested that an appropriate response may be sent so that UNESCO could be briefed accordingly,” wrote Gahalib Iqbal, Pakistan’s representative at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, as the organisation was to discuss the issue.
For UNESCO the federal government is the focal point for all six World Heritage Sites in Pakistan, which otherwise are controlled by the provinces after the devolution of powers.
“We forwarded the UNESCO inquiry to the Cultural, Tourism and Antiquities Department, Sindh for a feedback. Some damage might have been caused to the site since a stage was set, lights were installed, not to mention some 500 guests and an equal number of policemen for their security on the fragile remains,” said a DOAM official who felt the organisers of the Sindh Cultural Festival violated the Antiquities Act 1975.
The law prohibits any activity within 200 feet of a protected historical site.
Sindh’s Director Archaeology, Qasim Ali Qasim, however, said he was unaware of any letter from UNESCO inquiring about any damage from the event.
“I have seen no such letter. Though a meeting of the Antiquities Department and some representatives of the National Fund for Moenjodaro was held recently which concluded that no damage was caused to the Moenjodaro site,” he told Dawn.
Yet DOAM has not received any response from the Antiquities Department of Sindh.
On the other hand, Nilofar Sheikh has resigned as chairperson of the Technical Consultative Committee, National Fund for Moenjodaro, in protest. She was not available for comments but her resignation was accepted on February 21.
Asma Ibrahim, who is a member of the Technical Consultative Committee National Fund for Moenjodaro, says she was excluded from the meeting that, according to Qasim, concluded that the festival did no harm to the world heritage site.
Asma had opposed holding the opening ceremony over the remains of Moenjodaro, and urged the Department of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities to Sindh to hold the ceremony in the lawns of the Moenjodaro Museum instead of.
A UNESCO mission is expected shortly in Pakistan to assess the conservation efforts, said a DOAM source fearing it might not change the status of Moenjodaro from a world heritage site to an endangered site as a warning.
“Once UNESCO decides that, it can stop funding the maintenance and conservation of the site,” said the source.
Pakistan had a taste of such wrath in 1998 when UNESCO placed the historic Shalamar Gardens of Lahore on the endangered list after a link road built through the site destroyed its centuries-old hydraulic system, which fed its beautiful fountains.
“Since then the fountains have been dry. It took eight years, and intensive conservation efforts, to convince UNESCO that measures had been taken to save the world heritage site to prevent any further damage,” an archaeologist in DOAM recalled.
Again in 2010, UNESCO warned of declaring the Makli necropolis in Sindh an endangered site after peasants uprooted by the big floods in that year took refugees in the vast grounds of the world heritage site.
“We asked UNESCO for two years to ensure that no damage will come to Makli and the site will be preserved for future generations to appreciate,” said the province’s chief archaeologist, Qasim Ali Qasim.