Mysteries of the past that stupefy us | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 22, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:38 PM, October 22, 2018

Mysteries of the past that stupefy us

There is a need to preserve our heritage

The world is full of wonders and some of these wonders are from a past that defies belief. Seven hundred years ago, the Incas of pre-Columbian South America formulated an elaborate knotted-string-based record-keeping system that accurately maintained the tax liabilities of distant taxpayers in their kingdom. Known as the “Inca string coda” in academic parlance, this record-keeping system kept the largest South American empire of the Middle Ages functioning like a well-oiled machine despite having no written script. With the Portuguese conquest of South America in the fifteenth century, the Incan empire vanished along with their knowledge of the string coda. Archaeologists are still scratching their heads over how to decipher the Inca string coda that managed the coffers of the empire in pre-modern times.

Another world mystery is the Antikythera mechanism—an analogue computer built more than 2,000 years ago that could accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses. It was discovered among the relics of a sunken vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera over a century ago, and scientists and researchers have yet to figure out how an ancient civilisation could have the technology and the mathematical prowess to build such a computer two millennia ago when metallurgy, astronomy and numerology were in their infancy. The Antikythera mechanism was built with 47 brass gears with built-in adjustment mechanisms to accurately predict lunar eclipses, taking into account even the minutest variation in the lunar orbital plain. Such sophisticated observation and modelling of lunar and solar trajectories in the heavens only happened in the last three centuries. So how did the ancient Greeks come by it then? In the absence of any historical records, we keep scratching our heads too.

Another mystery that has stupefied the experts and the laity alike over the last few hundred years is the Voynich manuscript. Preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in the USA, this colourful hand-illustrated manuscript is dated to be from the fifteenth century based on the carbon dating of the parchment it is written on. However, it has defied attempts over several centuries at deciphering its contents, written in a script hitherto unknown to man. Very recently, however, a Turkish linguist has claimed that it is written in an ancient Turkic script using an encryption known as “phonemic orthography”.

Bangladesh also has its share of mysteries from the past. The Bhitargarh fortress city—in the northern part of Bangladesh in what is present-day Panchagarh district—is nearly a millennium old and no one knows who built this quadruply-fortified castle. Bhitargarh is truly an ancient land of mystique and fables, not far from Tetulia, the northern-most tip of the country. This relic from more than eight centuries ago is not as old as other more famous relics such as Mahasthangarh in the north-western part of Bangladesh, but it is quite remarkable for its footprint and design.

Just imagine, straddling across nearly twenty-five square kilometres of land lie the ruins of an ancient township that was fortified by four layers of rectangular ramparts and moats—a township of such arrangement is unheard of in our part of the world. The majestic ramparts are still quite visible and the ancient bricks used to build the high walls are still intact in many places. Limited excavations within the inner-most quadrangle have produced a wide range of ancient artefacts that highlight the great promise of these ruins as an archaeological discovery.

The 53-acre man-made lake within the confines of the town is astounding for the beauty of the buttressed embankments and straight demarcations centuries after the architects of this ancient kingdom vanished from the pages of history. The most fascinating aspects of these ruins are the dark mystique and the haunted fables that visitors are regaled with by local villagers. What, however, is the biggest tragedy of all is that the ancient ruins lay before us for centuries without any serious endeavour on the part of the state or researchers to uncover the hidden stories and historical significance of a kingdom that could build a city as large as 25 square kilometres and prosper for nearly 500 years, as one of the largest such settlements of its time in the world, before vanishing from sight almost eight hundred years ago.

However, continued neglect over the years has brought the ancient city to a stage where, without urgent measures for its protection and preservation, it can literally vanish without a trace within our own lifetime. The majestic ruins of Ancient Bhitargarh Walled City need to be protected from further dilapidation and all remaining structures need to be preserved for fully-fledged, methodical research to unearth the mysteries of this once thriving human habitation.

The government, universities, international bodies, business houses and citizens must come forward to join hands with heritage lovers in the noble endeavour of protecting, preserving and promoting the Bhitargarh city and other heritage sites of the country so that our children can achieve greatness by discovering who we are as we learn what we were in our glorious past.


Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd.

Email: hnkarim@gmail.com


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