Recep Tayyip Erdogan has picked his next battle in his quest to remodel Turkey-converting the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church into mosques. But why?
People want to be remembered, people in power, even more so. The most conspicuous way this has been undertaken in history is through the building of ‘heritage sites’, and other enduring edifices through which individuals are remembered in history. But not all cultural heritage is personal, even though the most obvious ones like the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids are. A large number of heritage sites are also representatives of communities and their culture. Cities themselves are markers of history. Thus, while cultural heritage may be considered to have a personal motive, as a reminder of great and powerful persons, it also has a communitarian angle. But this is not an all-encompassing definition. Nature and areas in nature too form part of the cultural heritage of communities, for example the Niyamgiri mountain is considered sacred by the Dongria Kondhas, and naturally occurring substances like ayahuasca are part of the rituals in South America.
If culture is communitarian, then why does the term ‘world heritage’ exist? The phrase today carries a much more benign meaning today than what it did at its inception. At first, cultural objects were shared only in name, with a large amount of ‘exchange’ taking place through forced contracts, or theft during colonization. The present definition of world heritage is more egalitarian. The 1972 UNESCO Convention defines some heritage as so important that it is of outstanding universal value. As places of such importance, they should be shared, enjoyed, and celebrated by all of humanity. This definition includes both cultural sites and natural preserves. The 1972 Convention resulted in the creation of a list of such sights, the World Heritage List to which places are added on a yearly basis. Inscription is prestigious, bringing with it not only access to the World Heritage Fund, but also money from other sources of conservation, as well as a tag which attracts tourists and adds to the national and local economy.
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Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Sept. 22, 2020.