Nov 17, 2008

The Long Shadow of Ancient Cultures

Two stories caught my eye today, both of which examine the interplay between ancient heritage and modern identity.

First is an article in the Guardian which details the plans to build a new "Colossus" in Rhodes. The new Colossus will cost an estimated 200 million euros, and will be designed by Gert Hof. It has been imagined as "a highly innovative light sculpture, a work of art that will allow visitors to physically inspect it by day as well as enjoy - through light shows - a variety of stories it will "tell" by night." In a nod to history, there are plans that at least part of the new project will be created from melted down weapons.

There have been periodic plans to rebuild the Colossus since 1970 which have been delayed by "Greece's powerful lobby of archaeologists". I can see arguments both for and against the new Colossus. The new projects seems aimed squarely at passing Mediterranean cruise ships. But a new project like this will surely boost tourism and provide a powerful national symbol for Greeks as well as the inhabitants of the island. Dr. Dimitris Koutoulas who is heading the project in Greece argues "We are talking about a highly, highly innovative light sculpture, one that will stand between 60 and 100 metres tall so that people can physically enter it".  The original Colossus (imagined here in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskrerck) was completed in 280 BC, financed in part by salvaging abandoned siege equipment left behind by failed invaders. Students of history will remember the Colossus stood for only 56 years. It is amazing that a monument which stood for only a short time has captured imagination for centuries. One wonders how much the island's ancient past means to present inhabitants of the island. The new project seems an effort to recapture the magnificence of the ancient monument.

Michael Slackman in an article in the New York Times explores this issue in Egypt. He quotes Ahmed Sayed Baghali a man selling tourist trinkets outside the Egyptian Museum, "Can you believe our government can do nothing for us, and this thing that was built thousands of years ago is still helping me feed my family? Who would buy my things if they were not about the pharaohs? People come here from very far to see the pyramids, not to see Cairo." Slackman notes that many modern-day Egyptians may not be invested in the remains of this ancient culture, unless they work in the tourism industry. It's easy to see why, when "40 percent of the population lives on $2 a day." This begs the question, is heritage and preservation a luxury? I certainly hope not, but given this tremendous hardship where the men who cart debris away from Egypt's newest discovered pyramid are payed $2 -- and grateful for the work. Can we blame them if they might be tempted to sell antiquities on the black market?

The challenge is to preserve this heritage, safeguard it, and ensure our cultural institutions, universities and museums are working cooperatively with these nations of origin to offer these locals the best chance at economic growth and a respect and appreciation for their cultural heritage.
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