Saving the Silk Road’s cultural treasures

Source:China Daily   Date:2019-04-08


Protection and utilization of heritage sites along ancient trade routes will promote stronger bonds between countries.

The Silk Road refers to the extensive network of ancient trade routes that linked Asia, Europe and Africa. On these routes, silk was the prominent but not the only product traded; porcelain, glass, metal, jewels, tea and cattle were also transported back and forth, hence the other names such as the Jewel Road, Fur Road, Tea Road and Porcelain road. The term Silk Road, originally coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, has became the most recognized.

The geographic scope of the routes was unparalleled. For hundreds of years, the Silk Road was an artery of coexistence, communication and meeting of multiple cultures, where agrarian, nomadic, oceanic and continental civilizations interacted with each other. It brought peace and prosperity to people on several continents, and today it provides a good example for us to resolve international trade disputes.

Along with commercial goods the merchants traded, elements of civilization such as languages, arts, religions, science and technology were exchanged along the routes, leaving a treasure trove of cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage, testimony to ancient history, tells the world how our ancestors lived and worked; and it is a key for us to unlock the past and understand the present.

However, protecting those cultural sites faces daunting challenges. Exposed to air and humidity, they are easily damaged and corrupted, and further damaged as the natural environment continues to deteriorate. In recent years, they have fallen prey to tomb­raiders and looters. The plight of endangered relics is exacerbated due to excessive tourism and sprawling economic projects.

Meanwhile, it is also extremely difficult to coordinate efforts to protect a large number of sites scattered over an extensive region over which the trade routes stretched, because nations of varied development levels find it difficult to agree on the importance of the sites and the measures needed for their protection.

I have five suggestions for the protection of cultural heritage sites.

First, we should step up international cooperation on protection and efforts to address heritage disease. The heritage sites of overland and maritime routes should be viewed as a network by all the partner nations. For individual sites in different countries, “the integrity of the Silk Road network” should not be just an argument in their submission to the UNESCO World Heritage Center; it should be a consensus backed by solid actions and common yet differentiated protection solutions, especially by joint research on heritage disease.

Second, we should maximize the use of spatial information technology (SIT) in heritage monitoring and conservation. SIT has been proved to be able to efficiently identify, locate and analyze targets, especially in a hostile environment.

Third, we should reinforce research on utilizing cultural heritage. Balancing research and tourism development is an effective way to protect the valuable cultural legacy of the Silk Road.

Fourth, we should build an information­sharing platform for the cultural heritage of the Silk Road. Databases on Silk Road sites should be built and shared by all for win­win and joint­development purposes, another step to strengthen people­to­people bonds and build a community of common destiny.

Last, we should raise protection awareness of the general public. Digitalization can be a powerful means to tap the potential and increase the presence of the sites in cultural exchanges, trade and tourism. It can increase the awareness of people and help with social, economic, cultural and eco­development.

In March 2017, the Digital Belt and Road Natural and Cultural Heritage Working Group (DBAR­HERITAGE), a task force initiated and led by Chinese scientists, was inaugurated in Beijing. The DBAR­HERITAGE conference was co­chaired by scientists from China, Italy, Pakistan and Tunisia, and attended by representatives from countries and international organizations including the United States, France, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and UNESCO. The participants held broad and animated discussions on the features, technologies and methods of spatial archaeology, collaborative research on world heritage conser­vation and tourism development.

In 2018, the Chinese Academy of Sciences launched a natural and cultural heritage protection and development project, a sub­project under the DABR which was an A­level Strategic Priority Research Program. My team chose to conduct a field study in Tunisia because the Tunisian environment resembles that of Northwest China, where previously we had done a lot of archaeological research. And this comparative study on Tunisian and Northwest China also got Tunisian, Italian and Pakistani scientists on board. Together we found some archaeological remains of a military defense on the southern border of the old Roman Empire. It was the first time that Chinese scientists used remote sensing technology to discover an archaeological site in a foreign country. The DBAR­HERITAGE scientists have been, and are, working together on digital protection practices and theories of cultural heritage in countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Italy, which are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

In the second phase (2019­22), the DBAR­HERITAGE program, based on the results of its first phase research (2016­18), will focus on Southeast Asia, Southeast China, Central Asia, Northwest China, and the Mediterranean countries to build the framework of an information­sharing platform for the protection of the natural and cultural heritage of the Silk Road. By 2026, the project will complete the SIT monitoring, evaluation and protection for all known natural and cultural Silk Road heritage sites, to encourage inclusive, intelligent and cloud­based heritage protection and management.

Protection and utilization of heritage sites is crucial for the cultural exchanges of the Belt and Road Initiative. International researchers including Chinese scientists are committed to using digital tools to expand and accelerate cultural heritage protection. We believe in­depth research on the history, science, culture, education and religion of Silk Road cultural heritage will find more common ground for Belt and Road partners, cement people­to­people bonds and boost sustainable development.

The author is deputy director of International Center on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage Under the Auspices of UNESCO. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.