When it comes to conserving heritage sites, the world is not enough

The 'world heritage' tag brings with it funds and resources, but engaging with local communities is just as important

18 Jan 2004, Karima, Sudan, Sudan --- Looking out across the top of Jebel Barkal towards a group of burial pyramids to the northwest.     --- Image by © Michael Freeman/Corbis *** Local Caption ***  UT26SE-SUDAN07.jpg
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The recent discovery of ancient sites in the UAE have pushed the boundaries of the world’s understanding of the area’s history. They stretch it much further back, by thousands of years, in fact.

While this will no doubt be of great significance to academics, historians and other students of world heritage, it is important to understand that it will also be of even deeper significance to the people who call this country home. Discoveries of the ancient past are very much part of the present, most intimately for local populations.

In other parts of the world, maintaining the attachments people can develop to the artefacts of their heritage can be a much greater challenge. The term “world heritage”, as I have previously written in these pages, is a problematic concept because it can often direct attention away from archaeological sites as “local heritage”, and thereby accidentally deprive local people and their communities of a part of who they are.

The challenges of this have been found in Sudan’s Meroe Royal City, as I previously wrote, but continue in the case of Jebel Barkal, part of another world heritage site in Africa’s third-largest country. Located on the banks of the Nile by the sprawling town of Karima, it is dominated by a large mountain – or “jebel” – from which it gets its name.

Understanding a place and its people (and visa versa) is key to creating truly sustainable projects

Like Meroe, Jebel Barkal was a royal capital of the Kingdom of Kush, which thrived between the 8th century BCE and the 4th century CE, and whose kings and queens built palaces, settlements and more than 20 pyramids. Its origins lie much earlier in the 15th century BCE, when it was part of Egypt’s New Kingdom, and possibly even earlier.

To understand how the site is perceived as local heritage, we should first acknowledge that it sits in an area that residents claim to be their ancestral lands. Importantly, most of Karima’s inhabitants identify themselves as Muslim, with ethnic Arab roots, so they are not referring here to the Egyptians or Kushites who built the site, but to their tribal ancestors who settled in the surrounding villages at much later dates.

Moreover, like Meroe, Jebel Barkal is a social space. On Fridays, it serves as a picnic spot and people use the dense sand dune on the south-western side of the mountain as a slide. Young couples seeking a quiet area to talk can also regularly be seen sitting among the temple ruins.

Also to the south of the mountain, there is a local landmark known as the Tomb of the Sheikh, said to be the burial site of Ahmed Wad Al Karsani. According to oral history, his tomb dates back to the 17th century (though aerial photographs from the 1980s in which the tomb is not clearly present might dispute this). These same narratives state that the reason Karsani’s tomb is located there is because when he died his bed “flew” to the exact location of the tomb. The people therefore buried him there, believing his soul had chosen its resting place. This narrative is not unusual; many in Sudan think that sheikhs have such supernatural powers, which they call “karama”, derived from the world for “generous” in Arabic, after which Karima is also named. Local residents seem to go to Karsani’s tomb when they face social problems such as wanting to get married or wanting a son. Around it a large cemetery has grown, adding a layer of modern sacredness to an already holy site, creating a locus for local funerary heritage.

Like most archaeological sites in Sudan, Jebel Barkal also features prominently in what might be termed “folklore”. During a research visit there with my community engagement co-director Tohamy Abulgasim, with whom I worked as part of a multinational research team, we were told on multiple occasions that the archaeological ruins are full of treasure and gold, and that they are inhabited by jinn – supernatural beings who can operate in and affect both the human and metaphysical worlds. Residents recalled hearing human voices coming from the site, as well as the sound of horses and other sounds that were unrecognisable.

There are many more ways in which Jebel Barkal exists as local heritage, but perhaps the most profound one is the least obvious. As one resident told us: “The people have a big but mysterious connection with the site because they grow up with it in front of them; they walk past it, through it, they can see it every day. It becomes part of their existence. So when they leave it, they miss it.”

A global effort to conserve such sites is critical. Jebel Barkal is, after all, rapidly deteriorating due to both natural and human threats. But, in order for conservation to be sustainable, it is just as important to engage with local communities and key national stakeholders, both of whom have been traditionally excluded from archaeological knowledge and decision-making.

Archaeologists and others involved in conservation have a crucial role to play in sustainability. They can do so by organising stakeholder meetings to develop and codify an integrated vision for site development; working with local and regional leaders to examine and address site access, visitor services, and custodial issues (such as garbage dumping onsite); and leading community-engaged efforts to develop onsite signage and walking tours.

Some of us have been doing exactly that through a joint project headed by Sudan’s National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) and the University of Michigan. Our approach is based on the anthropological and normative premise that understanding a place and its people (and visa versa) is key to creating truly collaborative and sustainable projects.

This approach prioritises the connections that the local community has with the site, which, after all, is most immediately part of their landscape, not everyone else’s.

Published: March 02, 2022, 8:00 AM