Graffiti on monuments is not new – neither is it an excuse to defile history

Markings can be revealing but defiling monuments won't do

Spray-painted graffiti daubed on one of the rock formations at the Fossil Dunes site. Courtesy: Hannah Androulaki-Khan
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Earlier this week, graffiti appeared on a protected outcrop of fossil dunes near Al Wathba in the Abu Dhabi desert. Unfortunately, some people are unable to resist spraying paint on the landscape.

It is sad, too, that some parents seemed to have failed to stop their children from defacing rock formations, showing little regard for the environment. The use of spray paint has made instances of vandalism worse. Had the initials or other designs been carved on the soft rock, the natural process of erosion would eventually have faded them.

So, yes, I do condemn this behaviour. I hope the perpetrators of this act are found and held to account and I applaud efforts by the authorities both to prevent such acts of vandalism occurring and to educate our communities.

I recall, though, that leaving such marks on monuments, natural or man-made, is not restricted to the careless times of today. Ancient graffiti can be found on the monuments of Egypt or of Rome, dating back hundreds of years. Those ancient markings add to the record of armies and travellers passing through those lands.

In northern Saudi Arabia or Jordan, graffiti in the now-vanished Safaitic language are being studied, providing new insights into the names, the tribes, the rulers and even the beliefs of peoples who are now forgotten. The graffiti, dignified now because of age, and lent the terms ‘inscriptions’, are often the only information that exists about a certain time period.

In our own Hajar Mountains, the petroglyphs, or rock art, some dating back thousands of years, are primarily of images, rather than letters or words. They tell us of animals that have now vanished from the region, of the arrival of men on horseback and of much more. It is an essential part of our historic and archaeological record.

Fire, graffiti, and other human activities have destroyed the castle over time. Amy McConaghy / The National
Fire and graffiti have defaced Jordan's Qusayr Amra over time. Amy McConaghy / The National

Much though I deplore the use of spray-paint, a tool not available to the graffiti writers of times past, I do wonder though how historians and archaeologists of the future will view the banality of much of our society, as seen this week in the vandalism on display.

Meanwhile, there are other aspects of our modern heritage that are largely overlooked and which, little by little, are disappearing.

The other day, an Emirati friend of mine sent me a few photographs of items from around Abu Dhabi. To him, the items were ‘old’, since they dated from a time before he was born. To me, they were familiar pictures, of something we all pass, or walk over, every day – manhole covers or the covers of access holes to essential part of our urban infrastructure, like water pipes and electricity cables.

I wonder how historians of the future will view the banality of much of our society, as seen this week in the acts of vandalism

They are not, I should concede, quite like the manhole covers to be found in some European cities that are well over a 100 years old, polished over time by millions of feet, often with the names of manufacturers who have long since disappeared. Manhole covers can be remarkable, if often little-noticed, pieces of history.

Our Abu Dhabi manhole covers are simply functional, although the craftsmanship is evident and they do tell their own tales. The inscriptions on them include letters like ‘W E D’, which may mean little to younger inhabitants of the city. For those of us with longer memories, however, they bring to mind the old Water and Electricity Department that did so much to lay down the beginnings of our modern infrastructure. And does the Abu Dhabi Municipality still have a ‘town drainage section’ as it did in the 1980s? Since our city drains continue to exist, has the section been renamed, like so much else?

Manhole covers in Abu Dhabi. Credit: Peter Hellyer
Manhole covers in Abu Dhabi. Credit: Peter Hellyer

The manhole covers often include lettering in both Arabic and English and, as my friend noted, “although they are manhole covers, they have beautiful Arabic calligraphy.”

They’re part of our past, still functional, still sufficiently sturdy and well-made to have many years of useful life left. Gradually, though, they will disappear, as the underground facilities are modernised. It would be a pity if they survived only in the memory or in old photographs.

Collecting manhole covers poses a few challenges, not least of where and how to display such weighty items. They are not stamps or coins, after all. My friend, I am pleased to say, has already reached out to the relevant authorities, to try to ensure that some examples are preserved for posterity, as is right and proper. I look forward to seeing them on display one day.

I remember well that, in the 1980s and 1990s, when I edited a newspaper, I argued forcefully for the preservation of old typewriters and printing machinery at my old office, even as new technology was introduced. I failed. Not enough people thought it was worthwhile keeping them.

I am glad that fate will not befall our old manholes. A niche interest, perhaps, but still part of our history.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture