Current heavy rains that recently ravaged archeological sites of the Island of Meroe, Gebel Barkal and the sites of Napatan region in Sudan and the recent devastating fire that gutted one of the houses at Kasubi Royal Tombs, are constant reminders of the threats that UNESCO World Heritage Sites face across the globe.
Archaeological sites of the Island of Meroe, a semi-desert landscape between the Nile and the Athbara rivers, was the heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th Century BC to the 4th Century AD.
Today, this site encompasses a wide range of architectural forms including pyramids, temples, palaces and industrial areas that shaped the political, religious, social, artistic and technological scenes of the middle and northern valley for more than 1000 years.
Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region comprises five archeological sites on both sides of the Nile in an arid area considered part of Nubia. The sites (Gebel Barkal, Kurru, Nuri, Sanam and Zuma) represent the Napatan (900 – 270 BC) and the Meroitic (270 BC – 350 AD) cultures of the second kingdom of Kush.
Authorities from UNESCO are deeply concerned that the heavy rains in Sudan that have resulted in extensive flooding, destroying homes, infrastructure, farms and livelihoods of communities. This may make it difficult to contain the Covid-19 and has prompted the declaration of a three-month
Monitoring threats state of emergency in the country.
“UNESCO is closely monitoring the situation of two World Heritage sites, which could be under threat, if heavy rain continues, leading to further rise of the water levels of the Blue Nile River. These comprise the archaeological sites of the Island of Meroe, and Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2011 and 2003 respectively,” the UN said in a statement.
“The pyramids, tombs, temples, palaces, burial mounds and funerary chambers set in the desert border landscape of the Nile are unique in their typology and technique. Both sites represent a testimony to a great ancient culture that existed and flourished in this region,” UNESCO says.
They say they will continue to monitor the situation and provide support for the ongoing emergency measures at World Heritage properties. According to Uganda Police, the fire broke out at Kasubi at about 1pm on June 5, 2020 in one of the sacred houses known as Enyumba ya Balongo (Twins’ House), a few metres away from the main Mausoleum known as Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga that houses several tombs.
Police said the fire was extinguished before it caused any serious damage on the entire property that was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000.
According to the Buganda kingdom minister of information, Noah Kiyimba, the Buganda twin deities -Abalongo were protected and were not affected by the fire.
Efforts by Daily Monitor to get an update on the police investigations from the Uganda Police spokesman, Fred Enanga on his known mobile phone number were futile.
“…Our Cross-Cultural Foundation Uganda (CCFU) team visited the site on June 23, on a UNESCO mission to advise on the restoration of the deity’s house and the artefacts that comprised the 50 Balongo (umbilical cords). We were told by the management at the tombs that the most likely cause of the fire was an electric circuit that was supported by the highly flammable roofing grass and wrapping materials that kept the twins,” the director for strategy, advocacy and fundraising at the CCFU Sam Kayongo told Daily Monitor.
Kayongo added: “We also gathered that the physical location of the Enyumba ya Balongo is contested by the different parties at Kasubi. The roles of custodianship of the Balongo who were kept in a central place rather than in the different homes of the wives of the Kings remains a controversial matter.
We also observed the limited documentation and transmission of the value of the Twins’ House.” Following the devastating fire on March 16, 2010, which destroyed the site, UNESCO received a generous contribution from the Government of Japan to support a technical and financial assistance for the reconstruction of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, architectural masterpiece of the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, Uganda, World Heritage property in Danger project.
The project was designed to offer emergency assistance to Uganda and accompany them in rehabilitating the property in view of its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger. Reconstruction of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga began in 2014 and is yet to be completed.
“Progress has been made towards the reconstruction of Muzibu Azaala Mpanga that was burnt in 2010. We hope to complete it by June 2021,” the commissioner, museums and monuments, ministry of tourism, wildlife and Antiquities, Rose Mwanja told Daily Monitor.
In August 2010, government instituted a commission of inquiry to probe the cause of the fire. The team handed over a report to government in March 2011, which has never been made public.
A source who preferred anonymity says the cause of fire on both occasions at Kasubi has been due to negligence by the caretakers.
UNESCO, through the Heritage Emergency Fund (HEF), is providing financial and technical assistance to support the urgent procurement and installation of a firefighting system at the Kasubi property, training caretakers in fire prevention and disaster risk management.
The emergency response complements the ongoing UNESCO project, financed by the Government of Japan, for the post-fire reconstruction of property.
The UNESCO regional office for eastern Africa is ensuring coordination among the various initiatives and is working in close consultation with the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage: Museums and Monuments Department as well as the Ugandan National Commission for UNESCO.
“We thank UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund for this critical support, without which, we would not be able to procure the equipment required for the firefighting system and offer the training to strengthen fire prevention at the Kasubi Tombs property,” Mwanja said.
Disaster equipment gadget
“The danger of fire has been taken care of in a project that is currently procuring a disaster equipment gadget that is to be laid down in the entire courtyard. This is a high tech system that has been proposed by experts and supported by the Japanese experts and approved by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) the advisory body to UNESCO. The gadget is equipped with an emergency water truck, hose reels and pumps to immediately fight a fire outbreak,” Mwanja told Daily Monitor.
Located five kilometres west of Kampala, Kasubi Tombs (Amasiro) is the burial ground of Buganda kings and other royal family members.
The site is a major spiritual centre for the Baganda, where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. It is a place where communication links with the spiritual world are maintained, according to UNESCO.
The Kasubi hilltop is the former palace of powerful King Muteesa I, which he built in 1882 and later converted into a royal burial ground, when he died in 1884 known as the Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga. The tombs cover almost 30 hectares of the hillside which is mainly agricultural.
The site includes tombs of four Kings: Muteesa I, Daniel Bassamula Mwanga II, Daudi Chwa II and Sir Edward Muteesa, which is a masterpiece of Ganda traditional architecture developed by Buganda Kingdom since the 13th Century.
According to UNESCO, the Kasubi structure, built in the finest tradition of Ganda architecture and palace design, reflects technical achievements developed over the years. The built and natural elements of the tombs represent historical, traditional, and spiritual values.
Such architectural structures, and the traditional practices that are associated with the site, are a representation of the African culture that depict a continuity of a living tradition.
World heritage list
According to UNESCO, World Heritage is the designation for places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations.
Places as diverse and unique as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon in the USA, or the Acropolis in Greece are examples of the 1007 natural and cultural places are inscribed on the World Heritage List to date.
China and Italy top the World Heritage List, with 55 designations. Spain follows with 48 sites, Germany (46), France (45), India (38), Mexico (35), UK (32), Russia (29), Iran (24), and United States (24), among others. South Africa tops the list in Africa with 10 sites, followed by Ethiopia (9), Egypt (7), Kenya (7), Tanzania (7), DR Congo (5), Sudan (3), and Uganda (3), among others.
Causes of danger
UNESCO says the list of world heritage in danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed and encourage collective action.
Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanisation and unchecked tourist development pose major problems to World Heritage sites.
According to the African World Heritage Sites website, unfortunately, Africa has more than its fair share of world heritage sites inscribed on the official List of World Heritage in Danger.
African sites on the danger list
Of the 39 sites on the global Danger list, 17 (44 per cent) are in Africa. Four additional African sites have been included on the danger list in the past, but are now sufficiently recovered to allow their removal.
In June 2018, the World Heritage Committee inscribed Lake Turkana National Parks (Kenya) on the List of World Heritage in Danger, notably because of the impact of a dam on the site.
The Committee expressed concern about the changes affecting the hydrology of the Lake Turkana Basin, especially the disruptive effect of Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam, the flow and ecosystem of Lake Turkana and the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, which poses further threat to the site. The Committee also evoked potential impacts of the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSETT) Corridor Project.
The World Heritage Committee meeting in Doha, Qatar on June 18, 2014 inscribed the Selous Game Reserve, in Tanzania, on the danger list because widespread poaching was decimating wildlife population on the property.
The Committee called on the international community, including ivory transit and destination countries, to support Tanzania in the fight against this criminal activity.
Subsequent civil unrest in DR Congo have resulted into four of its sites being included on the danger list: Garamba National Park (1996); Kahuzi-Biega National Park (1997); Okapi Wildlife Reserve (1997); Salonga National Park (1999); and Virunga National Park (1994).