Celebrating World Heritage

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

This year’s World Heritage Day is being celebrated under the theme of Disaster and Conflict Resilient Heritage – Preparedness, Response and Recovery, reports Nevine El-Aref

Celebrating World Heritage
Saqqara Necropolis

Over the next few weeks, Al-Ahram Weekly will be publishing accounts of the Egyptian sites inscribed on the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s World Heritage List, looking at the restoration and development work aimed at safeguarding these sites for future generations to learn from and enjoy.
This week, the paper celebrates World Heritage Day, which on 18 April every year brings nations around the world together to celebrate this day that is also known as the International Day for Monuments and Sites (IDMS).
It is a day dedicated to recognising the diverse cultural and natural heritage that enriches the world and binds us together as a global community, and it was first proposed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in 1982 and later adopted by the 22nd UNESCO General Conference in 1983. Since then, it has served as a poignant reminder of the importance of preserving and promoting our shared heritage for future generations.
One of the primary objectives of World Heritage Day is to raise awareness about the cultural significance of historic sites, monuments, and landmarks. According to the ICOMOS website, the original aim was to encourage local communities and individuals throughout the world to consider the importance of cultural heritage to their lives, identities and communities, and to promote awareness of its diversity and vulnerability and the efforts required to protect and conserve it.
ICOMOS selects a theme for activities to be organised by its members and partners each year, as well as encouraging individuals to consider various aspects of the day. Each one is marked by a specific theme, providing guidance on how to commemorate the occasion.
Past themes have included titles like “Heritage Changes” (2023), offering the opportunity to respond to questions regarding learning about traditional ways of knowing and knowledge systems in relation to climate action and how to use cultural heritage as a focus to support the equitable protection of vulnerable communities through climate action, as signalled in the earlier “Heritage and Climate” (2022) theme.
“Complex Pasts: Diverse Futures” (2021) was an opportunity to provide an open platform for wide involvement and participation. Exploring these themes offers valuable insights into the diverse facets of cultural heritage and ways to celebrate its significance.
Different events and activities happen all over the world every year on the day, including conferences, cultural events, archaeological exhibition and visits to heritage sites and monuments.
The tangible remnants of our past not only tell the story of our ancestors, but also serve as a source of inspiration and wonder for people of all ages. From the awe-inspiring Pyramids of Egypt, the marvels of Machu Picchu, and the ethereal beauty of the Taj Mahal to the architectural splendour of Angkor Wat, the planet is adorned with treasures that stand as testaments to human ingenuity, creativity, and cultural diversity.
The 2024 theme for the day, chosen during the ICOMOS General Assembly in Sydney in 2023, is “Disaster and Conflict Resilient Heritage — Preparedness, Response, and Recovery,” which was also chosen as the ICOMOS Triennial Scientific Plan 2024-2027 as the organisation develops a roadmap aimed at enhancing capacity building among its members and the broader heritage community.
Anticipation has also been growing regarding the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Venice Charter in May, a major document on heritage conservation. “We look back on our shared inheritance from this very charter, and ahead as we ask ourselves what the pragmatic needs of heritage practice are today,” says the ICOMOS website.
The Venice Charter, originating in 1964, emerged in the aftermath of World War II and during a period characterised by expectations of boundless progress and economic advancement. Fast forward six decades, and the world finds itself confronted with a climate crisis, the escalating frequency of natural calamities, and conflicts that ravage cultural sites and displace communities on a massive scale.
Article 3 of the Venice Charter underscores the need to conserve and restore monuments not only as artistic masterpieces but also as historical evidence, while Article 4 emphasises the commitment to maintaining them on a “permanent basis”.
Each year on 18 April, World Heritage Day serves as a valuable platform to raise awareness of this foundational instrument, which lies at the heart of heritage practice and identity. The official celebration of the charter will commence in April and lead up to the anniversary of the Venice Charter in May.
A scientific symposium scheduled to take place in Brazil in November during the ICOMOS General Assembly will serve as a platform for transitioning from the current Triennial Scientific Plan, focused on addressing climate change, to the forthcoming 2024-2026 Plan, which centres on the theme of this year’s day.
This event will provide an opportunity to culminate the celebrations of the Venice Charter and feature it as one of the focal themes. ICOMOS members and heritage professionals will be encouraged to examine the evolution of conservation practices since the inception of the Venice Charter, assess the global impact of the Charter on conservation practices, and engage in discussions regarding its applicability in addressing the challenges posed by climate emergencies, conflicts, and natural disasters.
Potential activities during the symposium may include inventorying and collecting data on losses and damage, assessing vulnerabilities, understanding risks, and building capacities. Collaboration among stakeholders and communication between relevant national sectors, such as heritage and disaster risk management, will also be emphasised.
The symposium will explore the utilisation of traditional knowledge in disaster risk mitigation and preparedness, as well as showcase successful practices and examples in adaptation, mitigation, and preparedness efforts.
The theme of World Heritage Day this year highlights three key aspects.
The first is preparedness, which involves assessing the vulnerabilities of heritage sites to various threats, whether natural or human made. By identifying risks and implementing measures such as structural reinforcement and emergency plans, stakeholders can minimise the potential impact of disasters and conflicts on cultural heritage.
The second aspect is swift and coordinated response efforts that are essential in the aftermath of a crisis. These efforts include assessing damage, stabilising structures, and initiating conservation and restoration activities to prevent further deterioration and salvage precious artefacts.

The third is recovery efforts, which focus on rebuilding damaged infrastructure, restoring cultural assets, and revitalising communities that rely on heritage for social, economic, and cultural sustenance. Sustainable reconstruction and community engagement play crucial roles in ensuring the resilience and thriving of heritage sites post-crisis.
The 2024 theme serves as a call to action for governments, organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide to prioritise the protection and preservation of cultural heritage, even in the face of daunting challenges.
ICOMOS is a global NGO affiliated with UNESCO. Its primary objective is to advocate for the preservation, protection, utilisation, and enhancement of monuments, building complexes, and sites worldwide. Engaged in the development of doctrines, the dissemination of ideas, and advocacy efforts, ICOMOS serves as an Advisory Body to the World Heritage Committee for the implementation of UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention. This entails reviewing nominations for cultural world heritage status and ensuring the conservation of designated properties.

Established in 1965, ICOMOS emerged from early 20th-century dialogues among architects, historians, and international experts, culminating in the adoption of the Venice Charter in 1964. Through extensive studies, conferences, symposia, and discussions facilitated by its national and international committees, ICOMOS has progressively constructed the philosophical and doctrinal framework of international heritage preservation.
Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, Pyramids, and timeless mysteries, holds within its borders a wealth of cultural and historical treasures. Seven of these properties are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis, Historic Cairo, Memphis and its Necropolis, the Pyramids Fields from Giza to Dahshour, Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae, and the Saint Catherine Area.
The Abu Mena site is on the UNESCO heritage in danger list, and Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley) is a natural heritage site.
Egypt has 34 sites on UNESCO’s Tentative List, which is an inventory of properties which each state party intends to consider for nomination as World Heritage. On this list are the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the Siwa archaeological sites, the Dahshour site, Abydos, Karanis in Fayoum, and Pharaohs Island.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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