Central Asia - at the crossroads of civilization for centuries - is of huge archaeological and cultural significance. In an interview with IRIN in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, the visiting Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Koichiro Matsuura, said his organisation would assist former Soviet republics in reviving and preserving their rich cultural heritage. He added that a cultural revival in countries like Afghanistan could contribute to reconciliation.
QUESTION: Do you have any plans to include any of the archaeological sites in Tajikistan in the world heritage list?
ANSWER: The government of Tajikistan has already proposed 11 sites on the tentative list to UNESCO. The first step to inscribe a site is to put it on the tentative list. It is very encouraging that they have given us a tentative list. One of them is Sarazm, which is very promising. So the world heritage centre of UNESCO has already extended cooperation to the preservation of Sarazm. My hope is that in the near future the Tajik authorities will prepare a convincing proposal, but it will take some time.
Q: How are you assisting Central Asian countries in preserving their rich cultural heritage, most of which was hidden from the world during the last century?
A: Central Asian countries are now in the 11th year of their independence. They are more or less newly independent countries even if they have long histories. They have important cultures and traditions. After all, these countries were on the historical silk route connecting East and West. As a result they have a lot of important cultural sites.
But many of them were destroyed by armed conflicts or years of negligence. It’s very good that they have started paying attention to their cultural traditions and heritage. UNESCO helped them in trying to inscribe the important sites on the world heritage list and also helps them to restore and reconstruct such sites.
I should also mention that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have already [got] world heritage sites - in Turkmenistan one and in Uzbekistan two, but none in other countries yet. But we would like to encourage [the process of getting] their sites inscribed on the world heritage list - both cultural and natural. I have talked about Tajikistan and I am sure that other countries will come up with their sites in the near future.
Q: Central Asia has tremendous potential for tourism. How is UNESCO helping them to tap in that potential?
A: Tourism is becoming more sophisticated, so you cannot attract tourists, in particular foreign tourists, unless you have something concrete. In this age, cultural tourism and ecotourism are very popular.
In Central Asia there is big potential for both, but their infrastructure is not very strong. They have to take further measures to excavate, reconstruct and also safeguard cultural heritage sites. That applies to nature too. Also the tourism infrastructure has to be developed including hotels, roads and transportation. Unless these are tremendously improved it’s not easy to attract large numbers of tourists, but there remains a very good potential.
Q: How important is the cultural reconstruction of Afghanistan and how are you helping that?
A: Again, culture can and should play a very important role in the process of reconciliation, and we have already organised the first important meeting of international experts, including donors, in May in [the capital,] Kabul. There we were able to raise several million dollars of international assistance to Afghanistan in areas of culture alone.
In June the world heritage committee accepted the first inscription from Afghanistan into the world heritage list, that is the Minaret of Jam near the [western] Afghan city of Herat. As a lot of damage has been done, we put the Minaret of Jam on the world heritage list [of sites] in danger. We are now mobilising international assistance to establish new protection measures in that area.
Also the Bamian valley has large potential, even [in spite of the fact] that the two great Buddhas there have been destroyed. We will able to inscribe the Bamian valley also on the world heritage list in the near future. We are also trying to implement the emergency protection measures, but there are still small things left and they need protection.
These cultural sites do play an important role [in the process] to unify the country, which tends to be divided among different regions and ethnic groups. It is important to re-establish the cultural heritage and traditions as a unifying force.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions