Conservation and religion
By Ahmad Rafay Alam
Just a few months ago, in the shadow of the archaeology department’s devolution to the provincial government, a minaret in the Lahore Fort collapsed, revealing to all just how effective official conservation measures are. A decade ago, citizens of Lahore stood flabbergasted as construction workers felled hundred-year-old trees to bring the shoulder of the G T Road within inches of the entrance of Shalimar Gardens. In the intervening years, the only notable bit of urban conservation was the restoration of the Tolington Market, where, as an illustration of the quality of restoration work, only a few weeks ago, anxious NCA students exhibiting their thesis feared exposure and dripping rain would ruin their work. The PHA’s “new” billboard policy – ostensibly for the beauty of the city – can only find 12 sites of historical importance worth protecting from the ugliness of its advertising hoardings. This in a historically and culturally rich city over a millennium old.
It isn’t just Mughal Lahore that needs to be, and isn’t, properly conserved. Colonial Lahore is also fast fading from view. Behind the mosque next to Fortress Stadium in the Cantonment lies a memorial in honour of the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment who lost their lives in Lahore just before World War I. The monument is now surrounded by dust and is passed by an un-metalled road. The 19th century buildings that once lined the nearby road, all splendid examples of the architecture of the period, have been brought down to make way for a “General’s Colony” housing scheme. Only one barracks remains, dating back to 1864. The Civil and Military Gazette, where a galaxy of writers and intellectuals interned after Partition, and where Rudyard Kipling – one of Lahore’s two Nobel laureates – cut his teeth, was razed to the ground in the 1960s and turned into a shopping mall, Panorama Centre – Lahore’s first, incidentally.
While no sense of conservation or nostalgia appears to exist for these pre-Partition examples of our built heritage, the same is true for the efforts of our architects and builders after Partition. It is surprising that popular culture fails to recognise post-Partition structures that merit conservation (and the hideously ugly Minar-e-Pakistan doesn’t count). In fact, the conservation gene is hard to find in these parts. There must be some reason for this.
In an article published by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Algerian academic Mohammad Arkoun traces the origins of cultural rehabilitation, restoration and conservation to the 16th Century humanist movement in Western Europe. This sought to look back to the Greek and Roman cultures and traditions and, by treating them as ideal, replicating them, learning from them and conserving the architecture, urban planning, philosophy, law and sciences of those periods. From this ethic grew a sense of conservation. It wasn’t until World War II and the destruction of many European cities that this conservation ethic grew until it finally formed itself into UNESCO.
In contrast, conservation in Muslim societies, started soon after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Great efforts were made to compile and preserve the Quran, the biography of the Holy Prophet, the Hadiths and traditions and the teaching of the Companions. Thus, explains Arkoun, the big difference is that, in the Western tradition, conservation is mainly of theological and mythical importance while in Muslim societies it is of historical importance, with evidence recorded and kept in written documents.
The great trouble of a rich tradition of culture and conservation preserved by the written word, especially in a country like Pakistan, is that a popular culture diffident towards literacy and an elite programmed by Western ideals is excluded from this great written tradition. In place of a society receptive to its past, we have a society with alien sensibilities or, alternatively, a total lack of appreciation of our built heritage. The fact I write in English is an indictment.
But there’s more. One must remain receptive to other influences that inform our sensibilities. Little is made public of the destruction of historically important sites in the holy city of Mecca. In the past, construction work uncovering pre-Islamic Jewish settlements near the desert oasis fed by the water of the Zamzam well was immediately put to a stop. It was cemented over. Other sites, including the house in which the Holy Prophet was born, the house of Hazrat Khadijah (AS) and of many of the Companions have been sealed on discovery. Some are now the foundations of parking lots or multi-billion-dollar development projects. Even the cave on Mount Hira is now slated to become part of a housing complex geared to accommodate the city’s ever growing annual wave of Haj pilgrims.
Dr Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect and conservation activist, has spent the past two decades protesting the gradual but systematic destruction of historical sites in the Holy City. According to him, it’s less the pressure of urban development and the logistics of the Haj and more a case of Wahhabiism. For Angawai, “the root of the problem is Wahhabiism” and its fear that places of historical and religious interest could give rise to idolatry or polytheism. When the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthplace was discovered more than 50 years ago, Wahhabists tried to lobby King Abdul Aziz to raze the structure. The king, however, was persuaded to keep the remains of the site under a library to be constructed over it. New plans to “update” the library include cementing over the historically important portion of the site.
Could it be that the Wahhabiism creeping into Pakistani culture is also partly responsible for the lack of a conservation ethic? It is extremely possible, as we have been known to import Wahhabi practices wholesale. Witness that Pakistan is one of two Islamic countries where wedding expenditure is regulated. The other is Saudi Arabia. We adopted our first extravagant expenditure legislation during Nawaz Sharif’s first stab at premiership, only two years after the House of Saud had done the same. And has anyone noticed how Khuda Hafiz is gradually being replaced with Allah Hafiz? And we already have road signs in Lahore in the same colour and font as in Dubai. Perhaps this influence has crept into the official psyche and has put conservation of the built environment on some back burner. After all, like in Mecca, the destruction of our urban heritage is spun as “development.”
Whatever the reasons for the lack of conservation, this aspect of urban planning reveals much about us. Our attitudes to the past, and the extent of our desire to protect our heritage, are a window to our divisions as a society – whether such divisions be on the lines of class or religion. Imagine, for instance, popular reaction to a plan to knock down a part of Data Darbar to make way for a road-widening project. Our attitude towards conservation is also a lesson to learn from. If there is any hope for an appreciation of our built heritage, it can only be done by making our history relevant and non-exclusive. Only if we can see the relevance of Colonial buildings, for example, will they ever stand a chance of being preserved. And only if the histories of the Mughals are made part of popular culture will their buildings once again stand a chance of reminding us of our heritage.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning.