Posts Tagged ‘World Heritage Sites’

Banner at Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima, summer 2014, advertising the campaign to get these sites named World Heritage Sites.

Well, after considerable controversy and opposition, Japan’s proposal for a whole series of sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites has been approved. Congratulations to those municipalities, prefectures, and individual sites, and my condolences on the loss of Nadeshiko Japan in the women’s World Cup soccer match thing. I was rooting for you as soon as I found out you made it into the finals, which was about an hour before the game ended.

Frankly, I think this is one of Japan’s better World Heritage proposals. I think at one point they were trying to get “Warrior City” Kamakura named to the list – sorry, but while Kamakura may be really significant to Japanese history, I’m not sure there’s any call for it to be called “World Heritage.”1 By contrast, these Meiji period sites are perhaps among the greatest candidates in Japan for “World Heritage” significance – they represent the sites at the core of Japan’s modernization, industrialization, and Westernization at the end of the 19th century. Japan was the very first non-Western country to Westernize (for certain definitions of “Western”), and did so at a supremely impressive pace and degree of success.

The controversy, of course, is that Meiji industrialization is directly tied to Meiji imperialism, and to Shôwa militarism and imperialism. Many of the late 19th century sites on the list are exactly the same sites which in the 20th century were major centers of Japan’s war engine, some of them operated in part by forced labor of abducted Koreans. Japan’s wartime history is not something to be celebrated (though, worryingly, I think a lot of people in the Japanese government think otherwise), and least of all Japan’s exploitation of others, e.g. through forced labor. In the end, a compromise was reached, the terms of which were seemingly that Japan got to have its Meiji sites so long as a whole bunch of Korean sites got named World Heritage Sites as well, and so long as the plaques and other information associated with the Japanese historical sites make clear the negative things that happened there. I’m certainly not going to argue that these Korean sites aren’t worthy – Paekche was of great historical significance for Korea and for Japan, and these ancient sites look absolutely stunning in the photos; congrats to them on receiving some extra attention, and extra provisions for their protection. I hope to visit them someday. But, the politics are all too plain. The jostling between countries to have the most World Heritage Sites continues.

The Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima. One of Japan’s first ever industrial factories, and today a museum of Satsuma history.

From what little I know of the controversy, I don’t understand why Japan didn’t simply focus on a smaller number of sites that were more prominently or more exclusively associated with Bakumatsu/Meiji, and not with 20th century developments. The Shimazu villa compound at Iso, for example, was home to the first hydroelectric dam in Japan, the first steamship (built based on Western books, with no Western experts present in person), the first gaslamps, and so forth, and is closely associated with the first modern cotton mill in Japan, the Shûseikan – Japan’s first modern factory, complete with reverberating furnaces, blast furnaces, a smithy, a foundry, and a glass workshop.

But, instead, they decided to include, and to continue to insist upon, controversial sites like the coal mines at Gunkanjima (Hashima Island, Nagasaki), which were run in large part, in the early 20th century, by Korean and Chinese forced labor workers taken from Japan’s colonies / conquered territories, all of them working for Mitsubishi, one of the most major corporations at the time producing war materiel. What kind of politics was involved that this site had to remain on the list and be fought for, rather than just being dropped? Was it just stubbornness against backing down to Korean complaints? Was it pressure from local Nagasaki government? Was it the political influence of Mitsubishi? Whatever the case, it seems clear that politics, once again, comes before any semblance of an effort at objective choice of sites based on the expertise of historians & art historians.

The Iso ijinkan, or Foreign Engineers’ Residence at Iso, in Kagoshima.

Well, whatever. While the news and even the UNESCO webpage itself continue to only give vague and confusing information, are we not surprised that Wikipedia already has its shit together, just one day after the announcement. Ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify otherwise, here are your new Japanese World Heritage Sites:

In Hagi (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace
*The Ebisu-ga-hana Shipyard
*Ôitayama tatara iron smelting works
*Shôkason-juku Academy (run by Yoshida Shôin)
*Hagi castle town (pretty cool; glad they snuck that in there, though it’s clearly more about being a castletown than about the industrialization period)

In Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*Mutsurejima lighthouse
*Maeda Battery (assoc. with the 1863-1864 Shimonoseki War against ships from France, England, US, and Netherlands)

In Kagoshima:
*The Shûseikan and surrounding areas, including:
**Shûseikan Machine Factory (erected 1865, long before anything with forced labor)
**The Iso Ijinkan (Foreign Engineers’ Residence, 1867-1869)
**Gion-no-su Battery (coastal defense batteries used to fight off the British in 1863)
**Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat
**Charcoal Kiln
**Reverberatory Furnace at Iso

In Saga:
*The Mietsu naval facility

In Kamaishi (Iwate prefecture, all the way up north):
*Hashino iron mining and smelting site

In Nagasaki:
*Kosuge ship repair dock
*Hokkei well shaft & Takashima coal mine
*Hashima coal mine (Gunkanjima)
*The former house of Scottish merchant & modernization advisor Thomas Blake Glover, oldest Western-style house in Japan
*Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyard

In Fukuoka Prefecture:
*Miyanohara Pit & Miike Coal Mine (largest coal mine in Japan since early 18th c.)
*Miike coal mine associated port and railway
*Misumi West Port
*Yawata steel works in Kitakyushu
*Onga River pumping station

I’m certainly more eager to visit some of these sites than others. I’m much more into arts & culture side of things – e.g. the Hagi castle town, and Glover’s Western-style house – than the ugly, dirty, steel and concrete industrial sites, e.g. coal mines and such. But, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy visiting the few I have already seen – those in Kagoshima – and am glad to see those sites recognized. Looking forward to future trips to Shimonoseki, Hagi, Nagasaki, and South Korea’s many World Heritage Sites as well.

You can read more about the Kyushu-Yamaguchi sites at their official English website.

1) Though, actually, on second thought, the Daibutsu is super majorly iconic, and many of the Zen temples represent a majorly important historical moment in the spread and development of Zen, and in the role of Zen monks as foreign relations advisors and diplomats.

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Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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A medieval Sufi tomb, destroyed by the terrorists.

I’ve posted about the Timbuktu situation before. Can’t say I’ve been following it super closely, but, best as I understand, beginning last April, Islamist fundamentalist rebels & Tuareg separatists took over most of the territory of the country of Mali, and, until they were routed by French & Malian government forces last week, set themselves (in part) to destroying World Heritage Sites they felt were idolatrous or otherwise sacrilegious.

They have already destroyed a number of medieval tombs of Sufi saints, showing an astounding lack of respect for their own history, their own culture, their own religion, and an incredible failure to care how this makes them, Africa, and Islam appear to the rest of the world, encouraging rather than combatting negative stereotypes of Africa and Islam both as anti-intellectual, as primitive, violent, and all-around uncultured and uncivilized.

Last week, the terrorists went one step further. Timbuktu is not only the home of great sub-Saharan architecture, and sites of great religious importance, but it is also the home of one of the greatest collections of Islamic manuscriptsmedieval manuscripts that represent some of the greatest examples of the flourishing high culture, science, philosophy, of the Islamic world prior to the era of European imperialism. Last week, the rebels torched one of the central libraries, and for a terrifying, dramatically saddening moment, it was thought all was lost. Now, some sources, including the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project itself are reporting, to the contrary, that librarians and curators in fact evacuated the vast majority of these treasures in anticipation of the rebel attack. Of course, we are not being told how or where the documents are now being hidden away, but museum directors and private collectors assure us that “the manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them.”

(Video courtesy of blog 333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat.)

The actions and attitudes of these militants are unbelievable to me. To destroy your own culture, your own history, one of the greatest shining examples that Africa was not backwards, was not primitive, but was full of vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the highest order, long before European involvement, seems counter-productive and self-destructive to say the least. And that, of course, is putting it mildly. In an opinion/editorial piece on CNN.com, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, discusses these issues and their import in far more eloquent and to-the-point terms, writing, “The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”

I do not know much about the specifics of the circumstances on the ground there in Mali today; the timeline on Wikipedia seems to indicate that the French and Malian government forces are in the process of retaking territory even as I write this. Hopefully they will have little difficulty completing this task and restoring government control, and order. However, in my amateur opinion, I would not be surprised if rooting out and eliminating these fundamentalist, and dreadfully destructive and violent elements from the region may prove impossible. This is most likely not something that can be changed with warfare, or by outside foreign intervention. All the UN condemnations in the world won’t stop these people. The only thing that can stop them, I wager, is for Muslims around the world – and most especially within these Northern African communities – to gather together and denounce these attitudes, to work within their communities to change minds, to change attitudes, and to eliminate this disgusting, repulsive virus that threatens to destroy Islam’s greatest historical and cultural treasures.

Some reports quote Malian locals as saying they need the French forces to stay, in order to continue to protect them from the rebels, but other reports are indicating that the French are looking to get out of Mali as soon as possible, in order to avoid the sort of quagmire the US continues to find itself in in Afghanistan. Hopefully, all involved will do what is right, and the horrors of the last eight months or so will not be repeated.

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I likely at one point commented, or joked, about China’s nationalist push to get more and more sites named World Heritage Sites, as if this is a contest, to have the most World Heritage Sites. It really kind of dilutes the importance and meaning of the designation if you’re going to try to bid for sites beyond those of truly exceptional significance to be included on the list. The 2007 selection of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in Japan would once have been my go-to case – ask any tourist, or any tourist guide book, and I can practically guarantee that the mine would not be in the top 100 famous sites in Japan. But, it is hard to deny the importance of Japanese silver not only regionally, but truly globally, in the 16th-17th centuries.

In any case, I can hardly think of a more deserving site than the oldest and longest manmade waterway in the world, China’s Grand Canal (大運河). Frankly, I’m surprised it’s not a World Heritage Site already. Roughly 1776 km long, the Canal connects Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south, intersects with five major rivers, and has been an extremely major thoroughfare and trading route within China for roughly 2000 years. As Kelly M explains on her blog, “Eye on East Asia,” some of the oldest sections are said to have been built during the reign of King Fuchai of Wu (r. 495–473 BCE); these and other sections carved by other rulers were combined during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) to form “The Grand Canal.”

Other Chinese sites currently or recently bid for World Heritage Site status include Beijing’s “Central Axis” (mostly sites connected to Mao Zedong) and the Shaolin Temple (famous for its associations with kung fu). You can keep up with World Heritage Site news via this keen aggregator of NY Times articles on the subject.

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An update on those terrible attacks upon World Heritage sites in Timbuktu: the Associated Foreign Press reports that locals have established an armed watch to defend precious historical Muslim sites in and around the city.

One representative of the group is quoted as saying, “We are not going to allow people who know nothing about Islam to come and destroy our treasures. I studied in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, no one tells us in the Koran that we should destroy tombs.”

This is an important step towards ensuring the conservation of these sites against the radical Islamists who would label them “haram,” or heretical. And for what it’s worth coming from me, I applaud these people for standing up for themselves, for their faith, and their heritage. It will take a lot more to destroy the extremist organization Ansar Dine, and a lot more beyond that to put an end to people following that sort of ideology.


Meanwhile, a hoard of Crusader coins has been found in Israel. Archaeology.org’s News Feed constantly has stories about hoards of gold coins being discovered. But, the article seems to indicate that finding Crusader hoards in Israel is relatively rare, especially one of this size. Given how romanticized/dramatized Crusaders are (or am I thinking of Templars?), this seems an especially exciting find.

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In a series of disgusting acts of iconoclasm, Islamist extremists in Mali have begun attacking and destroying 15th century World Heritage Sites in the city of Timbuktu. These mosques and Muslim mausolea are among the most impressive and historically significant (or at least, prominent) Muslim historical sites in Africa. To attack them is to show total disregard for their importance, not only in terms of specifically Muslim and African history, but also their incredible importance in standing as monuments to the fact that African people in the past did build great buildings, great cities, great civilizations. Adhering to a narrow definition of Islam and Shariah law as defined by their religious sect today, these extremists display their ignorance, or just utter disregard, for history, for the fact that religions and cultures evolve, and that just because something does not match your narrowly defined understanding of what Islamic observance should be does not mean that it is not perfectly in accordance with the tenets of Islam as practiced in 15th century Mali.

Above, Djinguereber Mosque, a 14th century structure in Timbuktu similar or related to those under attack. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The extremists, a group called Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith,” is dedicated to seeing a particularly strict version of Shariah law imposed in Mali, and seems to have little or no respect for other sects within their own religion (such as the Sufis who built these monuments over 500 years ago), let alone other cultures or belief systems, not to mention international law. As NPR reports, the group has identified the sites as “idolatrous,” the same reason given for the repulsive act of destruction visited by the Taliban upon the Bamiyan Buddhas back in 2001. Furthermore, the group has explicitly said they do not recognize the authority of the World Court or the United Nations, but only the law of Allah.

The United Nations has of course condemned these attacks, calling them repugnant, but it seems from what little I’ve read that no one has yet actually lifted a finger to do anything about it.

Personally, I find these actions, and the ideology behind them, to be utterly and completely reprehensible. I don’t think there are words to express how disgusted I am by the attitude and worldview of the Ansar Dine. Not that I am advocating the US military get involved in yet another war, as we did in Libya, but it really would be doing the world – and in particular Northern Africa, its culture and heritage, and all of Dar al-Islam – a huge favor if someone would just wipe these religious extremist assholes off the face of the earth.

Read more about these attacks at the following links:

*The Guardian – Malian Islamists attack world heritage site mosques in Timbuktu

*NPR – Timbuktu’s Treasures Are Being Destroyed As World Watches Helplessly

*NPR – Islamists Continue Destroying Timbuktu Heritage

*NPR audio “Talk of the Nation” – Africa’s Ongoing Militant Conflicts And Ethnic Feuds

*TIME Magazine – Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage

*TIME Magazine – Mali’s Crisis: Terror Stalks the Historic Treasures of Timbuktu

*CNN – Opinion: Timbuktu tomb attack is an attack on our humanity – by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO

*Voice of America – Mali Islamists Destroy Ancient Timbuktu Sites

EDIT: A quote from yet another article on the matter.

Timbuktu was a very significant center of Islamic learning, but the Ansar Dine sect is ignorant of this. For these extremists, there is only one book and it’s the Q’uran. All other learning—Islamic or otherwise—is inconsequential to them.

Bradenton Herald

I apologize for the tangent, going off into another political arena entirely, now, but I think there’s a lesson in there for extremists/fundamentalists of the other two Abrahamic religions as well. Thankfully, so far as I know, there have not been any major, physically destructive, campaigns of iconoclasm or the like initiated by extremist Jews or Christians recently. But, in some ways, what they do is sometimes more destructive. For too many people, there is only one book and it’s the Bible. All other learning is inconsequential. This is not only a problem in Mali. It is a problem in our own society, and far too many people are too blinded by their own self-righteousness to see it. It is because of this connection, this similarity, perhaps, that these events in Mali bother me even more than they would otherwise. We think we’re better, we’re alright, we’re distanced from these kinds of events, such as are going on in a faraway place like Mali, a place most Americans probably couldn’t find on a map. But, there are people leading us down a very similar path, and it is extremely frightening and dismaying.

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After granting membership to the State of Palestine last year, UNESCO has now declared the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site belonging not to Israel, but to Palestine.

It’s wonderful, of course, to see the Church of the Nativity named a World Heritage Site, as it deserves, for its incredible, incomparable, historical and cultural (and religious) importance. But, there are some problems with this development.
Firstly, the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership after being repeatedly denied “normal” membership as a UN member state was an obvious political ploy to gain power and influence against Israel, and the acceptance of that bid likewise was a decidedly political move for an organization that is supposedly to be apolitical and devoted to cultural concerns of importance to all humanity. Palestine should be working with Israel to achieve a peace solution, rather than going around. All of this just continues to show the decidedly anti-Israeli leanings of the United Nations.

The very fact that the inscription of the Church of the Nativity was “a move that was celebrated by Palestinians who hailed it as a significant political and diplomatic achievement” indicates the politicized nature of the Palestinians’ bids and efforts in these matters. As the New York Times reports, and I agree,

Israel has said that it is not opposed to the church’s listing as a world heritage site, but that it objects to what it calls the Palestinians’ using Unesco as a political tool against Israel.

“This is proof that Unesco is motivated by political considerations and not cultural ones,” the Israeli prime minister’s office said in a statement after the vote. “Instead of taking steps to advance peace,” it added, “the Palestinians are acting unilaterally in ways that only distance it.”

The head of the PLO’s Department of Culture and Information has praised the listing as “a welcome recognition by the international community of our historical and cultural rights in this land,” again showing the political, and not altruistic or purely cultural, motives of the Palestinian administration. The idea is utter and complete nonsense, furthermore, since at the time of Jesus’ birth there were no Muslims, no organized/unified conception of “Arab” identity, and certainly no Palestinians in the modern, 20th century sense of the term.

The Palestinians’ bid blames the Israeli Occupation for damage and threats to the Church, and for the Palestinians’ inability to undertake conservation efforts. No one can deny that these are factors. For nearly 65 years, Israeli efforts to combat Palestinian terrorism have restricted the free movement of people and goods, and have damaged and destroyed much of the West Bank. However, given that all of this has been done in response to Palestinian terrorism, the blame rests squarely on the Palestinians, whose continued support of terrorism has made such Israeli actions necessary.

The Palestinian bid would have us believe that the Palestinians have always worked to protect and conserve the church, and that it is Israel which represents the threat. However, as an Israeli official statement correctly points out, “the world should remember that the Church of the Nativity, which is sacred to Christians, was desecrated in the past by Palestinian terrorists,” an event completely ignored by Palestinian official statements. In 2002, Palestinian terrorists took hostages and hid from Israeli forces in the Church of the Nativity, as part of a pre-meditated scheme inviting the Israeli troops to violate the sanctity of the Church, by attacking them in that holy space, or damaging the building. Such a thing would have been a PR nightmare for Israel, which is, of course, precisely what the Palestinians would have wanted. For them, this sacred, holy, historical spot was merely a political tool, something to risk, and to even let get destroyed, if it meant causing trouble for the State of Israel.

It’s great that the Church of the Nativity has been named a World Heritage Site. It would have been nice, though, to see it identified as belonging to Israel, or at least shared between Israel & Palestine. While they’re at it, maybe UNESCO can name Israel (or Israel & Palestine) as the country controlling the Old City of Jerusalem, which was named a World Heritage Site in 1981 without any country named.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Lots of interesting stuff in the news today – mostly from the NY Times, as it’s one of the chief news sources I read.

*Anthropologist E.B. Banning argues that Gobekli Tepe, an 11,000-year-old site that has been billed as the world’s first temple, may not have been exclusively or primarily a sacred space, and further, that the dichotomy between sacred spaces and secular (mundane) spaces [I don’t like the word profane], is a rather modern concept.

Actually, we just discussed just yesterday in the course I’m TAing how churches and mosques have always, historically, traditionally, served as more than just religious spaces, but as community centers as well, where a wide variety of activities took place.

*Thanks to the Heritage of Japan blog for sharing links and content from several news articles today discussing the newly opened museum at Tôdai-ji, a temple established in 752 to be the central, chief Buddhist temple for all of Japan.

For those unfamiliar, Tôdai-ji, in the city of Nara, contains the largest bronze Buddha in Japan, and the largest wooden building in the world. This new museum will feature a great many National Treasures and other treasures of Japanese Buddhist art not so easily (if at all) accessible, that is, viewable, by the public previously. I look forward to my next trip to Nara to visit and check it out myself.

*Art Spiegelman has published a book entitled Metamaus, in which he looks back and discusses his groundbreaking graphic novel ‘Maus’. The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, ‘Maus’ is a Holocaust story told using animal characters (cats for Nazis, mice for Jews).

I have to admit, I’ve never actually read ‘Maus’. (gasp!) But, despite the glut of indie comics and all sorts of things that are out there these days, I think it really stands as one of the shining examples of what the “visual sequential narrative” format can be. It can be serious. It can be literature. It can be dark, and powerful, and meaningful.

*A discovery has been made in South Africa of 100,000 year old tools used to make ocher pigments for painting. This is by far the oldest evidence we have yet found of human painting, and how it was done. By contrast, while apparently painting workshop finds have been found dating back 60,000 years, some of the most famous examples of cave painting, such as those at Lascaux, go back only 17,000 years.

EDIT: Two more articles about the African paint discovery: A report from NPR, and one from Science Magazine.

*Meanwhile, Thailand is suffering from some of the worst flooding in decades, and UNESCO is dispatching a team to assess the damage to World Heritage Sites in Ayutthaya, the early modern capital (1350-1767) of the Thai kingdom.

*And, finally, bad news, ladies. The heartthrob king of girls all across Asia, 31-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck of Bhutan, is now married. It sounds like it was a beautiful, colorful, and traditional ceremony, with royal astrologers choosing the time for the celebration, gold and red traditional costume, golden Buddhas, and of course the Raven crown.

I’m kind of surprised that royals from other countries, or other celebrities, were not invited or present. But, then, perhaps we shouldn’t be. This is not about the spectacle (well, it is, in that it’s a royal wedding. But it’s domestic spectacle), not about People magazine, or about showing off the good life for/with other royals from around the world.

I won’t pretend to know all that much about Bhutanese politics, or culture, but from what little I know, the king seems quite down-to-earth, accessible and open to speaking with commoners, very much beloved, and, as far as I know, a very capable ruler, in terms of economic and political policy, balancing modernization/Westernization with tradition and protecting Bhutan’s unique cultural identity. Congratulations to him on his marriage (and to his 21-year-old bride, the daughter of an airline pilot, and now newly royalty!), and all the best wishes for the future!

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The blog Heritage of Japan shares with us today a Japan Times article summarizing the history and importance of Hôryû-ji.

When UNESCO cast its beady, critical eye on Japan 18 years ago to assess the country’s cultural and natural merits with a view — in the agency’s ponderous prose — to “inscription on the World Heritage List,” it settled on four places that became the nation’s first entries to those ranks so adored by tourism associations.

It may have come as rather a surprise to some that Horyuji, located 14 km southwest of the city of Nara, should have been selected ahead of obviously much more famous Kyoto — and indeed Nara itself. But Horyuji really is exceptional. As well as being a landmark in Japanese history and the oldest existing Buddhist temple in the land, the complex of Horyuji contains the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

For those interested, you can read the rest at the original post on Heritage of Japan, or at the Japan Times.

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In the running: The Golden Hall of Chusonji Temple, a historical site in the Hiraizumi area of Iwate Prefecture, is shown in this 2005 photo. Hiraizumi and the Ogasawara Islands off Tokyo have been recommended for listing as UNESCO World Heritage sites. KYODO PHOTO

I have never been to Hiraizumi, but somehow the place captures my imagination. Located in Iwate Prefecture, about 40 miles inland from the coastal areas most heavily devastated by the March 11 earthquake & tsunami, Hiraizumi was, in the 12th century, the central base of power of the Northern Fujiwara, or Ôshû Fujiwara, clan.

The Fujiwara clan was among the most prominent and powerful in Heian era Japan, and was eclipsed to a large extent in the mid-to-late 12th century by the samurai clans Taira and Minamoto, but remained a prominent presence in Kyoto. A branch of the family split off and moved far up north to Hiraizumi at the beginning of the 12th century, and established themselves there, on the edges of the Yamato state. There, they established a new base of power, aiming to be as independent as possible from the central authorities (i.e. the Imperial Court), and to build Hiraizumi into a city rivalling Kyoto as a cultural center.

Hiraizumi may have flourished for a time, but in 1189, the forces of Minamoto no Yoritomo, newly named shogun, stormed the city, destroying it and the Ôshû Fujiwara. The gold-covered Konjikidô, today sheltered under another roof, within the Chûsonji temple complex, still stands, the chief central marvel of Hiraizumi’s brief period of prosperity; four generations of heads of the Ôshû Fujiwara are entombed within.

And now, it has been revealed that an advisory panel has recommended Hiraizumi to be named a World Heritage Site. It has not been officially inscribed onto the list yet, but this seems a major step towards that result – some sites, such as the Iwami Silver Mine, were outright rejected by the advisory committee and inscribed onto the list in the end anyway.

The blog Heritage of Japan has an excellent post on the subject, complete with gorgeous photos, and lots of links to stories on various stages of this process. Rather than copy any of his material here, I suggest you simply go and check things out on his site. And maybe poke around at some of the other articles there. It’s really an excellent blog.

To be entirely frank, sometimes it feels like anywhere and everywhere in Japan is pushing to become a World Heritage Site, and some that don’t really seem to deserve it (e.g. the majorly obscure Iwami Silver Mine, which isn’t even significant enough to show up in most “history of Japan” narratives / textbooks) get on the list, while others (e.g. anything in Kamakura) continue to be overlooked, not to mention the tons of other sites throughout the world that aren’t getting onto the list for one reason or another (how about anything in Bhutan? Or the properties of the Kingdom of Hawaii, if properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu can get in.)

But I don’t mean for this to be a cynical or critical post. I am very glad that Hiraizumi and its treasures (and, of course, its people) survived the disaster, and that it is being (potentially) awarded this great honor. I look forward to visiting that part of the country sometime.

The Ogasawara Islands, also known as the Bonin Islands, have also been recommended to be added to the list – as a site of natural beauty, not a site of cultural heritage.

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