With an international consultation meeting held in Bagan from 10–12 October, Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture has officially launched the process to place the Buddhist temple complex on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The meeting was attended by more than a dozen UNESCO officials as well as archeological experts from the USA, Australia, Japan, England, and Nepal. The site is at the top of Myanmar’s priority list for future World Heritage nominations.
The meeting was conducted as part of the project “Capacity Building for Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Myanmar,” which is financed by the government of Italy, the main donor country behind Myanmar’s World Heritage efforts. The Swiss and Japanese governments are also supporting UNESCO’s work in Bagan. The project, which began in 2012, is the first UNESCO culture sector cooperation initiative in Myanmar in over 10 years. Although Myanmar has a rich archeological heritage, no sites were accepted to the UNESCO list before the Pyu Ancient Cities earlier this year.
Bagan is located in a low-lying area along the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in Mandalay, and represents 42 square kilometers of historic and cultural wealth. From the 9th–13th century it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, more than 10,000 Buddhist temples and stupas were constructed in the area. Today, over 3,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, stupas, and monuments remain, giving Bagan the highest density of Buddhist architecture anywhere in the world. It is also one of Myanmar's main tourist attractions, and rapid urban development means that UNESCO protection is very necessary.
“Bagan is a big challenge to us. We have to discuss and design a plan to control and manage urban expansion with the help of scholars,” said Thein Lwin, deputy director-general of the Archaeological, National Museum and Library Department at the Ministry of Culture. “There are many problems. We have yet to do a lot work for Bagan to get UNESCO recognition, while also ensuring all parties concerned [hotel and restaurant owners] are not affected.”
Not all believe that Bagan deserves UNESCO recognition, however, as some of the ancient structures have been added to or completely rebuilt in recent years. “It would be telling the world that basic archaeological principles not only don’t mean anything, but may be rewarded by this kind of baseless, conjectural restorations,” says scholar Don Stadtner. Others feel that Bagan’s recognition would damage UNESCO’s respectability, and that the organization would be “reinforcing that the irresponsible tampering of such sacred archeological sites can have positive outcomes” (The Battle of Bagan). Myanmar originally applied for UNESCO support for Bagan in 1996, but the application was rejected due to poor management strategies and legal issues.
In August, officials from the Ministry of Culture already held workshops in cooperation with UNESCO to compile historical maintenance records on each of Bagan’s pagodas, along with photos and pictures of the buildings. Plans were also made to carry out an examination of the artworks and murals. According to Thein Lwin, the studies required for the World Heritage List nomination will take at least three years to complete. There are plans for UNESCO experts to work alongside Bagan’s archeological team to improve their conservation and restoration skills, as well as to establish a training course in mural conservation.