The Chinese government has begun its plan to raze the old oasis city of Kashgar to the ground. According to news reports, two-thirds of this old city has already been bulldozed. Over the next few years, 85% of Kashgar will be demolished.
Kashgar, “virtually untouched by modern society,” is an important oasis city strategically located on the ancient Silk Road in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. Architect and historian George Michell described Kashgar as “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, predating the advent of Islam, are one of China’s largest ethnic minorities.
Because Kashgar is a city that lies in the heart of Central Asia, it was one of the most important cities along the northern route of ancient Silk Road. As much influenced by European, Islamic, and Persian cultures as Chinese, the city has been known to exist in this area since the Han Dynasty (ca. 202 B.C. – 221 A.D.). Since that time, it has seen heavy traffic from people coming from Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia as they made their way from the city of Xian in the East, all the way to the western part of the Roman Empire. Today, it is a city that covers roughly 15 square kilometers, and is still an important connection point on routes between China and northern Pakistan over and around the Taklamakan Desert.
It is a city that has been occupied by dozens of cultural groups, and influenced by countless more. The rich archaeological heritage that has been left behind by hundreds of years of traders goes without saying. It is a heritage that should not be lightly dismissed, and yet it is in imminent danger of destruction.
The act of razing the city is reportedly a part of a government plan to relocate Uyghur residents from unsafe, overcrowded homes susceptible to earthquake to more modern, safer quarters. At the same time, “China supports an international plan to designate major Silk Road landmarks as United Nations’ World Heritage sites – a powerful draw for tourists, and a major incentive for governments to preserve historic areas. But Kashgar is missing from the list of proposed sites.” Officials also spoke of plans to turn what remains of Kashgar into a tourist attraction.
“Here, Uighur culture is attached to those raw earth buildings. If they are torn down, the affiliated culture will be destroyed.” Said Wu Dianting, a professor of regional planning at Beijing Normal University’s School of Geography, who did field research in Kashgar last year. Others have called this “cultural vandalism” “stupid” and “cruel”. According to Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, at a seminar in 2007 to assess the urban plan for the historical preservation of Kashgar experts made three recommendations: a. The urban plan should focus more on how to preserve the old town; b. The urban plan should further study the history of the old town, in relationship to its rich culture; c. The urban plan should further study how to protect both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
SAFE joins Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center in an appeal to the Chinese government to publicize its plan for protecting historic Kashgar and its cultural heritage. It would help the general public to know what is going to be done not only to protect citizens, but also to preserve Kashgar’s the rich cultural heritage and archaeological record that has yet to be fully explored.
The demolition of the Old City is a completion of a project that was started years ago. At this point, asking for the demolition to stop might be an action taken too late, but it is not too late to ask that more care be taken in preserving what is left of Kashgar’s cultural patrimony. It is not too late to question whether a more sensitive approach can be taken. It is not too late to demand that a plan for preservation and protection be made available to the international community. After all, success was achieved in China’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States earlier this year; it is not too much to ask that China honor this achievement by doing everything it can to ensure that Old Kashgar, a beacon of Central Asian immovable cultural property, does not disappear.
(Photo: Shiho Fukada for The New York Times)
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