WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju

The Baekje Historic Areas cover 8 archaeological sites in 3 clusters, representing the 3 former capital cities of this historic kingdom. During my stay in Seoul, I visited the Gongju cluster on a day trip by public transport. It was my first experience with Korea's long-distance bus system since my earlier visit in 2001, and it was a real pleasure to be transported on-time for only 7.20 EUR on a luxury coach with wide and comfy seats. It took 1.5 hours from the Seoul Express Bus Station to Gongju Bus Station.

Lotus Pond at Gongsanseong Fortress

Gongju nowadays has an odd city plan, with the river splitting it in two. A quick look at this provincial city proves that not everywhere in South Korea is as modern and prosperous as Seoul. The two components of the WHS are clearly visible from afar, each covering a hilltop near the river bridge closest to the city center. I first walked to Gongsanseong fortress. As I had spent the day before at Namhansanseong, I couldn’t bring up much enthusiasm for yet another Korean fortress. The flags are yellow here (“the national colour of Baekje, representing the center of the universe”), the walls steep and the main area without much sites of interest. Very little reminds of the Baekje area: the absolute low point is the “Site of Baekje Building”, which is just a flat piece of grass land.

After half an hour or so I decided to move on to the second component of the WHS and the renowned Gongju museum. As said, this part is also clearly visible on a hill – but how to get there? I went on foot from the fortress, and quite nearby there’s a sign pointing to ‘Jeongjisan Archaeological Site’. However I ended up in a residential area with fiercely barking dogs, and never found any access to the WH area from this approach.

Reconstructed tomb of King Muryeong

I had brought a sketch of a map with me, and it seemed to show the main entrance of the complex to the back of the hill. So that meant another rather long walk on the Gongju pavements. Finally I ended up at the Royal Tombs of Songsan-ri. The area seemed deserted, but when I approached a ticket seller lifted the shutter of his booth and sold me a ticket. Then a trail awaits along the underground exhibitions and the tumuli outside. The interiors of the tumuli are all closed off nowadays, so the underground exhibition is the only way to admire the creative, Chinese inspired way of burial chamber design of the Baekje. Undoubted highlight is the tomb of King Muryeong: it looks as if he was buried in a book case!

The outdoor area is nice enough for a short stroll, but doesn’t bring more than a series a grassy bumps that cover the original graves. The trail along the tumuli ends at the far end of the archaeological area, and that’s where the entrance to the Gongju Museum lies. It’s a gigantic modern building. At the entrance I’m overloaded with free brochures, including a map of the whole Baekje area (including the other former capitals next to Gongju). The main hall on the first floor is dedicated to the findings from the Songsan-ri tombs. The most impressive one is that of the aforementioned King Muryeong. He and his wife were buried with many of their possessions such as weapons, tableware (from China), jewelry and shoes. A couple of the exhibits are currently away on loan to the National Museum in Gongju, where I had also admired them about a week ago.

Baekje crown ornaments in National Museum

So that’s all there is. I must say that the museum exhibits and the underground reconstruction of the tombs were the most impressive. There’s not much left of the structures that the Baekje built. For future visitors to Gongju and both WH locations, I’d like to suggest taking a taxi or local bus (101 apparently) from the bus station to the Gongju National Museum. I walked everywhere, and especially the way back from the museum to the bus station across the river is tiring.

Published 14 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #623: Baekje sites in Gongju:

Kyle (winterkjm) (13 January 2017):
"it looks as if he was buried in a book case!" I love this description, great pictures by the way.

WHS #622: Namhansanseong

Namhansanseong was the ‘contingency capital’ for the Korean Joseon Dynasty, built as a mountain fortress in the early 17th century. I visited it on a day trip from Seoul – although it lies only some 25km outside of the capital, it took me 1.5 hours to get there by metro and bus. Looking at the number of large parking lots and restaurants, the site must see huge crowds during the weekends (over 3 million visitors already in the year 2010, before WH inscription!).

Entrance to Emergency Palace area

On a weekday though, the place is the domain of elderly hikers. Most of them actually got off one bus stop earlier than I did, for the start of the trails that run on and alongside the walls. I eventually found myself at the roundabout of a tourist village, wondering what to do. I noticed some more traditionial looking buildings a bit to the north. These turned out to be the newly restored Emergency Palace, plus ticket and information stalls. I first went to get a ticket, which I was given for free although there is a usual entry fee of 2,000 Won. Maybe it was a special day, or were they just happy to welcome a foreigner? The ticket by the way is for the Emergency Palace only, the rest of the site is free of charge.

At the entrance of the Palace an older man in traditional custome was strategically posted to catch any innocent visitors. He turned out to be an official guide with good English. So he enthousiastically took it upon him to show me around the Palace and tell all about it. Besides an ancestral shrine and offices, the Palace contained modest living quarters for the king and the crown prince – I gathered from the guide that their wives stayed in Seoul! The buildings have been freshly painted and just as many other South Korean sites are a bit dull in decorations.

Woodwork at Emergency Palace

After the Palace I went for a walk. One can hike the whole wall along the four entrance gates. That was too much for me, so I walked from the center outwards first to the East Gate and later (after lunch) to the South Gate. The route to the East Gate goes on a normal pavement through the not so interesting parts of Namhansanseong’s tourist town. The gate itself, though spectacularly located against a steep hill ridge, lies next to a heavy travelled road.

The South Gate is (according to the nomination file) by far the most visited of the gates. It seems to be the preferred starting place for hikers, the trails aren’t so steep here. I didn’t really know where to go and quickly retraced my steps to return to the bus stop.

At the South Gate

Looking back after having now visited all South Korean WHS, I must say that I found Namhansanseong the least interesting (although it has some competition of other recent nominations). There is actually a second location to this WHS (“the remains of two Sinnam advanced defensive posts”) which none of the reviewers has checked out yet – so maybe we can get a new angle from that?

Published 11 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #622: Namhansanseong:

Kyle (winterkjm) (10 January 2017):
I think I am in the minority, but Namhansanseong is far more interesting to me than Hwaseong Fortress, which was never actually used for anything. Granted, the gates at Hwaesong do stand out!

1) There are vast sections of wall that are basically in ruins (outer wall), other sections are moderately restored and reflect early 17th century fortress design in Korea.

2) Namhansanseong is a Provincial park and the nature can be stunning, particularly in Spring and Fall.

3) The fortress was under siege for a month in one of the most famous battles on the Korean peninsula.

As Els mentioned, there are at least 2 downsides, the tourist village in the fortress center is not particularly interesting or scenic. Secondly, the reconstructed Emergency Palace, which was criticized by ICOMOS is an example where Korean enthusiasm for cultural heritage and tourism runs a fine line between education and lack of authenticity.

Perhaps I am biased after 2 visits and a 5 hour hike. That much effort requires positive affirmations!

Palau and the Yapese Stone Money

Palau’s best chance of a second WHS is the serial transnational nomination of the Yapese Disk Money Regional Sites / Yapese Quarry Sites. This collection of 4 locations in two countries has already been brought forward in 2010, but ended up with a Deferral advice from ICOMOS and a subsequent withdrawal of the nomination by the Federated States of Micronesia (representing Yap) and Palau. They will try again in (possibly) 2018.

Orrak Island with overgrown causeway

Palau played an important role in the origin and practice of the use of stone disk money on Yap. Although the island state lies almost 500km away, with its fine limestone it provided the source for producing the large disks that were used on Yap as stone money. In 1883 it was reported by judicial commissioner G.R. Le Hunte that he found around 100 Yapese at Palau cutting stones and preparing them for transport.

The two locations on Palau included in the original nomination are called ‘Uet el Doab ma Uet el Beluu’ and ‘Chelechol ra Orrak’. After the discussion we recently had on the Forum and some further research, I’m quite sure that both are located on the island of Orrak (the former in the interior, the latter near the beach). I found the original ICOMOS evaluation of 2010, which sheds further light on the boundaries of this nomination. The locations on Orrak Island are both quarry sites.

Approach to Airai

Orrak is a tiny island, which was connected to Airai Village in Babeldaob “by a prehistoric causeway constructed of coral rubble now covered in mangrove vegetation”. From the harbour of Airai this causeway is still visible, although it’s also easy to see that it is broken down by water in one or two places.

The Yapese did not just go and take the stone disks from Palau: they had arrangements with the traditional owners of the lands for the quarrying rights, and brought gifts from the chiefs of Yap to the chiefs of Palau. In the case of Orrak Island, this meant the chiefs of the village of Airai. In its evaluation, ICOMOS argues that there is at least an intangible relationship between the quarry sites on Orrak and the village of Airai. Therefore the village itself could be part of the revised nomination or at least the buffer zone.

On my first day driving around Babeldoab, I checked out Airai too. It has probably the finest example of a traditional bai (men’s meeting house) of Palau.

Airai Bai

Unfortunately I did not have the time to arrange a visit to Orrak Island while on Palau, although I was tempted to speak to one of the fishermen present at Airai to take me across. Which locations finally will end up in the new nomination is not clear: ICOMOS requested a further justification of the selection of these two sites on Orrak Island, as there are at least nine other documented quarry sites on Palau (including the already inscribed Omis Cave (part of Rock Islands WHS) and the one tourists get sent to, Metuker ra Bisech).

Published 7 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Palau and the Yapese Stone Money:

WHS #621: Rock Islands

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon so far is Palau’s only WHS. It encompasses a marine area south of the nation’s main islands Babeldaob and Koror. The lagoon is a maze of some 445 karstic islands, of which many show a typical mushroom-like shape. The site is a mixed WHS: some difficult to access archaeological sites are part of the core area too, mostly on Ulong and Ngeruktabel islands.

Typical Rock Island

The WHS cannot be visited under your own steam: you have to join a tour, hire private boat transport or step on the state ferry to the outlying island of Peleliu that only runs twice a week. I visited the Rock Islands with Impac Tours – this may be Palau’s largest and most professional tour outfitter, aimed especially at a Japanese audience but other nationalities are welcome too. On my tour an English speaking guide and a Chinese & Korean speaking guide supported the Japanese head guide. The cost was 95 USD for the tour, plus 50 USD for a special conservation permit.

I joined 20 other tourists on the ‘Rock Islands plus Kayaking’ full day tour. Around 9 a.m. each day you’ll see many boats leaving the tourist resort of Koror – one hardly has the lagoon (which isn’t too big by the way) to itself. But it must be said that the Impac guides tried to avoid anchoring at places where there were already other boats. Probably the best part of the day was the hour that we spent kayaking. A kayak gets you up and close with the islands. You’ll notice the sharpness of their limestone ridges that protrude above sea level, you can touch them with your hands. We kayaked into a small bay, where we were in for a surprise as I spotted a smallish crocodile on the shore! According to the nomination file, only 500-750 saltwater crocodiles inhabit this conservation zone.

Kayaking is the best way to explore

For lunch we stopped at one of the bigger islands, one of the few that has a sandy beach. This also presented an opportunity to have a closer look at the flora of these islands. All Rock Islands are lush and green – it rains a lot here. Huge ferns and palm trees are prominent, but so are exotic-looking flower and fruit bearing plants that I do not know the name of.

Most tourists visit Palau and the Rock Islands because of the excellent diving opportunities. On this tour we had the chance to sample some underwater life at two different snorkeling spots. It was my first time to snorkel and I could not really get much pleasure out of it (I'm not really a 'water person'). But it may be clear that marine life is both colourful and abundant here.

Lush and green

The Rock Islands have been compared to Halong Bay, but Palau's remote location in the Pacific guarantees that this area stays much more pristine than the Vietnamese tourist trap. The shapes of the karst islands are different as well. Unfortunately, the Rock Islands’ distinctive marine lakes cannot be visited (the only one that generally is open to tourists, Jellyfish Lake, is still recovering from 2016's El Niño effects).

Published 4 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to WHS #621: Rock Islands:

Els (4 January 2017):
It may be allowed (with a permit), but I guess you'll have to be a strong kayaker to do it and know your way around in the maze of islets.

Wojtek (4 January 2017):
Actually, Rock Islands can be visited on your own. You have to pay for a permit and then you may go with your own kayak, camping on the beaches of some bigger islands.

Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin)

Palau’s Stone Coffin or Tet el Bad is one of the strangest entries on any Tentative List. It may be the smallest object in size: it measures 233cm by 66cm, at a height of 40cm. And it is a moveable structure, not only in theory but also in real life as it has been moved for research to a museum in Koror in the 1930s. It has stayed there until the 1980s, when it was transported back to its place of origin on northern Babeldaob. Despite its flaws, I am going to write a full 500 word blog post / review about it!

The Object

The coffin lies on Palau’s main island, Babeldaob. When I was young I was active with geofiction, and Babeldaob could have been a creation of mine (its name sounds like fiction already). Somehow the countries I created were always islands, often located in the Pacific. Always round or oval-shaped, with points of interest scattered around evenly across the surface. For sure I would have designed a flag for it, another one of my childhood interests.

Finding this stone coffin required some determination. I had rented a car from my hotel in Koror (on a different island, but connected to Babeldaob via a bridge), and drove all the way north to the ‘state’ of Ngarchelong. Possibly due to its long connection with the USA, Palau calls its communes ‘states’ – each often having not more than a few hundred inhabitants. There is only one main road into Ngarchelong, so that part is easy. To get to the coffin, you have to drive on to the hamlet of Ollei. This lies further north (but along the same road) as the Badrulchau Stone Monoliths and the ruins of a Japanese lighthouse. I had to ask for directions at both sites, as the Stone Coffin is not signposted.

Approach to the Stone Coffin

The fifth or so building after the turn-off to the Japanese ruins is the village house of Ollei, and that’s where the coffin lies behind (still without any sign). When you face the building, there is a patch of grass to the right and from there you’ll see a path going uphill. This is the trail that you need to take: the coffin lies some 20 metres to the left and is in the process of being overgrown by weeds and plants.

Surprisingly little can be found about the history of this stone coffin. It originates from Medong in Ngarchelong, which may or may not be a different place from Ollei where it is located now (one source has it that Medong is a terrace system on Ollei). Traditionally on Palau, people were buried on specific burial platforms on modified ridges or earthworks. The coffin’s current location can be seen as a kind of stone platform too. Its age is unknown, but it probably was carved after the Palauans had contact with Europeans and Japanese and adopted (forced or willingly) their burying practices. The stone coffin effectively mimicks a European-style coffin.

Badrulchau Stone Monoliths

The coffin resembles a sarcophagus, it is hollow inside and has a lid with two knobs on each side that can be taken off. It is made out of basalt. Apparently the coffin contained the remains of two individuals which were brought to Japan for study in the early 1900s, but much of the information has been lost. The individuals might have been a female and a child another source says. The Palauans were expert carvers, using the abundant soft stone on their islands. The nearby Badrulchau Stone Monoliths are another example of this: their date of origin is also unknown, and it is uncertain whether the monoliths and the stone coffin are related in any way.

Published 1 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Responses to Tet el Bad (Stone Coffin):

wojtek (3 January 2017):
What a story, I feel ashamed that mine was so short. But this magnificent object certainly deserves attention :)


Seoul is preparing for inclusion of its 4th WHS in the city proper in 2017. ‘Hanyangdoseong’ covers its City Wall, originally constructed in the late 14th century. ‘Hanyang’ is a reference to the old name for Seoul, while ‘Doseong’ is a “walled city where a ruler lives”. The over 18 km-long wall was built along the ridge of Seoul’s four inner mountains. The site seems well on track for receiving foreign visitors, it already has an elaborate website in English and its own Seoul City Wall Museum.

Heunginjimun - East Gate (Dongdaemun)

12 km of the wall has been preserved, as well have the South Gate and the East Gate. The official website has extensive information about hiking trails on and alongside stretches of the wall. I choose the shortest and most accessible route, the Naksan Mountain Trail. I started from the southern end at Dongdaemun (East Gate) – the site of one of the best remaining gates, plus the location of the City Wall Museum. Dongdaemun has its own subway stop, and from there I took exit number 1. The way to the museum and the start of the hike is signposted by arrows on the street tarmac.

The museum is located in what looks like an enormous office building. It is solely used however for exhibitions on the City Wall. Entrance to its 3 floors is free. Lots of money has gone into restoring the wall over the past years, and the museum seems costly too. All has been done with future WH status in mind – I believe that there are very few countries nowadays willing to invest that much into self-promotion. The exhibits contain some interesting displays about how the wall was built (with help of lots of conscript labour from people outside the city).

Steep climb

The Naksan Trail starts right behind the museum. The track is easy to follow. It had been snowing lightly overnight (daytime temperature was still below zero), so I had to be somewhat careful on the steep slopes. For the first part of this trail one walks on top of the wall itself. There are good views on the inner city of Seoul and also the narrow streets of the old neighbourhoods close to the wall. The nomination will also include cultural sites close to the wall, but the ones that I passed on this trail (such as the Naksan Pavillion) I didn’t find too interesting. Other stretches of the wall may have more things to see.

I did enjoy my short hike though. The weather couldn’t have been better for a winter’s day – a little snow on the ground, bright blue skies and a strong sun. There were some other people (locals from the look of it) hiking as well. It took me about an hour to get to the smaller Hyehwamun gate, which lies within close reach of another subway station.

Layers from different periods

The builders of this wall had the local topography in mind. After having walked a stretch of it, I left with a different feel for this city. Downtown it is very crowded and people live in tiny spaces, but there are magnificent mountains around Seoul. The Wall also is a testimony to the city’s long history. And with all the effort put into it (then and now), I can't see why it wouldn't become a WHS next year.

Published 29 December 2016 Leave a Comment

Responses to Hanyangdoseong:

Kyle (winterkjm) (30 December 2016):
I think Durian's point is an interesting one. Bukhansanseong seems to be on the path toward an extension of Namhansanseong. These would be mountain fortresses designed to protect the capital during an emergency, with Namhan fortress being a place of refuge if Seoul was in danger. Seoul City Wall protects the entire city of Seoul, but also was part of the daily routine of the capital, with gates being opened and closed during specific times. The Cultural Heritage Administration would argue there is enough distinction in function, purpose, events, and design that would warrant a separation of these fortress designs. Yet, how much fortification-related world heritage sites should one country have? Even if Korea is sometimes called the "nation of fortresses".

As far as authenticity, sure there are restored sections. Yet, I would caution any visitor to not be deceived by historic repairs during the 15th and 18th centuries. There are several sections that are relatively untouched by modern restoration. Specifically, the Bugaksan Area is a well-preserved portion. Nevertheless, nearly 6km of fortress wall sections have been lost, mostly during the last 100 years.

nan (30 December 2016):
I think the wall was heavily reconstructed. Like many sites in Korea. That to me would speak against inscription.

Durian (29 December 2016):
I also think that Seoul City Wall should be WHS, but in my opinion it should combined with Namhansanseoung and Bukhansanseong as single site of "Seoul Fortification System"

WH Trip Planning in 5 steps

In a couple of days I’ll be on my way for my last trip of 2016: South Korea and Palau are waiting, including 4 'new' WHS. Maybe you want to look over my shoulder how I plan and prepare these WH related trips. I just hope I don’t come across as too obsessive–compulsive!

1. When to go?

I am in the fortunate circumstances that I can have about 45 days off from work each year. And that it does not really matter when I use these days. I like to spread them evenly across the year, so most years I take 4 trips of about 2 weeks length. I always travel the weeks right after Christmas, just to escape the European winter and because I get some bonus days off this time of year (Dec 26 and Jan 1 are national holidays in the Netherlands).

The remarkable Flag of Palau (the yellow circle represents the moon)

2. Where to go?

My wish list of destinations is still very long. I even maintain a spreadsheet of countries (or parts thereof) that I’d like to visit in the near future. I have added the number of weeks that I’d like to allow for a visit to that particular destination. Also I have marked the best months to visit that destination – those are the yellow fields in the graphic below.

Destinations that I am looking at nowadays have a combination of a couple of WHS and are somewhat off-the-beaten path. I'm not looking to incorporate as many WHS as possible (I'd better stay in Europe for that) - the destination itself is more important than the number of 'ticks'.

Palau at least fits the criteria and December/January is a good time to travel there. I asked on our Forum whether South Korea will be bearable this time of year and the WHS are open for business. The replies were reassuring.

Part of my wish list; the whole list contains 45 destinations

3. Booking stuff

Just before finally booking I create a new worksheet in my spreadsheet: this will contain a day-to-day itinerary for this trip. At this stage it mainly contains the places where I’d like to stay and any longer transfers that I have to make. In this case, on which days can I fly from Seoul to Palau and how long am I going to stay in each country.

I usually book my flights and hotels beforehand. Looking back in my e-mail archives, I see that I booked my flights to Korea and Palau already on May 21, the hotels in Seoul on May 22 and the hotel in Koror on Palau on May 23. So I got the basics settled already 7 months before!

4. Day-to-day planning

All of the activities above were based on a rough idea of where I wanted to go and how much time I would allow to each destination. In the following months I fill in the worksheet with more detailed activities. For example, on which day will I visit which (T)WHS? I look at the opening hours of course, and other practical details. I read many trip reports and forum topics about the destination, and keep on adding sites that take my interest to the schedule.

My detailed 'roadbook' for this trip

5. Preparing for the individual visits

This is the final iteration, it usually starts some 3 weeks before I leave. I create Word documents for each (T)WHS and other major stops on the trip, and copy into them all relevant available information that I can find about them on the web. A print of this document I take with me on the day of the visit, and the digital version will be used in writing up the review afterwards. All hard copies put together form my 'roadbook', which also includes prints of hotel confirmations, airline tickets, specific directions etc.

Some sites / museums etc require specific preparation of course, such as pre-booking of a ticket to secure a place on the day that I want to visit. For the upcoming Korea/Palau trip I booked a day tour to the Rock Islands of Palau and from Seoul a tour to Panmunjom/DMZ (both about 2 weeks before the actual visit date).

After finishing all of this, I feel both 'in control' and relaxed about my upcoming trip. I'd like to hear from you in the comments whether you have any specific ways of preparing that differ from mine?

Published 21 December 2016 Leave a Comment

Responses to WH Trip Planning in 5 steps:

Els (22 December 2016):
Re: "How's packing for low 0 C weather and 30 degree C weather for the same trip?"

There's even an extra hurdle: I always only travel with carry on luggage. But I only go for 12 days so I do not need a lot.

I plan to do a dry run packing on Saturday to see if it all fits. But I have those handy compression bags which usually help with issues like this. I probably only have to carry my winter jacket separately when landing in Palau.

Kyle (winterkjm) (22 December 2016):
How's packing for low 0 C weather and 30 degree C weather for the same trip? Your post is interesting, you definitely plan more in-depth than me, but there are quite a few similarities. For example, I've purchased my flights to Denmark/Sweden last month, despite the fact I am not departing for this trip until June 2017.

I am also very curious about your final itinerary for Korea. Were you planning to visit:

- Munmyo Confucian Shrine & Seonggyungwan National Academy
- Deoksugung Palace & Jeong-dong Old Legation Quarter
- Hanseong Baekje: Seokchon-dong Baekje Tomb
- Seodaemun Prison History Hall

Which Royal Tombs?
Yungneung Tomb Cluster (Suwon)
Donggureung Cluster (Seoul)
Seolleung Cluster (Seoul)
Hongyureung Cluster (Seoul)

Clyde (21 December 2016):
Cool post. My annual leave amounts to 26 days so together with a list (instead of your excel sheet) I also try to maximise my annual leave by combining my days off from work with public holidays and long weekends. I also have separate lists for road trips and shorter trips. I'm also almost half way through my top 100 whs which usually inspires my travel plans for at least half of my travel plans while I reach compromises on destinations which are on my better half's wishlist.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster is the second most visited WHS according to the statistics of this website. So far 12 of those visitors have written a review about it. Some zoomed in on Westminster Palace and praised the guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, others focused on Westminster Abbey or the site's third component St. Margaret’s Church. Last week during my day trip to London I took a closer look at Westminster Abbey.

Familiar view

“Huge Crowds” and “Ridiculous charge” are two common denominators to describe the first impression of a visit to the Abbey. I also smiled about the “Not allowed to sketch” comment from a previous reviewer. Photography is forbidden, and apparently even sketching is (would taking notes be also?). The reasoning behind the ban is stated on the Abbey’s website: “We believe that the unique beauty and history of the Abbey are difficult to enjoy with the distractions which widespread photography would bring; and that photography would diminish the sacred and intimate atmosphere of a building which is, first and foremost, a living, working church.”

From our reviews we can also see the admission fee rise over the years: 6 pounds in 2011, 18 in 2015. It is 20 pounds now (December 2016). That’s a staggering amount for a church, especially in the light of the common opinion that one shouldn’t have to pay for entrance to a place of worship. And as we have just learned from the photography ban: this “.. is, first and foremost, a living, working church”. This reeks of applying double standards; the real reason probably is the enormous cost for the upkeep. No visitor would object to a contribution to that I believe, although it would be fair to share costs with the Anglican Church, the Royal Family and the English Government. Why would only tourists have to pay for it all?

Faith or Money?

My visit started with queuing some 20 minutes in one of the two lines that lead up from the sides to the North Entrance. Upon entering I was spoken to by one of the vergers. After enquiring where I came from (she did not ask whether I came to worship by the way), this friendly elderly lady said she was sorry that no audio tours in Dutch were available. So I settled for one in English. It’s good that one is provided within the entrance fee, though I wasn’t really impressed by its explanations. It does not go much beyond “This is a church where many famous persons are buried and hey, there’s a throne used for coronations too”. My suggestion for improvement would be to be able to select stories from different angles, so as to learn more about the architectural history of the church or Anglicanism (as this will be the only Anglican church most foreign visitors will visit during their whole life).

Northern Entrance decoration

My lasting impression of Westminster Abbey is that of a monumental graveyard, confined within the limited spaces of a Gothic building. Besides the numerous UK royals and politicians, also scientists such as Newton and Darwin are buried here. It almost feels like sacrilege to step on their graves.

Published 10 December 2016 Leave a Comment

Responses to Westminster Abbey:

Looking for the Golden Rhino

Last October, when I visited Mapungubwe WHS in South Africa, I got intrigued by the cute small statue of a golden rhino which was found in a grave there. The rhino itself isn’t displayed at the site (a copy is): the original is in possession of a University Museum in Pretoria. Coincidence has it that just now they have lent this golden rhino to the British Museum in London for an exhibition on South African Art. So that’s where I headed yesterday.

Exhibition announced outside the British Museum

I had paid 12.5 EUR beforehand for an entrance slot to the exhibition at the opening hour of 10 a.m. It has received good reviews, so I expect it to be busy all the time. My surprise could not have been bigger when I stood in front of the first display case: it contained the Makapansgat pebble! This is the most curious discovery from one of the other South African WHS, the fossil hominid site of Makapansgat. It is a reddish brown, face shaped pebble, apparently taken ‘home’ by an Australopithecus africanus. It was larger than I had imagined it, about ca. 8 cm in height. I found it so fascinating that I returned for a second look at the end of the exhibition tour.

The golden rhino is just around the corner from the pebble. It is displayed together with a golden oxen and a golden sceptre and bowl, all taken from the grave in Mapungubwe. They do look a bit ‘lonely’ here, and the accompanying text only hints at the history of Mapungubwe. Without the site's context, the value of these golden objects is quickly overlooked. To be fair the exhibition is on South African Art, not History per se (although the objects are clustered chronologically). Still I had expected more from the exhibition: I'd seen it all in 45 minutes, there aren't many objects although most of the ones on display are top-notch.

The Rhino and other findings from Mapungubwe

As I finished rather quickly, I decided to go and see some interesting other exhibits in the British Museum. I used our In the British Museum connection for that. Maybe it would be better if we added the room number where each object can be found, as the museum’s lay-out isn’t entirely logical. I first set my sights on the Uruk Trough, found at the Sumerian site which is part of the Ahwar of Southern Iraq WHS. I walked the entire Near East hallway downstairs, but that’s mainly dedicated to findings from Nimrud and Nineveh (looking at the extent of the items on display here, it’s a miracle that there was something left for ISIS to destroy). I eventually found the Uruk Trough on the first floor. It is engraved with rams around a reed house, befitting the signature of this WHS.

The Meroë findings are also on the first floor, at the far end of the Egyptian corridor where there always is a crowd of visitors because of the sarcophagi on display. The back wall of the corridor is covered with a pieced together interior wall of a tomb in Meroë. On the way I found another one for our connection, a glazed brick guardsman from Susa.

Part of the Uruk Trough

The good thing about the British Museum is that entrance is free, which makes its classy exhibits accessible to people from all over the world that come and visit. It did struck me this time however how much of a warehouse feel it has, it seems to be frozen in time since I visited it for the first time during a school trip almost 30 years ago.

Published 4 December 2016 Leave a Comment

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A Silk Roads overdose?

According to this Thematic Study from 2014, the WH List contains 35 sites related to the Silk Roads / Routes. We had 27 already in the Silk Roads Connection, but with Bam, Lhasa, Mount Qingcheng, Bisotun, Soltaniyeh, Esfahan, Shustar, Takht-e-Soleyman, Armenian monasteries of Iran, Hatra, Samarra, Bosra, Anjar, Baalbek, Kathmandu, Makli (Thatta), Divrigi, Nisa and Itchan Kala 21 others could be labelled that way. And there is no end to Silk Roads nominations: the tentative lists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Turkmenistan, China and Iran all contain explicit serial Silk Roads sites.

Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a center on the Silk Road

The Thematic Study found no less than 54 ‘Corridors’ within the Silk Roads system, linking ‘nodal’ points along the routes such as cities and towns. Nominations of these separate Corridors are now slowly brought forward. There is one already Pending: in 2014, the 'Silk Roads Penjikent-Samarkand-Poykent Corridor' (Tajikistan – Uzbekistan) got referred. In addition to the already inscribed Samarkand and Bukhara, this 365km long stretch would include places like Chor Bakr, Penjikent, Raboti Malik Caravanserai, Vobkent Minaret and the Bahouddin Naqshband complex. Besides trade, Sufi pilgrimism is the focal point of this corridor. Criticism about the selection of sites and the state of conservation of particularly Penjikent and Poykent lead to a negative ICOMOS advice.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are currently preparing a nomination for the ‘Fergana-Syrdarya Corridor’. Another one under construction is the ‘Maritime Silk Road’. China and India are competing on this with initiatives like “Maritime Silk Roads” (China) versus “Mausam: Maritime Routes and Cultural landscapes” (India). Some see in this an example of the Chinese extending their sphere of influence.

Bahoutdin Complex, Silk Road site in Uzbekistan

Iran also has a ‘Silk Route’ tentative site. What this entails however is totally unclear. No specific locations are named in its description, and the suggestion of only criterion I seems like they haven’t given it much thought yet. The thematic study from 2014 distinguished 3 separate corridors on Iranian territory: ‘Crossing the Northern Iranian plateau’ (with Afghanistan), ‘Ray to Bagdad’ (with Iraq) and ‘Soltaniyeh to the Black Sea’ (with Turkey). Examples of prominent Silk Road sites along these routes are Nishapur, Ray (Rey) and (the already inscribed) Tabriz with its Kaboud Mosque. Nishapur sounds interesting with its nearby “turquoise mines that supplied the world with turquoise for at least two millennia”. Ray or Rey lies close to Teheran and warrants a visit plus review by an intrepid WH traveller.

Although they got a Corridor already inscribed, China is aiming at another inscription besides the already mentioned Maritime Silk Roads. 46 Locations are named, a lot of them in the remote provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang. It includes for example the Xi’an mosque, but also the Yumen Pass and Hecang City which are already included in the current WHS.

Ruins of Hecang, Chinese Silk Road

It may be clear that there is a dazzling number of sites that could be connected to the Silk Roads. But one wonders how much they would add to the already inscribed top sites such as Samarkand, Merv and the Mogao Caves. Most Corridors seem to "just" string together a number of lesser sites with these top WHS as nodal points.

Published 20 November 2016 Leave a Comment

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