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“To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It”

That was the title of the article that was published in the New York Times yesterday, May 28, 2009. Reaction to the proposed project to “demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops,” and relocate as many as 13,000 Uygher families, from the archaeological community should strong be immediate, and strong. Kashgar, known as 喀什市 in Chinese, is located on the extreme western side of China, in the Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. It is a city that lies in the heart of Central Asia, and was one of the most important cities along the ancient Silk Road. 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.

Location of Kashgar(Photo courtesy of http://www.chinahighlights.com)

As much influenced by Islamic and Turkish 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 through the city on the Silk Road Trading Route. Because of this, there is no need to discuss how important the city is in terms of archaeological patrimony. But it is this important cultural heritage that is now in imminent danger of destruction. According to the article, the razing of Kashgar’s Old Town, which is located in the very heart of the city, is aimed not only at “preserving Uigher culture,” but also to mitigate and avoid the hazards of earthquakes, which “could strike at any time, collapsing centuries-old buildings and killing thousands.”

Map of Kashgar(Photo courtesy of http://www.lonelyplanet.com)

China’s claims that they are actually protecting cultural heritage beg the question: why not simply relocate families who currently reside in supposed earthquake danger zones, without completely demolishing Kashgar Old Town only to rebuild it in the exact same place? After all, the article states that “In [the] place [of Old City] will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture.” This method of earthquake disaster prevention seems a bit odd to me. Even more unfortunate is the article’s mention that “Chinese security officials consider [Kashgar] a breeding ground for a small but resilient movement of Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international Jihadis. So redevelopment of this ancient center of Islamic culture comes with a tinge of forced conformity.” This single statement, I believe, strikes the true heart of the matter more than any claim made about earthquakes. It speaks to the unfortunate situation the modern world finds itself in where archaeological patrimony and cultural heritage is all too often used and manipulated in order to achieve political goals.

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