The Pulse

The Lost Civilizations of Asia

Asian states need to pay more attention to protecting their invaluable cultural heritage.

The Lost Civilizations of Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The tragic destruction of antiquities by militants in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere serves to remind us of the importance of antiquities and archaeological studies, their role in contemporary understandings of history and culture, and the need for their preservation. Many parts of the world outside of North America and Europe need to do a better job at preserving and marketing their historical sites, all too many of which are decaying due to a lack of funding. Those funding issues, in turn, are partially caused by the obscurity that comes with a lack of marketing and interest. For example, most visitors to India will only see a few historical sites in Delhi, Rajasthan, and the Taj Mahal in Agra, but the subcontinent is home to thousands of fascinating monuments, forts, palaces, and religious buildings, many of which are neglected. Contrast this to the loving care of many of Europe’s castles and cathedrals, many of which were situated in obscure principalities of minor historical significance.

A major component of preserving antiquities is knowing about them to begin with. This, in turn, leads to an interest in archaeological and historical sites, instead of indifference. While the main civilizations and artifacts of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East are well-known among scholars and mainstream society (for example, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Indus Valley Civilization, and so on), there are many awe-inspiring sites built by lesser known civilizations that escape attention, both in the West, and among the natives of those regions. Perhaps if more is done to shed light on these sites, the attitude of indifference to their preservation and marketing will disappear. Increased tourist and archaeological attention will also make local people more likely to contribute to the preservation of sites and resistant to their destruction. It could also instill in people a sense of pride in their own local past, instead of seeing ancient sites as the work of peoples disassociated with the modern inhabitants of such regions.

It is important, then, to shed light on and write and speak about historical sites throughout the world, but especially in regions where they face the most neglect. As I myself discovered while writing about the ancient civilizations of southern Arabia, there are many little-known civilizations, and many cultures and ways of life that have been almost lost to the sands of time. Yet civilizations have thrived and evolved in multiple ways almost everywhere throughout the world.

Sadly, it was the recent destruction of the city of Hatra by the Islamic State that brought Hatra and the civilization it represented to the attention of most of the world for the first time. Little studied, Hatra was part of a series of independent Aramaic and Arab kingdoms or states that thrived along the Roman-Persian/Parthian border; historians usually describe the region as an area frequently contested among the Romans and Persians and spend little time fleshing out the details of the people and local politics of the area. All this inhibits awareness of Hatra, which is of remarkable significance not only because it was very well preserved, but because it was, according to UNESCO, the site of the first Arab kingdom (this may be contested, but that is beside the point).  However, another small state on the frontier of the Roman Empire, Nabataea, illustrates the benefits of bringing attention to and preserving historical sites. The Nabataean capital of Petra, in modern Jordan, is today a famous tourist magnet, having been so cultivated by the Jordanians. Any attempt to destroy it or neglect it would face strong resistance.

South and Central Asia, being regions the sizes of continents and containing enormous diversity therein, obviously contain a wealth of sites that rival those of anywhere else in the world. The countries of South and Central Asia need to do a better job at preserving, restoring, and funding studies of their historical and archaeological sites. However, governmental neglect is only a part of the issue. People need to know about a place before they develop the desire to visit it. In order to shed some light on these places, I will introduce some of the important archaeological and historical sites in South and Central Asia over the course of the year in a series of articles where I will also lay out the significance of major sites. Stay tuned!