Pakistan’s Moenjodaro is crumbling away
Falling tourist numbers, lack of facilities and neglect mean the archaeological site in Pakistan is taking a hit.
WATCH: Moenjodaro 360 – A walkthrough of the ancient civilisation
Moenjodaro, Pakistan – The walk through Moenjodaro is lonely. Apart from the three accompanying officials, and workers helping with preservation, there are no other people in sight. The wind picks up at intervals, blowing sand around. Stray dogs meander on to the path.
It is hot, nearly 51 degrees Celsius on this early summer day. But locals say even the cooler months do not attract the crowds that once used to visit this archaeological site dating back to 2,500BCE in Pakistan’s Sind province.
The word Moenjodaro means mound of the dead. But the remains tell the story of a bustling and civilised, planned-out city. Walls made of baked bricks are all that remain of double-storey houses.
A well-planned drainage system is visible along the narrow streets as a witness to the skilled architects who once lived here.
The “great bath” ruins in the centre of the city which, experts believe, people once visited for religious purification, speak to the complex social traditions of this ancient society. A tall Buddhist stupa overlooks the city as the highest structure on the site, the image of which can also be found on Pakistan’s Rs 20 banknote.
The Indus river flows nearby. It is known to be the reason for the establishment of Moenjodaro at this location, as well as, some historians believe, the reason for its demise.
But the vestiges of this ancient city are crumbling, and not just because the walls are 4,500 years old.
Local officials are unable to provide an annual figure on visiting tourists, but everyone is affected by the trickle of visitors.
They say an accumulation of factors has contributed to this deteriorating situation.
Travelling to Moenjodaro is not easy. There is an airport within walking distance, almost adjacent to the site, where the national carrier once operated two flights a day, but the airline cut this schedule by half and incoming flights are often delayed.
There is only one guest house on site for visitors, but problems with the electricity supply make it unattractive to tourists – in the summer, daily power cuts limit electricity in the area and adjoining Larkana for up to 21 hours at a time, which is a common issue in Pakistan.
But the situation is not solely nature’s fault. Nor is it only rooted in financial and infrastructural deficiency.
Sharmila Faruqi, the province’s minister for culture and tourism, explained to Al Jazeera that the number of visitors has dropped due to external factors as well.
“A lot of foreigners don’t come here due to the security situation in Pakistan. We need to get a hold of that. Accessibility is another issue. A lot of things are out of our control,” she said.
Preservation of the ancient ruins is another concern for those charged with caring for the site.
Closer to sunset, a family and a few other tourists enter through the gates, children run along the excavated walls, adults pose for selfies with their feet propped against the historic ruins.
A protective layer of liquid sprayed over the structures, which dries and hardens in order to preserve them, ensures that damage to the site is limited.
Qasim Ali Qasim, Moenjodaro’s former project director, is concerned by the neglect and continued damage to the ruins and thinks visitors bear some responsibility for this.
There are signs posted throughout the site, informing visitors of the rules of conduct and asking them to refrain from touching and damaging the artefacts, but there is not sufficient staff to impose the rules upon those who would break them.
Qasim has been associated with the Moenjodaro archaeological site since 1988 and feels a strong emotional and professional connection with its legacy.
“Local visitors need to be educated about heritage sites. Pakistanis are very curious. Unless they touch something, they are not satisfied. The Sheesh Mahal [glass palace] in Lahore has a beautiful marble window and once a man kicked it to check how strong it was.”
Moenjodaro is even losing its place in the education curriculum, Qasim said.
“It used to be part of the school curriculum which is not the case any more. We are losing our history and it’s our fault.”
The site has a post office, a bank, an archaeological laboratory, a police station, a museum and a souvenir shop where Ilyas, the site attendant, lines up replicas that he and his wife make at home.
“Sales aren’t that amazing because we don’t have a lot of people coming through,” he says with a smile. “But whoever comes through the gates, we are happy to give stuff, even if they don’t want to buy, because it helps promote our history and culture.”
Ilyas lives 10 minutes away from the site. Inside their small house, he and his wife make not only the replicas, but also traditional clothes and other souvenirs that he proudly lays out on his charpai [string bed].
There are not many customers, he says, but sometimes they get large orders for exhibitions taking place in the cities, which helps them to survive and make ends meet.
Preservation is key
Back on the site, the temperature is unbearable in the summer heat. “This is one of the hottest areas of the country and, in May, the temperatures can reach up to 54C,” Qasim says.
But there is no respite indoors either, because of the electricity shortage. Solar panels are used in Larkana and the rest of the province but provide limited relief as they are not sufficient to power large appliances like air conditioners for the duration of the power cuts.
Petrol generators are another solution, but m ost residents cannot afford them. Even on the government funded Moenjodaro site, the budget is insufficient for the fuel necessary to run the generators at all times.
“If you have electricity for just three hours a day, it gets very difficult to live here. There’s no wind, so keeping the windows open doesn’t make a difference,” explains Qasim who thinks that the drop in tourist numbers has a lot to do with the electricity problems.
What is visible today represents only 10 percent of the entire site. The rest remains buried. Officials are reluctant to unearth any more than the 225 hectares they already have.
Limited manpower and funding, and lack of awareness among visitors, make it difficult to justify the unearthing of more of the ancient city, said Qasim, who retired from his role in June.
“If our estimates are proven correct, Moenjodaro was probably a cosmopolitan city of its times. I have said it time and again that, 5,000 years ago, when people in Europe and other places lived in caves and jungles, people in Moenjodaro lived in brick houses in a civilised and planned city,” Qasim says.
This “civilised city” has witnessed its fair share of “interest” and controversies. The Sindh Festival, organised by the provincial government in 2014, reportedly resulted in some damage to the archaeological site, “alarming” UNESCO experts. But Qasim and Faruqi both said that no such damage occurred.
In another major incident, in 2002, robbers stole a set of seals from the on-site museum. While the alleged culprits were caught, the seals were never recovered.
The government is planning to build a new museum to house the vast collection of relics from the site, but in the meantime, after the robbery, archaeologists are no longer digging for new items. New material recovered randomly from the site is in the care of the federal treasury with no public access.
Limited funding, falling numbers and electricity issues do little to motivate the staff who spend their days and nights in what once was a “hustling and bustling” city.
“In a country like ours, we don’t talk about culture and tourism, unfortunately … It’s not easy to get funds for this, especially when your federal and provincial budgets are in deficit, and arts and culture are considered last,” says Faruqi.
“Despite that, I’m very hopeful for Moenjodaro.”