Our first full day in Bahrain – exciting, tiring, nerve-racking, spectacular and many more adjectives come to mind when I reflect on yesterday.
Waking up in a different country at 5am local time and opening the patio door to a blast of warm air (I think it was already in the 30 degrees), looking out at the tall modern buildings – many still under construction, with pockets of sand blocks here and there, will always be sketched in my mind. Wow, how opposite it is to my beautiful home of Aotearoa. But in my eyes, it’s no less beautiful and interesting. Beautiful in its Bahraini way.
The first hurdle of the day. Registration. Ah, UNESCO. You international governing body you. I mean I understand that working under pressure right to the last minute can sometimes produce the most amazing results (did this many times for uni assignments) but........still constructing the venue when we turned up to register for the conference and making us wait because the computer systems were still being set up??? I think that’s leaving it too close for comfort, maybe? When is the opening ceremony and start of the conference? Oh yeah, in 1-2 days! After waiting for maybe 30mins (thank goodness I had solitaire on my phone!) we were finally called to the desk to register and would you believe that there was a problem. We had apparently travelled ALL THE WAY from New Zealand to Bahrain to try sneak into the 42nd WHC Session because we weren’t registered. I mean of course! That’s logical right? Why bother registering when we could just turn up and hope for the best? It was finally sorted, with some high-ranking official of UNESCO, a dash of rudeness, a cup of Rachel’s resilience and the wonderful thing called OUR REGISTRATION! So, all in all we got there in the end and now I REALLY can’t wait to see the actually proceedings of the WHC throughout these next 2 weeks if this was just a small insight into their organisational skills.
Not entirely bad though folks, we received an incredible WHC pack which included a few guide books about Bahrain, a writing pad & pen, a fan, a beautiful blue scarf with instructions on the different ways to wear it, a reusable bag, a card and my official name tag. Yay, free stuff!
The second hurdle of the day was our scheduled Bahrain National Museum tour and talk. This didn’t happen – the Bahraini King had a meeting and took priority. Fair enough, just a shame that it wasn’t made public and we only found out about it AFTER we had Careemed (similar to Uber) there.
Again, a silver lining because I’m a glass half-full kinda girl, is that we then decided to go to the Bahrain Fort. Wow. This was the first site to become listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. The site was something I had never seen or experienced before (not that I have been to many places to compare OR that NZ is too young to have history THAT old).
As noted on one of the interpretive signs located within the Fort,
“…this major settlement site is not limited to the massive fortress facing the sea. It is a true tell (artificial hill), extending over 17.5 hectares, with a thick accumulation of archaeological layers that testifies to its long history, beginning with the first human instalments towards 2200 BC and ending with the site’s gradual abandonment during the 17th century AD.”
We were literally standing on layers of history, with only a fraction of what once stood on that site visible and touchable. Many civilisations had aided in the construction and abandonment of the site throughout ages such as Persian, Portuguese and Dilmunese, to name a few. MIND BLOWN.
Now, coming from the perspective of World Heritage and Tourism. So, a part of the World Heritage selection process is that “…sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria” (UNESCO, 2018). Having read through the criteria, I feel that there is one important component missing after walking around and through the Bahrain Fort – the integrity of a site. Though, the Fort is an exceptional example of preserved historic architecture, I noticed some modern amenities which in my view lowered the historic integrity. Lights. Cameras. Wires. Plug sockets. It was just such a juxtaposition of the old and new and in my view, not in a good way. I mean I can understand the cameras for security purposes but then why have the security guards that were present? The lights which illuminate the site during the night, look spectacular. But at what cost? All these modern amenities have in some way compromised the site, as they have had to physically alter/invade areas of the sight where they are present and have affected the physical aesthetic. Should this then influence its World Heritage status? At what point should a site be modified/adapted to tourism expectations and degrade the integrity of preserving a world heritage site as it is? To make the site pretty at night? To add security measures to discourage damage to the site? There is a purpose for having these amenities present which are logical – they haven’t just been put there for laughs! But it’s a balancing act and both perspectives – world heritage and tourism need to work together, side-by-side not against, to achieve a common goal – ensuring these sites are sustainable and last the test of time.
This also leads me to reflect on historic/heritage sites that are protected and surrounded by barriers vs. interactive historic/heritage sites in relation to the tourism experience. So, for example if I wasn't able to interact and walk within the Bahrain Fort - instead just admiring from a barrier around the entire site but there were no modern amenities imposed on the site, would this make me happy? Would this create a captivating and enjoyable tourist experience? Or the opposite, if I could walk through and interact with the site, but have the modern amenities as part of the physical aesthetic - as it currently is, would THIS make my tourist experience more or less memorable? What is the right answer?
I guess, in this case, I am choosing the lesser of two evils in that I would rather see the modern amenities attached to areas of the site and have the privilege of walking through the Fort then if I had just had to stand behind a barrier and admire the Fort from afar. But I feel that this discussion should be case by case, as some sites may NEED restrictive/no access from tourists in order to successfully preserve and sustain the site, while other sites are informative and provide crucial knowledge and understanding, THROUGH its interactive nature.
A side note relating to tourism again, for a tourist, it was so confusing reading the interpretive signage that was available at the site as it seemed out of order. But Manu (another delegate) suggested it may have been an issue of perspective/worldview. Light bulb. This made sense.
So, there is only one entrance to the higher levels of the Fort, where the interpretative signage is. As you come through this entrance/walkway, the signs are all on your left, curving around slightly. So, from a Western worldview, we read from left to right. While in Bahrain, like Japanese culture, they read from right to left. This was why the order seemed confusing to me as the sign furthest to the left described the Fort in relation to the AD time period while the sign furthest to the right described its present status with UNESCO World Heritage and then worked backwards from 2200 BC (the time periods should also have been a clear indication that I was reading it in the wrong order – duh!). This may or may not have been the reasoning for why the signage was displayed in this way, but I think that Manu’s suggestion was correct. This small experience showed me that even though I am in a completely different country with different values, views and culture, I had brought my own worldview and was trying to impose it onto this experience. Learning from my ignorance, I will remember that I am in Bahrain where a Bahraini worldview should be adapted, as I try to navigate other experiences I intend to have.
All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.