Life amid the ruins By Elinor Betesh

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Copyright Elinor Batesh

Sitting on the marble benches laid out around the Roman Forum, I sat to enjoy roasted chestnuts and take in the view around me on a Sunday afternoon. Thousands of Romans in the streets – families, kids on bikes, embracing lovers, estranged individuals searching for scraps of home. And while I sat there and took it all in, I realized that even amid the ruins there is life. Fragile, vulnerable, and suspended but there is life.

There’s something incredible about this place – chaotic, messy and unstable in so many ways but with all the madness, the foundations are still there. And it’s not for nothing that millions of people come here to witness the remains of Rome’s ancient glory and power. These foundations lasted for thousands of years, defined the first cities, sustained economies, pumped life into culture, enriched language, they set the stage for the arts and music. And we walk passed them with a profound sense of curiosity and intrigue for what it must have been like to live during those times. And we think, how did this happen? When did this building collapse? Why haven’t they restored it? Will it be here in 50 years?
Yet beyond the pensive questions lies a somewhat selective ignorance. We don’t really know what the Roman Forum will look like in 50 years but we will most likely forget. We move on, enjoy what the city has to offer, we go home, admire the photos but we’re not connected to the future of this place. Or are we? Who’s to say we are not a part of the future protection of the site? Every individual tourist over the age of 11 pays a city tax per night in Rome (except hostels). What does this fee contribute to? This tax is designed to protect the city’s many monuments yet somehow, there are signs of recent suspension due to lack of funds, rubbish and food remains blocking the view, no access to the famed Mausoleum Augusto. The stairs leading up to Villa Borghese are unattended to – cracking stairs, empty glass bottles and neglected corners. Seeing the current picture is enough to understand why the rest of the world is struggling with the challenges of protecting world heritage. It’s not just in the interest of conservators and archaeologists anymore, but in the interest of our entire civilisation, from cultural and education to health and economic departments. And if they’re finding it hard to pick up the pieces of ancient Rome, it is most likely the situation everywhere else, if not tougher. A quick search online highlights the many challenges in places like Peru, Libya, China, Cambodia, Myanmar and Syria. But if there is still life amid the ruins in Rome, there is most certainly life lurking everywhere else. Not just life but hope and determination and most importantly, roots. Roots that run deep under our feet and rise above in vain. It’s time to pay attention and acknowledge the value of heritage to our identities, to our societies and future economies. We walk above and look down inquisitively but never imagine that these harmless, overturned stones can actually affect our lives. The truth is that if these sites are gone, it’s for good. Gone are also millions of jobs, education and research opportunities, local businesses collapse across all platforms, and the genius and human capacity that these sites reflect is erased. We shouldn’t wait for such a tragedy to strike to change something. There shouldn’t have to be a worst-case scenario or plans for a replica site in another part of the globe. In today’s world, we overlook the importance of places like Disney’s Epcot Centre, the simplest and perhaps most naïve and infantile example of cultural heritage. People used to travel to the U.S. to experience the highlights of the world’s treasures, in the hopes to also find something from their own culture. It was exciting and connected everyone. How ironic it would be if the world’s most famous ancient sites crumbled to the ground, and we’d make a pilgrimage to places like Epcot Centre to experience it again. It wouldn’t be regarded as a source of entertainment any longer, but a point of reference to our shared identity. Yet what we experience at Epcot Centre is merely an appetizer; there are thousands of incredible, lesser known places that remain – endangered but still standing. Cyrene, the “Athens of Africa” located in Eastern Libya, is coming out of a dark age with a debut guidebook by Philip Kenrick; Ciudad Perdida is no longer as lost as it used to be – conservation of the ancient site in Colombia is helping to employ local guides, improving life along the trail and connecting visitors with the indigenous Kogi who have lived in isolation for years; the ancient acoustics centre at Chavin de Huantar in Peru has hypnotised archaeologists and calls visitors from all corners of the world. Places like these highlight the infinite capabilities of communities that once came together as well as the possibilities that these sites hold for future generations, starting today. It’s not enough to bring in a foreign team to do the work; without integrating the local community, all the goodwill and efforts in the world will be short-lived. This is something that Global Heritage Fund really understood from the get-go ten years ago, and has defined in its core methodology. When preservation is done in partnership, they’ve been able to create new jobs and improve living conditions as well as encourage new skills to help the local community kick start their economies – in Cambodia, locals who were once illiterate are now running AutoCAD programs independently and making 3D scans of sections at the ancient temple site of Banteay Chhmar. If these changes are happening in the developing world, it’s because they were inspired by other models like those in Rome, Angkor and elsewhere and to make sure that life amid the ruins remains here in Rome, one must invest in resources and invest in people – there are no shortcuts.
As I continued my solo tour, I passed some elderly Romans – surely they know Rome in a different time and perhaps even share the same thoughts. I was offered a discount by the kind people running the B&B during my stay, minus the tourist tax. I insisted to pay it in the hopes that when I come back to Rome next time, at least the steps would be cleaner!
All image used in this article are © Elinor Betesh 2013