“Should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must.”
Sound like Yoda, but it’s not. What World Heritage site did say it; you can read in the end of this article.
The scene was devastating, when 850 year old oak planks burned to a black pile of ashes, the day Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris burned. No matter how much money is collected, the beams cannot be replaced. Right now, the big debate is whether the church should be rebuild as it was, or should the only 100 year old spire be a contemporary construction? Suggestions go from a pool to a forest, since Macron said he was open to a “modern approach”. If you can reconstruct – should you? And will it be the same authentic experience for us visitors?
TO RECONSTRUCT OR NOT TO RECONSTRUCT
Several monuments and cities around the world are not what they used to be. Even several World Heritage Sites are not as original as you might think. I work at a partly reconstructed World Heritage Site and have visited 125 sites, and we frequently discuss originality and authenticity.
The question of reconstruction is getting more urgent as the destruction of World Heritage Sites are occurring more than ever – by war or natural disasters.
Let’s visit some of the most famous reconstructed sites we travel for today: the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the old centre in Warsaw, Poland and the House of Blackheads in Riga, Latvia.
Here’s why you shouldn’t visit these 3 reconstructed World Heritages Sites & why you should – and if it’s worth it in the end!
The famous and iconic bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the World Heritage Site of the Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar. The old bridge Stari Most is the origin of the city’s name.
WHY NOT TO VISIT STARI MOST
As the stones of the bridge shows, this is not an ancient bridge. Most of the historic area and the old bridge was destroyed in the war in the 1990’s. (Guide to the war traces in Sarajevo) Most of it has been rebuilt with the help of UNESCO.
The architecture here represents a symbol of tolerance: a shared life of Muslims, Christians and Jews for more than four centuries. But this is not the bridge, that connected a city full of different cultures. It’s not the bridge, that saw Mostar developing in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman town and the building of its characteristic Turkish houses. It’s not even the bridge, that was so popular in the 19th and 20th century as part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire.
War destroyed all of these historic footsteps. A city area that grew out of necessity and cultural meetings are now deliberately constructed to present one specific idea. You get the first part, when you visit. You don’t get the second one.
WHY VISIT STARI MOST
Well, for the reasons above: Architecture as a symbol of tolerance. Mostar and the bridge is not a world Heritage Site due to what is lost, but what is rebuilt. The now new old bridge and the city is a “symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities“.
Even if it’s fake – no smoke without a fire. The reconstruction would be here unless the real deal had been, and the area is reconstructed using the same materials, old craftmanship and as true to the original as possible. The area around the bridge still has a mixed cultural vibe. East meets west -as they say in the capital Sarajevo (which by the way is more interesting than Mostar).
Would it have been an equally big tourists attraction if they had built a new city and bridge? Definitely not.
NEW OLD WARSAW
The Historic Centre of Warsaw covering Old Town Market, townhouses, the city walls, the Royal Castle, and important religious buildings is a World Heritage Site.
REASONS NOT TO VISIT WARSAW
The old historic centre of Warsaw – is not old. Again war plays a devastating role in the destruction of cultural heritage.
In August 1944 – as a revenge for a failed uprising – 85% of Warsaw’s old centre was destroyed by the Nazis. 85%! This is of course a gruesome story with many interesting historical events (read more on the museums in Warsaw telling that story), but this of course also means that almost everything is a reconstruction and not the actual old town. Almost like a theatre setting, like it could have been build anywhere to resemble a medieval European town. The fact that locals haven’t lived here for centuries is clearly felt.
WHY VISIT WARSAW ANYWAY
Winding medieval streets, pastel coloured houses of merchants, charming small squares with mermaids, a royal castle and old city walls to keep the enemy out. Warsaw was an important city from 1300, became the capital in 1500s and was a centre for culture and arts in 1700s. Until WWII, it was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Just like Mostar bridge, Warsaw has been reconstructed to look like the original as much as possible. And even more than Mostar the reason for being a World Heritage Site is the reconstruction and not the original itself. “It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.” Quite impressive, it took only 5 years to recreate the old centre and the building was supported by the locals. If you didn’t know it was new, you couldn’t tell.
Oblivion is a bliss!
HOUSE OF BLACKHEADS
WHY YOU SHOULDN'T VISIT
Again war and again the Nazis, but this time 3 years earlier: In 1941 during WWII, the Nazis also bombed the Latvian capital Riga. The House of the Blackheads – the most beautiful house in the city – and city hall and other buildings in Riga was demolished. What a treasure lost. Most of the medieval city was destroyed by war or fire.
The House of Blackheads is one of the largest attractions in the old town of Riga. Historically, it was build to promote entrepreneurship, and it’s first mentioned in 1343, but many ornaments were added in the 16th century. But this is not the building, where the Brotherhood of Blackheads or the Blackheads Company – a guild for unmarried merchants and foreigners – came to meet. This is not where they partied under crystal chandeliers and stained glass windows. This is not where you had a chat with the other merchants taking tobacco from your snuffbox among the portraits of the nobility.
The House of Blackheads is completely reconstructed and is now a setting you can rent for your own wedding or as a business venue. But it’s just not the same as an actual authentic original old building.
WHY YOU SHOULD STILL VISIT
Riga was a major Hanseatic city like Lübeck and Visby in the 13th and 15th century, and this means a steady and large trade, which means money. The medieval centre reflects the city’s earlier prosperity, but it continued to build.
Just like the other two, the house is only part of a larger site from more than one period. “The medieval and later-period urban planning structure of the Historic Centre of Riga, as well as the quantity and quality of Art Nouveau architecture, which is unparalleled anywhere in the world, and the 19th century wooden architecture make it of Outstanding Universal Value.”
Riga is a surprisingly charming city with more to offer than you think at first. The the finest collection of Art Noveau buildings in Europe (and that’s including Vienna) is worth the entire trip.
TO RECONSTRUCT OR
NOT TO RECONSTRUCT
IT'S A BAD IDEA
AUTHENTICITY? After an earthquake in Kathmandu in 2016, reconstruction began on the World Heritage Site of Bouddhanath Stupa. But UNESCO raised concerns about the reconstruction of historical monuments through questionable process and the use of unoriginal materials. In the Stupa, they are using concrete.
According to the UNESCO Heritage conservation professionals have traditionally been opposed to reconstruction of sites, since it’s fake and can falsify history to the visitors and create something entire new that never existed like this. The guidelines states: “In relation to authenticity, the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances. Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture.” But in my opinion it will always be false reconstruction despite of precise measures or detailed drawings as in Warsaw and as Notre Dame also have.
I might be biased working in the museum, but old stuff is just different than new stuff. It’s not the same, and it can feel like a theatre setting as in the case of Warsaw or a tourists attraction as the house of Blackheads. Seeing a monument erected without power tools, in stones made by local clay in an oven, by people who haven’t heard of capitalism, globalism or even Gorillas (the animal) are just different than the remake.
GET IT? And an added problem: When the argument no longer is the historical value of the site, but the idea behind the reconstruction – I will bet you anything that the point is lost on most visitors. If World Heritage Sites changes into a celebration of a good purpose – where’s the line?
REMEMBER! And worse, it might make people forget what happened (in many cases war) and that cultural heritage can be lost. The partly destroyed, but not reconstructed Genbaku Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan reminds every visitor of the bomb in a more powerful way than fully reconstructed. We just have to take great care at the stuff we got.
I'S A GREAT IDEA
FOR PEACE’S SAKE In both cases of Warsaw and Mostar, the UNESCO underlined, that the reconstruction itself is a story of reconciliation, cooperation and peace. I get that, since that’s what UNESCO and World Heritage Sites are for. Creating peace through cultural understanding. UNESCO has in fact changed their opinion towards a more agreeable position in recent times concerning reconstructed World Heritage – beginning with the reconstruction of the old centre of Warsaw and later the Mostar bridge. Both sites got dispensions due to exceptional circumstances.
HISTORY Compared to a non-existent site, a reconstructed still learns us about history. Even though old Warsaw is mainly a new version- I still came back from my trip much wiser.
DESTRUCTION Another reason for being more pro reconstruction, is that deliberate destruction of cultural heritage by terrorists are occurring more and more often now. And if we never reconstruct the lost cultural heritage, everything could be lost (in theory). And when we loose the best mankind has ever produced – we loose our history and identity. And I have to admit – now that old Aleppo is destroyed alongside Palmyra and all the traces of our civilizations early history – I would like to see a reconstruction, when I can’t see the real thing.
Maybe the argument made used against reconstruction can also be used for it – if you know it’s reconstructed, you become aware of the fragility of the site, it reminds you that our cultural heritage is only here if we value it and protect it.
And on a side note: meticulous reconstruction can create respect for craftsmanship such as woodcarving and help keep immaterial cultural heritage such as old techniques alive. In Roskilde Cathedral, we always use the best of the best, and often have to get workers from outside Denmark to find someone who knows the old techniques or can develop a new solution in an medieval setting.
CONCLUSION: IT'S COMPLICATED!
4 thumbs up vs. 4 down! Sure, I’ll keep visiting reconstructed World Heritage Sites. But I will always place a higher value to the original.
The definition of a site is having “outstanding universal value”, which technically could be a completely new build place monument – but it never is. Because how can you show the importance until some time later?
FROM MONUMENT TO IDEA But it seems, the argument shifts from the (lost) historical monument to the idea it represented, and what the reconstruction represents. But this creates a lot of grey areas. A reconstructed Mostar still shows the unique architecture developed by intercultural meetings. But does a reconstructed Warsaw really tells any traveller about human resilience? Only if you know the story behind. I bet a lot of tourists just think this is very old. And then the actual point is missed.
It makes sense to reconstruct a destroyed World Heritage Site like Notre Dame, but I thinks it’s problematic to make them World Heritage Sites after the reconstruction. But I do agree with UNESCO, that if a place is rebuild, at least it need to be as respectful of the original as possible. But maybe it should loose its status as World Heritage. Like in the case of the Stupa in India. Nobody wants a cheap copy.
Riga’s House of the Blackheads gets the final words in this (as they had the first). Once written on the gate of the house; the words have now been fulfilled!