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The Living Museum: A conversation with Irina Bokova

Hello and welcome to the Living Museum, the first in a regular series of conversations inspired by the cultural Oasis that is AlUla; a haven of stunning natural landscapes, timeless archaeological wonders, and a unique desert ecosystem of flora and fauna all in a living museum of civilizations that teaches us about the past, whilst inspiring the future.

Since the launch of the Royal Commission for AlUla in 2017, the transformation of the area has driven the development of the site into a fascinating microcosm of history.

And in this series of podcasts, we'll be inviting you to join us for some intimate and insightful conversations with just a few of the experts connected with the AlUla project. So, for this, the first edition of our podcast, we're really pleased to be meeting a truly eminent figure indeed, a member of the Royal Commission [for] AlUla advisory board, the former Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova.

Following a successful political career in her native Bulgaria, Ms Bokova’s achievements would be impossible to summarize in a short space of time. But in brief, her key accomplishments include spells as the ambassador to France and to Monaco, a Permanent delegate to UNESCO, and in November 2009, she was appointed the ninth Director General of UNESCO, the first female and the first South Eastern European to head the agency, a role she held until leaving in 2017.

At UNESCO Ms Bokova purview spanned a vast portfolio of issues, and she'll be telling us a bit more about those in this conversation. But in brief, she successfully intervened in crises involving the preservation of prominent cultural sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and numerous others.

Irina Bokova’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and AlUla stretches back years, and in this conversation, we will also touch on that history with the region, that passion for heritage, and its importance to us all.

Interviewer: Is there one particular accomplishment you achieved during your time at UNESCO that you're especially proud of?

Yes, I would say yes. It's difficult to say [which] I'm [most] proud of because the time was very tough, and the events were really horrible. But I do believe that the time [spent] mobilising all political leaders around the importance of heritage – emphasizing a direct link between the protection of heritage, and peace and security was extremely important.

And I believe that the adoption of resolution 2347 by the Security Council in March 2017 was historical and very important. It recognised the need for the protection of heritage and that any deliberate destruction of heritage is considered a threat to peace and security. It recognises that routing illicit trafficking of objects, antiquities and art also represents a threat. And it put all this I would say in the broader perspective of the need to protect diversity, to say that diversity and intercultural dialogue and heritage is important in this globalized and connected world. And it really meant an important, I would say, milestone, in all this quest for a means on how to live together.

I think it was very important, and I'm very proud of it because if I go back a little bit before that, when the first destructions of heritage started, and I'm talking even before that, in Mali, after the advent of extremism, the destruction of the mausoleums of Mali, the attempts to burn manuscripts that contained, I would say, the millennium of wisdom of Islamic scholars of scientists, of medicine, of philosophy, of everything - I really thought that something new is coming, a threat is on the horizon unlike anything we have seen before. Because when the Taliban bomb destroyed the Buddha [Buddhist temple], we thought it's so, so unnatural, it's so inhuman. It is so horrible that it will never happen again. And then we saw Mali. And I, at that moment, I thought that if we say that the destruction of heritage is a war crime, it has to be prosecuted. And I reached out to the International Criminal Court and we started with the Chief Prosecutor Madam Bensouda, we started to think about how to do it. We put our legal teams together, and in September 2016 we had the first conviction – for the [first] time in history – there was somebody who was convicted of a crime, an international crime, for the destruction of heritage.

And I think it was an extremely important message. He himself [Ahmad al-Faqi] Al-Mahdi confessed. He also presented his excuses. He was really shattered by this. I believe he didn't understand at the time. It was a very strong message. And then, of course, came Daesh in Syria, Iraq and when we started seeing all these terrible things that were happening, and of course, I remember the destruction of the Mosul [antiquities] museum that was on YouTube.

And I have to confess that until this very moment, I remember very vividly the day when I was in my office and one of my advisors called me and said, you know, Director General, something terrible is happening. And he invited me to his computer. I [have] watched it until this very day. I haven't followed all the YouTube documentary. It was so, so horrible.

I immediately convened a press conference and I said, “I want to go to Iraq.” This was the moment I said, “I want to go to Iraq”, and I went to Baghdad, and then we started working on all the different aspects of how we respond to the protection of heritage and conflict. We developed a lot of different initiatives, which led finally to the resolution in 2017.

But going back to my earlier point, when I started denouncing this destruction, and saying that we should not choose between people and heritage, that this is a people's agenda, that is humanity's agenda. It is no different from protecting lives. I was at some points criticised because at the time, the humanitarian disaster was so huge. At the end of the day, I saw the evolution of the thinking. I saw that more and more people accepted this, this understanding that they felt very connected to it. There was an uproar in different parts of the world. Of course, because it is the cradle of human civilisation and we know this, and people started really thinking that this is also their identity. This is also their history. It is not just the history of Iraq, of some communities there, or in Syria, around Palmyra, but it is part of us. And if we let this be destroyed what kind of humanity will we be living through? I think it was an important moment.

And there was a moment, I called it a cultural cleansing. And there was a moment after that, that people started adopting the same language, that people started feeling angry [towards] politicians [and their] agendas.

We saw the looting of sites, we started following these criminal activities - I call them criminal activities. And gradually, we built not just the coalition, we built a broad movement. It was a world movement for the protection of heritage, and it's showed all of us why it matters.

Interviewer: I think it’s very interesting you mentioned this realisation by people around the world that this isn’t a local disaster, this is something that is fundamental to humanity, and yes, people may criticise you initially and say we have a very acute emergency here, why are we talking about heritage? But as you say, the heritage is our collective fabric, it’s what holds us all together as humans around the world, and the destruction of this is cataclysmic for any hopes of growth or mutual understanding. That’s very interesting, and it’s also interesting to note it as you say now that it took till your tenure, as Director General, to actually codify these crimes against heritage into law.

You know, I think human history teaches us certain lessons and we really have to be very careful about how we react to some events. I have always said that heritage is not just bricks and stones, heritage is identity, heritage is people. It is people's ingenuity and talent and aesthetics and imagination. On the other side, we know that there is no pure culture, all of the cultural sites in the world, all of the sites that are on the World Heritage List, bear this message, but also they show the influences of different cultures; how with these influences we were following and in the end we see these incredible inventions and creations in the world that we marvel at nowadays.

On the other side, I think it is important also to mention that most of these heritage sites are linked to very particular parts of history, they're part of different stages, they carry some messages. And when I went to the Security Council, to speak, during the adoption of the resolution 2347 on the link between destruction of heritage and threat to peace and security, I was thinking - what kind of an opening I should make, how could I deliver this message very close to the people and to the politicians and how can we learn these lessons from history.

And I quoted Heinrich Heine, a great German poet, an intellectual and humanist who said that when you start burning books you end up burning people. And I think this is so important always to remember to see that you don't choose. We are both, we are one. We should prevent this from happening. We should not just let it go. We should really understand why and what, we should educate young people. We should teach them diversity; we should teach them this language of diversity and of heritage. And, you know, I think that the World Heritage concept is probably the most transformative, an idea that is most humanistic, brought on by the United Nations, and UNESCO, of course, to the forefront of the world after the Second World War.
We cannot imagine nowadays that it doesn't exist. Can you imagine not having places of world heritage, that we don't have knowledge of all these beautiful monuments in their totality? When we have this, what I called an open book of humanity, of history and diversity where you have mosques, churches and Buddhist temples and synagogues and all different kinds of buildings and complexes and creativity of people, I think it's just amazing.

And we also see these different roads or routes; in Latin America the road of the Incas starting from Colombia going all the way down to Chile, the Silk Road, a majestic project which links different cultures all the way from Chang'an (now Xi'an) to Venice.

The incense route, which is the Arabian route, which is also an extraordinary example of this, of these common influences. And there is a profound, I would say, humanistic message of world heritage and this is where UNESCO’s contribution, with the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972, played such an important role and still does. I would say the cornerstone of all these activities and thinking is common humanity.

Interviewer: These motivations that you’ve just described, these could be summarised in the goals of the International Day for Monuments And Sites.

Yes, I think it's wonderful that we celebrate this international day, because it makes us think about the importance of heritage. And I know that this day, which was launched [nearly] 40 years ago, in 1982, by ICOMOS the International Council on Museums and Sites, which is the largest network of international experts in heritage protection, and also a very strong partner of UNESCO actually; it is one of the advisory boards for the inscriptions [of sites], according to the Convention on the World Heritage List. And of course, it was after the initial launch by ICOMOS that it was embraced very strongly by UNESCO; it was adopted and every year nowadays, we celebrate this international day.

What makes it so significant, is that every year there is a different emphasis [focus] on this day. There have been many topics discussed - local communities, tourism in heritage.

This year, of course, it's about sharing an extremely important message in this turbulent world, where unfortunately, we see xenophobia and discrimination on the rise and a lack of understanding towards others, a lack of empathy, I would say a lack of solidarity, either towards migrants, refugees and also conflict.
And I think this notion of sharing is very important. If we do not know how to share, how to share our heritage, which sometimes does not know political or geographical borders, and it has to be shared by several countries. And sometimes it's just an expression of different cultures that have been mingling and mixing with each other and then it came to this expression. So sharing is really knowing and respecting, and I think it's very important.

Interviewer: Absolutely, sharing is fundamental to the growth of mutual understanding, and bridging cultures, but I am very interested to find out on a practical level what would be some of the strategies that you are promoting to further sharing between cultures.

I think first and foremost, it's of course, it's about education. It's about young people. It's about inscribing into curricula knowledge about history, knowledge about heritage – about your heritage – but not only, knowledge about others, I think this is very important.

And then I believe it is the overall strategies for protection of heritage which does not belong exactly in a certain part of the country, or does not belong to your current culture or religion. And it is also very important, you should not neglect it just because it belonged to another period of your country's history. This is a very strong message.

Museums play an extremely important role here. And it is not by chance that now within the museum community, within the International Council of Museums (ICOM), there is a very vibrant discussion about the role of museums nowadays. Actually, it may seem to be a paradox, but they could not agree, after a year or more of discussions, about the new definition of museums. I think this is important because museums play this role, both from the point of view of universality of museums, but also from the point of view of some of the return of the looted or stolen property to the countries after colonialism, so it’s really a very vibrant discussion but museums play a hugely important role.

Interviewer: Absolutely, and we’re seeing the rise of museums in places like the Emirates at the moment, where these huge western museums are coming to the Middle East and blending their collections with work and artifacts of the Middle East. We’re seeing that these museums are being promoted as hubs of learning, of education, whereas in the west, certainly in Britain, museum are struggling because of government cuts, there’s less funding, there’s an increased drive for private funding. The difference between the two, and the roles that they perform within the society is definitely, I can see why there is such a vibrant discussion happening at the moment.

I think the initiative by the United Arab Emirates and that of some other countries too, to have these types of museums is fantastic. Engaging dialogue among cultures brings together the different expressions of each of these cultures and also, it brings more knowledge, you install a museum, somewhere where the predominant culture is different and all of a sudden, there is an opening on both sides.

I know that many museums struggle nowadays with funding and it is very sad because I do believe that culture brings a lot of healing to a society, culture means creativity, it sparks the imaginations of young people, culture unleashes the potential of human development.

I know that nowadays, of course, there are digital possibilities which are bridging gaps that may exist. I would say that now that we are in confinement during this lockdown due to the spread of the pandemic all over the world, all of a sudden there is a new phenomenon which is incredible. Culture and art have never entered our homes to the extent that we see nowadays. Theatres are opening their doors, operas, ballets, museums, museum collections are [virtually] open to the public and I hope we do not lose this access to culture because this makes us more resilient, this also makes us better people, which I think is very important nowadays.

Interviewer: I find it amazingly reassuring actually when I use this time now to explore museums, collections, archives, artifacts and history that I haven’t explored before. To place our current situation in the context of human heritage, a lot of people are feeling scared, and uncertain about the future, very nervous about what’s happening, but when we survey our collective human history over millennia, we may be able to draw some degree of comfort from the notion we’re at one point in our history and that that history will continue to evolve. I think yes, you’re right that unprecedented boom in cultural consumption which is taking place now to an unprecedented degree is a phenomenon of our time, and hopefully something which will be very good coming out of this crisis.

Yes, I really believe that this gives people hope, and I hope that this tendency will remain. I'm sure that once people are ‘contaminated’ - not with the virus - but with an interest and curiosity on culture and all these values, I think this will never stop and this will make us so much more resilient.

Interviewer: Can you tell me how you became involved with the Royal Commission for AlUla?

It's a very long history. At that time, I was not yet appointed as the Director General of UNESCO, I was a permanent delegate of my country, Bulgaria to UNESCO. I was invited in 2009 when Hegra - at that time it was called Mada'in Salih, officially, according to the UNESCO archives – was inscribed on the World Heritage List. It was the first ever site to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. It was a big celebration event. And I was invited by my predecessor, a good friend of mine, Koïchiro Matsuura to accompany him with just a couple of other ambassadors and go visit the site. We were there also with His Royal Highness Prince Sultan. At that time, he was head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

We travelled by plane, once we landed in the middle of the desert and all of a sudden, something incredible was in front of our eyes - it was Hegra. It was this enormous beautiful space of tombs in the Arabian desert - we were just mesmerized by what we saw. And later on, after being elected Director General of UNESCO, I visited Saudi Arabia many more times. I have also witnessed Saudi Arabia continue to inscribe more and more sites. I cannot count how many times I have been to Jeddah, this open museum-city unique to the world but also very unique with its architectural expressions of Arabic and Saudi culture. I have been to Ad-Diriyah, in the outskirts of Riyadh, which has a deep history linked to the Al-Saud house [House of Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia]. I also visited Al-Janadriyah twice, a cultural and heritage festival. And I really think that Saudi Arabia has an incredible history and heritage, which is just not known to the world. And by inscribing it, it became part of humanity's history and culture. And that is why when I was invited by the Minister of Culture His Highness Prince Badr to become a member of the advisory board of the AlUla project, I didn’t hesitate. I’ve been following the developments being made at Hegra and I see its potential, we have to protect and preserve it, as we continue to discover and share it with the world.

Interviewer: How do we navigate this fine line between presenting it to the world, and protecting it?

There are many examples [ways] and the Royal Commission for AlUla [is achieving that balance].
On one side there is an ambition to further develop AlUla and the whole region, adding different aspects to it... opening it to tourism, exploring the incredible biodiversity and geological formations which [represents] a significant part of the evolution of humanity, as well as upholding the heritage and culture of the local community -while at the same time protecting and preserving its natural state. I think, studying more – as there are a lot of archaeological sites that are still uncovered– we should note that the rock art in AlUla is unique to the world. It testifies to several languages that existed and that were not known until now. I think the bottom line is to abide by the criteria of the World Heritage Convention as part of its authenticity, and the way it was inscribed, and then to develop [it] in a sustainable manner. I think this is the key word ‘sustainable’ - tourism, cultural activities, and others. This is an open museum. This is an open space. It's incredible. And there is a place for everything.

Interviewer: You mentioned just now that there’s a local community there, and they are very much a part of the development of AlUla. How do you think we can empower this local community to work, to actively protect and promote its heritage?

have always thought that local communities are key to the protection of heritage. And it is not by by chance that in 2012, when we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, the title [theme] of that year was ‘Local Communities in World Heritage’, because this is indeed the key. Specifically, in the case of AlUla, the Royal Commission has done a lot in order to educate the local communities to involve them into the different activities.

For example, one such initiative included sending aspiring chefs from the local community to France on an extended gastronomy course in the art of cooking. It also comes down to the local guides, the future guides, or security [guards] or tourist guides – who are integral to the protection and preservation of heritage as they help the teams of experts that are working now to recover, restore, and protect the old town of AlUla, which was abandoned some decades ago when the newer, modern town of AlUla was constructed. By involving these families, we hear their stories.

Recently I have talked to the local experts and we went through one part of the work of the restoration of the houses. And my first question was, do you talk to the families to whom these houses belonged? They reassured me that these families were bringing some of the old objects which used to be in these houses. They were also showing them some of the drawings, explaining what these drawings were all about and the way they lived, their way of life there. I think this is so important that these people, these families, these communities, feel connected to the work that has been done in this particular moment. So I have seen this evolving. When the advisory board first met two years ago, in early 2018, one of the first questions that we asked was, how are you involving the local communities? And now I can say with a lot of satisfaction that local communities are there [and involved]. And this is very important.

Interviewer: You mentioned previously on a couple of occasions the concept of tangible and intangible heritage, could you expand on that a little bit?

Ten years ago, the notion of tangible and intangible heritage was totally separated. UNESCO adopted a convention on intangible heritage in 2003 - I even chaired one of the committee meetings as an ambassador at that time. I think intangible heritage is an excellent addition to our understanding of heritage as being part of – or an extension of – our identities.

I think recently, we have become more aware that sometimes it's very difficult to separate them. And that is why when we discussed the AlUla project, we raised this issue that intangible heritage started as something that was passed on from generation to generation, a tradition, an oral heritage, a way of life that is so important to AlUla because we have seen a lot of history there. And this is also linked very much to the involvement of the local communities. Because when you see that you value, that you respect their tradition, their way of life that has been passed through these generations, they feel more connected to the built heritage. This is why I do believe that moving through this, the channels of communication to the local communities is very important. And once again, linking it to development, because AlUla is a big development project, it's a living project, I think it's very important.

You cannot have one heritage site in the desert, and then another cultural event and that's it - the local community makes the fabric of this living project. And I would say that when we speak about tourism and development, we always speak about sustainable tourism. And what is sustainable tourism. There is a specific definition of course by the World Tourism Organization that has been embraced by UNESCO equally, but one of the main - probably the first - criteria for the definition of sustainable tourism is that the local community should be involved, and the local community should benefit from this tourism. This is what sustainability is all about. And this is about - also partly - about intangible heritage, about craft, about cultural industries, creative industries, creativity, everything. And I see this developing nowadays in AlUla and it's very gratifying to see this happening.

Interviewer: That was Irina Bokova, speaking to us from her apartment in Paris this April. We hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation brought to you by the Royal Commission for AlUla, and if so, do feel free to share this podcast on your social media channels and spread the word. We’ll be back next month with another addition of the Living Museum, until then take care, stay safe, and goodbye for now.