Karachi and its environs have a fascinating and diverse cultural heritage, a reminder of our glorious past. Chronologically, the story begins two million years ago. History is the story everyone knows. But what about the prehistory? Cultural experts agree that anthropogenic materials provide a reliable narrative. Yet, we are witness to the fact that Karachi, enriched with history and archaeology, is losing its heritage. Many historic monuments and sites are in bad shape as a result of neglect, lack of heritage awareness and rampant commercialisation.
We have an uninterrupted sequence of human occupation in the region of Karachi from the Stone Age, comprising two stages; the Megalithic (prehistoric traditions of funerary memorials for dead ancestors) and the Bronze ages, which were the zenith of the Indus Civilisation in this area. Because of its peculiar position, this area was a meeting place for different pre-historic cultures flourishing there. The maritime communication between the Indus and the Mesopotamian civilisations (of which we have ample evidence) makes the importance of this region self-evident.
Apart from being on the highway of ancient civilisations, the Karachi region, with its maritime environment, sources of food from the sea, mild climate, terrain with low parallel ridges and flat intervening valleys, watered by springs and perennial and semi-perennial streams, provided favourable conditions for indigenous cultures to settle. From such considerations, one can deduce that this region played an important role in the drama of human progress from the earliest prehistoric times to subsequent eras.
Given the many problems inherent in the study of early humans in this region, an innovative archaeological approach is required. These studies should be undertaken in conjunction with other disciplines, highlighting the need for site protection, conservation and preservation. First and foremost, the need is to study the Palaeolithic environment. Although Sindh has very little annual rainfall today, a minor shift in the rain pattern would have attracted a lot of hunter-gatherers. A study of the geology of the area is another important factor that should be given priority.
The preservation of its heritage is essential for any city that values itself, yet Karachi’s rampant commercialisation continues unabated despite the consequences.
In 2021, Karachi’s population surpassed 16,459,000, with a growth rate of 2.27%, and the dark side of this rapid growth are the environmental challenges posed to the quality of life of its residents. Water supply systems have struggled to keep pace and providing water of sufficient quality requires the addition of significant new infrastructures. These factors point to loopholes in the law and hence the need to take measures to complement the laws with respect to the protection of historical monuments. Yet, there seems to be an overall hesitation at all levels to take the required measures.
It is important to understand the role of heritage in our socio- economic development. The archaeological aspect is neglected when one talks about preserving and writing about the origins and history of Karachi and the reason why we hardly find anyone paying attention to what is happening to our archaeological heritage, which is being destroyed by urban commercial projects.
Conservation is not about saving bricks, but about preserving multiple layers of information about our lives and our ancestors. Historically significant buildings contribute to a city’s cultural and economic well-being. Heritage designation and preservation boosts property values and leads to the creation of more jobs. Most of our heritage buildings were designed by some of the world’s great architects. One such building is Lloyds Bank (now Silk Bank), which is being converted into a 60-storey high skyscraper at the cost of destroying this unique building. Not only this; such new development projects increase pollution and traffic density, leading to smog, water shortages and choked sewers.
Heritage preservation is essential for any city that values itself and we have long way to go. Our heritage legislation is weak; to be honest it is non-existent given the weak monitoring, petty penalties and lack of prosecution; our range of tools to affect meaningful heritage preservation is sparse. Yet, the cultural values of such properties belong to all of us.
What can we do?
1 Create a fund for the protection of physical heritage and make those existing outfits effective, under the meaningful monitoring.
2 Create a volunteer service to encourage citizens to give their time and abilities to preservation efforts.
3 Community participation: Stay informed about what is happening with heritage issues in your neighbourhood.
4 Involve public representatives: Push for legislation changes to strengthen heritage preservation.
No law can save our monuments if we do not have the awareness about the significance of their existence. The threats to heritage management are a lack of comprehensive development planning, encroachment, inadequate heritage management, pollution and vandalism. We need a major strategic mechanism to overcome these constraints and preserve our cultural heritage.
Dr Asma Ibahim, PhD, is Director, Archives & Art Gallery Department, State Bank Museum. email@example.com