Opinion Editorial by Eric Falt, the Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
UNESCO’s World Heritage sites now number 1,092 around the world. They represent monuments and natural sites of ‘outstanding universal value’ and are recognized as beacons of cultural heritage for the whole of humanity. Every year millions of visitors come to visit them, resulting in substantial economic benefits to the communities where they are located.
Curiously, while the Maldives accepted the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1986, sites from the country are still missing from the UNESCO World Heritage List because the Maldives has not yet officially presented a candidacy in good order.
UNESCO has now worked for ten years with the Government of the Maldives to support the nomination of six coral stone mosques to the prestigious World Heritage List, including the so called ‘Friday Mosque’ in Malé.
The mosques' one-of-a-kind fusion architecture boasts a treasure of coral carvings and detailed lacquer work. This type of craftsmanship is no longer practiced in the Maldives or anywhere else. The mosques do not simply amalgamate architecture with artistry but also bear testimony to the intangible culture and spiritual values of the Islamic communities in the Indian Ocean region.
Despite all of the solid technical work undertaken by Maldivian officials and supported by foreign experts, the preparations have been stalled for the last couple of years for reasons that are rather unclear. Some apparently feared that the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site would hinder economic development in the zone immediately adjacent to the mosques, and they had quietly put the brakes on the project.
Contrary to this belief, I would argue strongly that the limitations inherent in the designation of the coral stone mosques as a UNESCO World Heritage site are far outweighed by the economic benefits that such a designation would bring.
In general, it is estimated that the number of visitors to any newly designated UNESCO site jumps by 40% within one year, with a corresponding positive economic impact on local communities.
There is also the question of national prestige that the inscription would bring, with the Maldives’ coral mosques then firmly recognized globally along with monuments like the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal, and other Islamic treasures such as the magnificent Blue Mosque of Istanbul or the Great Mosque at Kilwa in Tanzania.
In fact, I would argue that it is more than time that the Islamic heritage of the Maldives is better recognized and honoured by international visitors. At this point, the large majority of tourists goes straight from the airport to the resort of their choice and has no interaction with or knowledge of the Maldives’ rich Islamic culture.
Surely, an inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list would change this situation and many would then travel long distances to discover these unique mosques before they even think of going to a holiday resort.
All that is needed now is a strong final push by Government authorities to complete the paperwork, prepare a Management Plan and eventually submit the candidacy to the 21 members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee who would take the final decision.
The creation of a unified Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage offers a unique opportunity to push the dossier of the coral stone mosques forward. Earlier this week I visited the ‘Friday Mosque’ in Malé with Ms Yumna Maumoon, Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage. Together, we also took stock of the steps necessary for the inscription of the mosques, and the Minister affirmed the determination of the Government of President Solih to better honour the country's cultural heritage and to make it more widely recognized.
The UNESCO Secretariat, for its part, is certainly ready to assist the Government of the Maldives in quickly reaching this worthy objective, which will undoubtedly bring both prestige to the country and economic benefits to its population.