I seem to make a habit of missing obvious tourist attractions when I travel. I spent a year in Spain and didn’t once visit Barcelona, nor Seville. I grew up in the UK but didn’t visit the Lake District, one of our premier sites of natural beauty, until I was 25. I travelled all around Tanzania and didn’t go to the Serengeti National Park, which is more or less the only thing that the majority of tourists in Tanzania actually DO see.
Last weekend I remedied a significant oversight on my part by visiting the Lahore Fort. This is one of Pakistan’s premier attractions and one of its six UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built largely during the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar, between 1556 and 1605, it occupies a significant chunk of the north western corner of the Walled City of Lahore. We turned up in a rickshaw and were deposited a few hundred yards away from the entrance, since renovation work to the next-door Iqbal Park prevented our rickshaw from getting any closer.
First, the positives: Lahore Fort is a really impressive place. It covers a huge area of land and its walls and towers still possess a real sense of grandeur. Entering the Fort entails climbing up a set of shallow, broad stairs which seem oddly disproportionate, until you learn that they were thus built so that Emperors could ride their elephants right into the Fort itself. The walls command an impressive view over Old Lahore.
Much of the artwork in the individual palaces and rooms which make up the bulk of the Fort is remarkably beautiful: elegant carvings, fine stone inlays, delicate stone tracery. The skill of the artisans who produced such beauty has to be appreciated. Furthermore, the Fort uses open space very well: fountains and lawns stretch in front of the visitor, fringed with trees. The Lahore Fort put me in mind of the Alhambra, another magnificent Muslim palace with beautiful artwork, fountains, and gardens.
And now for the negatives: everything is neglected. It is heartbreaking to see. Magnificent painted ceilings are now stained with damp, their colours faded and worn. Whole sections of delicately inlaid stones depicting elegant floral patterns have been chipped out, leaving gaping holes. The 19th century cannon which stand in front of the Diwan-e-Aam have crisp packets jammed into their muzzles. Most appalling of all is the graffiti: names of visitors scribbled in black marker pen, scrawled directly onto ancient stonework and mosaics. Mobile phone numbers, inane comments, childish insults, etched onto a UNESCO World Heritage site! It is unthinkable. Imagine the outrage if visitors wrote their names in Tippex on Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal – that is precisely what has been done, and continues to be done, at the Lahore Fort.
I don’t understand it. This is the premier tourist attraction in Pakistan, a country which, contrary to popular belief, is actually packed with fascinating sights. And yet instead of being revered as an example of Muslim achievement and architectural excellence – which it undoubtedly is – it is scribbled on by idiotic schoolchildren as if it were nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper.
Where are the UNESCO funds being used? Not to employ guards, nor to employ guides; not a single one was in evidence. Is it really that difficult to prevent people defacing a monument of international historical importance? Do people here really care so little about their national story?