The Golden Letter (Myanmar)

On 7 May 1756, King Alaungphaya of Myanmar ordered a letter to be written to the British King (and Hanoverian Elector) George II proposing the establishment of a trading colony in his territory. Alaungphaya was the founder of the Konbaung dynasty, which ruled in Myanmar until 1886. Following a long period of war and division, he united the country, returning it to a position of power in the region.

The letter is engraved on a sheet of pure gold measuring 55 x 12 cm and is adorned with 24 precious rubies. It was contained in the hollow tusk of an Indian elephant. The materials used in and the care taken with its production are a visible demonstration of the importance the author of the letter attached to it.

The Golden Letter.
The Golden Letter. © GWLB

 

Alaungphaya's offer was of global significance, as it could have helped Britain in her colonial competition with France. However, after a two year journey to London, the letter was never answered. King George II, tied up with the wars in Europe, sent it home to his library in Hanover. As a result of his offer falling on deaf ears, Alaungphaya had Britain’s only trade settlement in his country destroyed, and relations between the two countries were broken off for centuries.

For 250 years the original letter was believed lost. Although the Golden Letter had always been regarded as a particularly valuable document in the library, little was known of its importance in world history. In 2007, Jacques Leider, carrying out research on behalf of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, shed light on the matter. The first public displays of the Golden Letter in Hanover in 2011 attracted tens of thousands of visitors and sparked global media interest.  

The letter was contained in the hollow tusk of an Asian elephant.
The letter was contained in the hollow tusk of an Asian elephant. © GWLB

 

On behalf of the Federal Foreign Office and with support from the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, the company Scanbull Software GmbH digitised the Golden Letter in 3D so that with the available data it can be presented in various ways: 3D projections of the digital model in mid air, on a screen, in glass showcases or as facsimiles or print-outs. The valuable data enable the model to be presented in virtually every analogue and digital format, allowing it to be reproduced in freely selected media – from a print-out of a particular detail to a media installation. On the basis of this digitised version, the Government of Myanmar is being provided with a 3D film of the Golden Letter and a 3D monitor for the exhibit in the new national museum in Nay Pyi Taw.

Project: Dr. Georg Ruppelt, Director of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library

Promoted byCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office

SourceWorlds of Culture, Ed. Federal Foreign Office

Preserving the manuscripts from Timbuktu (Mali)

The story was in the news for weeks in late 2012, when radical Islamist rebels in Mali were threatening to destroy all the 12th and 13th-century Islamic writings which had until that point been kept in Timbuktu. Around 285,000 of the manuscripts, which are included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, were evacuated to Bamako in a secret rescue operation. Now these historical documents need to be preserved and made permanently accessible for research. 

This rescue operation was the work of librarian Abdel Kader Haidara from Timbuktu. With many brave helpers, he secretly organised the transport of the manuscripts to Bamako, with financial support from the Federal Foreign Office. In this way several hundred thousand documents from the old Ahmed Baba Institute were saved – unnoticed by the Jihadists, who had in the meantime established their headquarters in the modern library building. In the autumn of 2014, Haidara was presented with the German Africa Award by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in recognition of these efforts. 

Financial support from Germany

Germany’s help in saving the Timbuktu manuscripts is also substantial in financial terms. More than half of the international aid given to SAVAMA-DCI, an NGO which represents the overwhelming majority of the manuscript-owning families of Timbuktu, comes from Germany. 

Germany remains the most important bilateral donor in 2015, thanks to the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office, the Gerda-Henkel-Foundation and the Jutta-Vogel-Foundation. The "Center for the Study of Manuscript Cultures" of the University of Hamburg coordinates the use of Germany’s contribution under the leadership of Dr. Dmitry Bondarev.

Archiving and digitising the manuscripts

International experts are helping to save and preserve the manuscripts in Bamako. SAVAMA is collaborating with the University of Hamburg to archive the manuscripts and catalogue them. Other donors and technical partners are helping to digitise the manuscripts before they are sent back to where they belong.

Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara standing in front of stacked transport boxes at an interim storage site; manuscripts packed in boxes.
Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara standing in front of stacked transport boxes at an
interim storage site; manuscripts packed in boxes. © Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), Universität Hamburg

 

Coordination and collaboration between the partners involved has improved tremendously since the project began. An International Strategy Conference held in the Federal Foreign Office in June 2014 was instrumental in this regard. The Malian Government, civil society, multilateral and bilateral partners, foundations and research institutes have since jointly developed a strategy designed to reconcile the interests of the Malian owners with those of international research. The German Embassy in Bamako coordinates a network to this end and regularly invites all partners to meetings.

Project: Prof. Michael Friedrich, Director
CSMC, University of Hamburg
Dr. Dmitry Bondarev, Project leader CSMC, University of Hamburg

Promoted byCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office

SourceCultural preservation programme of the Federal Foreign Office

Restoration of the old town and regional development in Balkh (Afghanistan)

The town of Balkh, which was known as Bactra in ancient times, dates back to 500 B.C. and is situated some 20 kilometres north-west of Mazar‑e‑Sharif in northern Afghanistan, on what was once the Silk Road. It is regarded as the cradle of Iranian civilisation and has been an important pilgrimage site from time immemorial. 

Over the course of its history, Balkh has been a spiritual centre of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam respectively. It served as one of Alexander the Great’s northernmost bases from 329 to 327 B.C. It was completely destroyed by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in 1220 and only rebuilt in the fifteenth century under Timurid rule. However, the town’s significance continued to decline, not least as a result of the provincial government’s move to Mazar‑e‑Sharif in 1866.

Extensive restoration

In addition to supporting restoration and stabilisation work on important buildings such as the Khvajeh Abu Nasr Parsa shrine, the Dehdadi Mosque, the Sudhan Qoli Madrassa Gate, Abu Zaidan Mosque and minaret, and Mir Rusedar and Khvajeh Nizamuddin shrines, the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office is funding the restoration of the buildings’ gardens and public spaces. The aim of this major project is to improve local residents’ living conditions and infrastructure in the long term by constructing infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems and waste disposal systems. 

Interior of the Khvajeh Abu Nasr Parsa shrine.
Interior of the Khvajeh Abu Nasr Parsa shrine.
© AKTC

 

Close involvement of the population

A further part of the project involves training programmes in traditional crafts such as carpentry, bricklaying and the manufacture of glazed tiles. Involving the local population and administration closely at all levels creates cultural identification with the local historical heritage and increases the sense of responsibility for this identity. The project is a good example of how cultural preservation can be achieved in harmony with economic development, modern urban planning and the needs of the local population.

At the suggestion of the Afghan Government, Balkh old town was added to UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Cultural Heritage in 2004.

Project promoted by / SourceCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office

Borobudur – A World Cultural Heritage Site at Risk (Central Java, Indonesia)

On 26 October 2010, Mount Merapi, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, became active again. It erupted on 5 November, causing extensive damage. Borobudur, which has been a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1991, was completely covered by a layer of volcanic ash. Cleaning work was undertaken immediately, and also received funding from Germany. However, the question subsequently arose of how harmful the volcanic ash was for the precious reliefs. In order to answer this and other questions, the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office has been funding a UNESCO stone conservation research project since 2011, which is being carried out in cooperation with the Borobudur Conservation Office (BCO) and the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture.

Borobudur Temple was built under the Sailendra dynasty during the eighth and ninth centuries. Its design and stone reliefs make it one of the most impressive World Heritage sites. Six square terraces with 1460 reliefs depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology, niches with countless sculptures of the seated Buddha, a further 72 statues of the Buddha in bell-shaped stupas on circular terraces, and the main temple at the top of the monument were built in the fertile Kedu Plain, the Garden of Java. The foundation, a natural hill formed by aggradation, already proved to be unstable at the beginning of construction work. The volcanic building stones andesite and basalt were not extracted from quarries, but rather from the rivers.

The first large-scale restoration project was carried out between 1907 and 1911 and coordinated by Theodore van Erp. The walls were at risk of collapsing, and water was shooting out of the relief walls. During the restoration, the walls were stabilised and the drainage system was improved. The next major restoration phase took place between 1973 and 1983. This UNESCO project was run by Caesar Voute from the Netherlands. All of the relief walls and galleries were dismantled and rebuilt (anastylosis), while stabilising concrete platforms and an internal drainage system were integrated into the monument.

The complex internal drainage system created new problems. The magnificent reliefs remain exposed to destructive moisture penetration and frequent leaks. Another threat to the reliefs is posed by ongoing crust formation and flaking on the stones, as well as by salts that damage the structure. The great range of features in the building stones mean that the degree of damage varies among the reliefs.

Apart from providing scientific documentation and analysis of the weathering process, experts are developing a wide range of methods and materials to conserve the reliefs. As part of the cooperation, the BCO’s researchers and restorers are receiving further training in modern analysis and conservation techniques.

Project: Prof. Hans Leisen and Dr. Esther von Plehwe-Leisen, Project managers, Cologne University of Applied Sciences

Promoted byCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office

Source: Worlds of Culture, Ed. Federal Foreign Office

Restoration of a Synagogue (São Paulo, Brazil)

Funding from the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office made it possible to restore the Beth‑El synagogue, built in 1929 and inaugurated in 1932 in the centre of São Paulo, to its former glory.

The biggest city in the southern hemisphere with the longest traffic jams, the greatest number of helicopters, the best restaurants, the biggest German centre of industry in the world – São Paulo is a megalopolis, a city of superlatives. And right at the heart of its once run‑down centre there is yet another superlative, namely the most important Jewish sacred building in Brazil, the former Beth‑El synagogue.

Revival of the centre of São Paulo

Beth‑El was restored with funds from the Cultural Preservation Programme of the Federal Foreign Office and is now an integral part of the first Jewish museum in Brazil currently under construction. The museum complex will, moreover, be part of the work already begun to restore and revive the city centre. 

Amongst other things, the original plaque of architect Samuel Roder has been uncovered, along with a stone model of the building and above all, the original materials and colours, all so that the Synagogue can shine not only with a renewed freshness, but also in its original glory. Along with the façade, the magnificent dome in Byzantine style and the stained glass windows, the wooden altar with its Torah shrine and the original benches dating back to 1932 were restored.

A German-Brazilian symbiosis

“The German restoration of the synagogue is a quantum leap,” commented the museum’s Director, Roberta Sundfeld, and “it has already attracted sponsors to the museum.” In this case, the Cultural Preservation Programme is not just living up to its name, it has provided the impetus for new projects and is thus a beautiful German-Brazilian symbiosis, symbolising the vibrant history of the centre of São Paulo.

Project: Eva Dombo, German Consulate-General in São Paulo

Promoted byCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office

SourceWorlds of Culture, Ed. Federal Foreign Office

 

Restoration of Patan Royal Palace (Patan, Nepal)

The Kathmandu Valley in Nepal boasts no fewer than seven World Heritage sites. One of them is Patan Royal Palace along with the temples in the palace complex. Following the two earthquakes in April and May 2015, the Federal Foreign Office, which has been committed to the preservation of this cultural heritage site for years, joined with the Gerda Henkel Foundation to launch a joint initiative to rebuild damaged cultural property in Nepal.

Since 2008, the Federal Foreign Office has provided a total of 250,000 euros for the preservation of the palace and the temples in the complex. For example, in various stages, the fountain in the south courtyard, Sundari Chowk, and the Bhandarkal water tank were restored, followed by the building’s south wing and the rear section of Sundari Chowk. When Nepal was hit by a severe earthquake in April 2015, the restored wings of the square courtyard stayed standing, but virtually the whole east wing caved in.  

Only the ground-floor arcade remained. But work to rebuild the east wing started quickly, in the autumn of 2015, again with support from the Federal Foreign Office.

Structural elements which were salvaged are being used in the restoration

All the beautifully carved wooden elements rescued from the ruins, as well as the tiles which were recovered, are being used to help rebuild the courtyard’s façade. This is possible thanks to the traditional construction techniques using clay mortar, especially as the masons and carpenters are the descendants of those who created this architecture back in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The upper storey of the main courtyard building has been home to the “Architecture Galleries” museum of architecture since 2013. This is open to the public as part of Patan Museum, which was established in 1997. When work on the east wing is finished, Sundari Chowk will complete the museum in January 2017. The restoration, reconstruction and conversion work gives an immediate insight into a multifaceted palace complex which contributes hugely to the identity of the Kathmandu-Patan metropolis and is thus a symbol of the area’s rich architectural heritage. 

Responsibility for implementing the work lies with the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust, which has saved and restored numerous buildings in Kathmandu and Patan since 1992. Between 2016 and 2018, with help from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the Krishna temple will be repaired and the collapsed Hari Shankar temple rebuilt. 

Project promoted by / SourceCultural Preservation Programme of The Federal Foreign Office