Pakistan fights to save remains of a great lost civilization

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Enigmatic and defiant, Mohenjo-Daro is a city of mysteries. Rivaling the cities of ancient Babylon and Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro thrived as the capital of the Harappan people between 2500 and 1700 BC.

The city commanded a lofty hill in what is now Pakistan's Sind Province. It was a sophisticated agrarian and commercial center covering an area far larger than the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, contemporaries of Mohenjo-Daro.

From archaeological excavation of the city's streets there is evidence of a people fastidious about sanitation, who covered their women with beads and jewels, who administered a well-ordered city, and who traded with India, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Gulf. Its citizens, thought to have numbered 20,000, played chess and hunted for sport. The ox-carts used by the Harappans are believed to be nearly the same design as the ones used today in the region. The last dig, in 1964, left hundreds of unanswere d questions about the civilization, which was discovered by the British in 1922. Extensive excavations since 1922 have uncovered only an estimated 25 percent of the city's site.

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Several decades later, by 1964, a subsoil problem, caused by rising water levels and digging, had become acute. M. A. Halim, director of the National Museum in Karachi, and an archaeologist of 20 years, recalled what it was like when the picks hit the ground in 1964.

``We tried going deeper. . . ,'' he said. ``We were digging through muddy trenches. One evening, we were barely seven feet below the surface, and the entire structure collapsed.''

Since then, no more excavations have taken place. The mysteries of Mohenjo-Daro and what made it vanish -- whether it be a dramatic shift in the Indus River waters, an invasion, or economic collapse -- remain as undecipherable as the civilization's intricate pictographs.

It is estimated that nearly $17 million in new funds is needed to save the age-old structures from destruction by exposure. About $9 million still needs to be raised. And meanwhile, heat, air, water, and salt silently erode the remains of man's third-oldest civilization.

``We just cannot lose this civilization,'' says Abdul Kadir Shaikh, a justice of Pakistan's supreme court and chairman of the Authority for the Preservation of Mohenjo-Daro. ``This was a society that anticipated by centuries what would develop elsewhere.''

Much still needs to be done by the international community to ensure the success of what is one of the world's largest archaeological salvage projects, he says.

The goal of the operation is not just to preserve the 25 percent of Mohenjo-Daro that has been excavated, but also to save the rest of the city, still underground, from a rapidly rising water table. When Mohenjo-Daro was first excavated in 1922, the water table was 25 feet below the surface, but has risen to 10 feet below the surface in winter. During the summer monsoons it is close to 7 feet below.

``The world community has done virtually nothing. The burden has been borne almost exclusively by the government of Pakistan,'' Justice Shaikh said. ``Politics, the American pullout from UNESCO, indifference. . . -- people just don't seem to care.'' Pakistan has spent about $7 million on Mohenjo-Daro.

The part of the city that remains buried is protected from chemical elements and moisture in the atmosphere, says Khurshid Hasan, director of Pakistan's Department of Archaeology. ``But, as soon as a pick goes in, we let in air. And the entire, fire-hardened brick structure could simply collapse.''

``The Indus, ah, the Indus,'' he shakes his head. ``A treacherous river. . . . It bred the Mohenjo-Daro civilization, then could have destroyed it as well.'' From the excavation site, one can look down at the Indus River beyond, only a few feet wide in the winter, often swelling to several hundred feet during the summer monsoon.

To control the river, the Pakistani government wants to stop the water at its major source and lower the water table from 7 feet to 65 feet below the surface. In order to do this, 56 tube wells need to be installed to pump the waters away from the city and return them to the Indus itself.

Lack of money has forced several delays in the second stage of the project, which would channel the river away from Mohenjo-Daro's walls by planting huge steel barriers to divert the water's flow. Experts say it will work, if it is ever tried. But it is expected to cost $10 million.

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