By Armen Zakarian
The director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Koichiro Matsuura, opened an international conference in Armenia on Tuesday, urging Western donors to help its cash-strapped government preserve the nation’s rich cultural heritage.
The conference, organized by the United Nations, aims to attract donor funding for 26 different projects involving the renovation of ancient Armenian churches and other monuments, the rehabilitation of several old city neighborhoods and the development of the tourism infrastructure in various parts of the country. The projects worth a total of nearly $8 million were designed by the Armenian government, UNESCO and the UN Development Program. UNESCO has agreed to cover more than ten percent of the costs involved and is looking for other sources of external funding.
“Armenia is a small country steeped in a rich and ancient culture that has long served as a potent symbol of national identity,” Matsuura said. “The projects illustrate imaginative ways in which Armenian culture can serve as a vehicle for achieving increased prosperity and promote development, particularly in the regions.”
The economic aspect of the undertaking was also stressed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian who also addressed the conference. “Preservation of the cultural heritage has a social and economic significance because it is vital for the development of tourism,” he said.
“Armenia’s cultural heritage, especially its architectural sites, are in great danger,” Markarian said. He added that decades of Soviet neglect, natural disasters and lack of state funding since independence have left many such sites, notably medieval Armenian churches, in poor shape.
Topping the list of endangered monuments are the remains of a 7th century Yereruk basilica in northwestern Armenia. The Armenian ministry of culture and UNESCO, which regards Yereruk as a “potential World Heritage Site,” hope to raise $360,000 in an effort to save it from further destruction. They also seek $310,000 for renovating and strengthening the historical complex of Ambert which includes a medieval fortress, churches and baths. Other UNESCO-approved projects are aim to revive traditional Armenian crafts, to help reconstruct the old city center in Gyumri and to upgrade the tourism infrastructure.
UNESCO’s main declared goal is to make knowledge universally accessible and preserve cultural diversity across the globe.