After years of discussion and planning, Nan Madol is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press
July 22, 2016
Pohnpei, FSM—On July 15, during its 40th session, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed four new sites including Nan Madol. The other inscribed sites are in China, India, and Iran. Nan Madol was inscribed both on the World Heritage List and on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The UNESCO press release on the inscription describes Nan Madol as a series of 99 artificial islets off the south-east coast of Pohnpei that were constructed with walls of basalt and coral boulders. These islets harbor the remains of stone palaces, temples, tombs and residential domains built between 1200 and 1500 CE. These ruins represent the ceremonial centre of the Saudeleur dynasty, a vibrant period in Pacific Island culture. The huge scale of the edifices, their technical sophistication and the concentration of megalithic structures bear testimony to complex social and religious practices of the island societies of the period.”
For Pohnpeians, the site is the epicenter of their modern traditional leadership structure that persists to this day. It is a place of mystery and magic which may explain why so many Pohnpeians who have lived here all of their lives have never visited the ancient city of their roots.


Though stakeholders have been working on the UNESCO listing for several years and it has been discussed for at least 20, the inclusion of Nan Madol on the list came as a surprise to many people in the FSM many of whom thought that it already had been inscribed on the World Heritage Sites list.
Augustine Kohler of the FSM’s Department of Historical Preservation says that Nan Madol has been listed on the U.S. Registry of Historical Sites for a number of years but that is not the same as being listed as a World Heritage Site.unesco 02


The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) web page says that “the resulting prestige (of World Heritage Site inscription) often helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation. Greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties. A country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites.”

Nan Madol was also inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to threats, notably the siltation of waterways that is contributing to the unchecked growth of mangroves and undermining existing edifices.
Kohler said that Nan Madol’s inclusion on the danger list would enable the World Heritage Committee to allocate funds to help protect the site. It would also alert the international community who might contribute funds or technical expertise to save such an endangered site.
The FSM’s World Heritage Committee has a management plan for the site that was drafted in 2014 but soon there will be a group of experts coming out from ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) to provide even more help to refine that plan. They will also conduct what they refer to as the Reactive Monitoring Mission. The experts will help with advice that will include, among others; how to preserve the site by helping to stabilize the structures some of which have already begun to collapse; how to solve the problem of the encroachment of the mangrove; and, help to polish up the Nan Madol Management plan.
“The inclusion of Nan Madol on the World Heritage list took a long time but it’s really just the first step,” Kohler said. “This is when the real work begins.”
There is a small group of well healed travelers who like to tick off each of the World Heritage sites by visiting them and some of those may come to Pohnpei to see the ancient rock city, but inclusion on the list does not at all mean that there will suddenly be a large influx of tourists to Pohnpei. There is much yet to be done.
Kohler said that the large team of people both locally and internationally who have worked on the preservation of the Nan Madol “city” has big dreams. They imagine a plush tourist center with displays and exhibits, and historical videos where tourists can learn all about the site before they head down the trail to see it. It’s all going to take even more work than has already been done and one of the first steps is the be sure that the infrastructure of Nan Madol is kept safe.
In a letter dated February 24, 2010 to the Director of the Department of Historical Preservation, Dr. Rufino Mauricio, Isapahu Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw Kerpet Ehpel wrote of his “support and approval for this particular site to be listed under UNESCO...However, Nan Madol en Ihmw Incorporated (a non-profit NGO mandated or preserving Nan Madol) should be informed of any work activities that are intended for Nan Madol, and should play role.”
He requested that a study be carried out to formulate a management plan for Nan Madol and its surroundings.
Nan Madol en Ihmw Incorporated was chartered in 1993. The charter was signed by former President Bailey Olter and involves Madelenihmw’s highest traditional leaders with Isapahu Ehpel as the President.
Kohler said that the first consultation with UNESCO about the steps to bring Nan Madol to world attention on the list of World Heritage Sites was supported by the Japan Consortium for International Cooperation and included all of the major stake holders in Pohnpei including His Majesty Kerpet Ehpel. Kohler said that the first step was to prepare materials to be included in the World Heritage “tentative” list, a task that was heavily aided by Visesio Pongi, Director of the UNESCO Pacific headquarters in Apia, Samoa. He said that Akatsuky Takahashi who manages cultural activities at that same headquarters was also of invaluable service and continues to be.
“There were a lot of people involved in this,” Kohler said. “It definitely wasn’t a one man thing.”
But Kohler was the sole representative of the FSM at the World Heritage Committee meetings. There was supposed to have been a much larger delegation including high traditional leaders. For safety reasons due to the heightened threat of terrorist activity after the airport bombing only Kohler attended the meetings. It turned out to have been a good decision. On the eve of the announcement of Nan Madol’s inclusion on the World Heritage list, portions of the Turkish military staged an ultimately unsuccessful overthrow of the government.
While CNN and other news agencies were saying that all communication to the outside world had been shut down including the Internet, Kohler chatted with me via Facebook from the safety of his hotel room. He said that the occupants of the hotel were protected by UN Security forces but that he had actually witnessed a man being shot in the street below his hotel room. He said he was handcuffed and dragged away in his own blood. Our conversation about Nan Madol was often interrupted by Kohler’s descriptions of fighter planes overhead or other dangers.
Kohler made it home to Pohnpei safely bringing the good news with him.
So, now the cultural treasure of Nan Madol has been listed as a World Heritage site worthy of preservation and protection. Let the real work begin.

see also:

Pohnpei students learn how to “Create Stories of Nan Madol”

The Gateway to the Sacred City

Reflections on my trip to Nan Madol