Archaeology by halves

It is interesting to see the differences between heritage sites in different countries. Sigiriya is one of our favourite sights in Sri Lanka; it’s an old rock fortress that over the course of its history has been home to a Buddhist monastery and the palace of a warring king. The Rock of Sigirya is an enormous boulder the size of a high-rise building, which at one point was transformed into a giant lion; today, only the paws remain, guarding the steps up to the palace.

The thing is, despite the fact that it is well-established on the tourist trail and the paths are constantly traversed by foreigners, the route to the top appears rather hazardous. In fact, the steps to the summit look downright dangerous. Thin bits of metal cling precariously to the steep rock face, while the stairs themselves are only half the width of any normal flight and seem perilously close to rusting away altogether. As you approach the final section of the ascent, you begin to wonder if it’s worth apparently risking life and limb to reach the top. Not to mention the fact that it’s a pretty stiff climb; at this point you’ve already walked round and round some boulder gardens, marched up roughly 300 feet or so of stone steps and twirled up and down some spiral staircases to see ancient cave art. All in hot and humid conditions. It is no wonder that by the time many of the…erm…less well exercised tourists come to contemplate the web of sticks snaking up a sheer rock face, many of them are almost being pushed up by their more well-adjusted (and less vertigo-prone) local guides.
I’m doubtful whether this would be such a popular tourist destination in England for the average coach trip to a historical site. Much less in America, where if the steps alone didn’t contravene a million regulations, some enterprising person would surely trip/graze themselves on a rusty nail/miraculously fall through the cracks but live to tell the tale and sue the pants off somebody for millions.

Then there is the fact that only half of the site has been properly excavated. From the summit of Sigirya rock the gardens below look beautifully symmetrical – almost. Closer inspection below reveals one section of tanks (large ponds) and waterways with intricate brickwork. Examine the same area on the other side and you see an indent in the surrounding landscape, that with careful comparison and a bit of imagination looks like it could correspond to the proportions of the pond opposite. I looked in vain for what was labelled on the map as something like ‘Other Summer Palaces’, discovering that this was merely a grassy hillock of medium size to my left. Apparently no-one had deemed this half worthy of further inspection, or maybe as a cost-cutting measure had thought that a fraction of the whole would suffice.

Don’t get me wrong, Sigirya is a breathtaking sight and most definitely worth a visit, but I do look forward to the day when I can return to Sri Lanka and see the full scale of its symmetry.


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