When time began there lived a lonely monkey who met a peacock, who laid an egg from which was born a mighty prince who built a city on the spot of his birth and called it “monkey egg”. Whatever the myths around its creation, by the 15th century, Mrauk U (Monkey Egg) was the capital of a powerful kingdom and one of the richest cities in Asia.
Up to the 18th century, it was a vital trading port for rice, ivory, elephants, tree sap and deer hide, cotton, slaves, horses, spices and textiles from India, Persia and Arabia.
In the centuries since, it crumbled into a backwater town in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state. But the city where Christians, Muslims and Buddhists once lived in harmony can still be glimpsed in its hundreds of ruined temples, fortifications and storehouses – mostly ignored for more than 100 years.
Now archaeologists are racing to survey and protect those sites, hoping to secure a spot for Mrauk U on Unesco’s world heritage list, following in the footsteps of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the pyramids of Egypt.
Backed by the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan – who said Mrauk U is “arguably the greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture” – an international commission released an interim report this year urging Myanmar to nominate the city for world heritage status and since then enthusiasm has grown exponentially. The process will take some years but, along the way, the government is hoping to transform Mrauk U from a forgotten ghost town into a global tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands each of visitors a year.
And just maybe, as Annan stated, the efforts will help to solve a brutal ethnic conflict that has divided Rakhine state between nationalist Buddhists and the Rohingya, a group of ethnic Muslims stuck in a refugee limbo in the state. Rights groups claim the Rohingya are the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has lasted for years. In recent months, Burmese soldiers have been accused of raping and killing civilians indiscriminately.
“If such a status was granted, this could eventually serve to boost tourism to Rakhine, and thus help strengthen the state’s economy,” the commission said.
A team led by U Nyein Lwin, director of the National Museum at Mrauk U, is trying to turn that into a reality. But the undertaking is enormously complex. “We need a lot of help,” he said. “Time is very short.”
He and his team need to do rigorous analysis of Mrauk U’s current population and forecast its growth, so that future developments such as new irrigation lines do not interfere with the ruins. Financial assistance has been pledged by Italy, Australia and China, but more outside support is needed, he says.
Local people hope that Mrauk U will become internationally renowned, drawing in much-needed cash to one of the poorest states in Myanmar.
A stronger economy, in turn, may tamp down the simmering tensions some Buddhists feel towards the Rohingya, and remind them of a cosmopolitan history where Buddhists, Muslims and Christians lived in peace.