Heritage and Power

If we adopt the notion of ‘heritage’ not as synonymic with ‘culture,’ but as a set of branded culture traits, then we must recognize the omnipresence of power relations inevitably involved with it[1]. Selecting certain traits rather than others to be memorized, cherished and transmitted inter-generationally through inculcation unavoidably stems from preferences depending on the […]

If we adopt the notion of ‘heritage’ not as synonymic with ‘culture,’ but as a set of branded culture traits, then we must recognize the omnipresence of power relations inevitably involved with it[1]. Selecting certain traits rather than others to be memorized, cherished and transmitted inter-generationally through inculcation unavoidably stems from preferences depending on the interests of decision makers. Great efforts have been invested throughout human history to justify those traits as valuable. Endogenously, i.e. within the pertinent group, all sorts of sales-friendly strategies have been used to make heritage popular and consequently engaging both mentally and emotionally. Such implication has created identification that engaged people for action and sacrifices. Exogenously, on the other hand, traits that could be branded as valuable on an agreed-upon intergroup market of symbolic goods naturally have served to promote the status of the pertinent group vis-à-vis its competitors. Whatever the case, those who have been profiting mostly from a situation where heritage has been successfully promoted inwards and/or outwards have always been the political actors behind heritage making. They profit first by being able to negotiate a higher status and gain prestige, and then by earning revenues emanating from these privileges in all domains of life. The present article attempts to shed some light on the parameters of heritage promotion and the construction of power.

Heritage as a selected set of cultural traits

If we conceive of heritage, as suggested by standard definitions, as a repertoire of traits transmitted from one generation to the next, we inevitably fall into the trap of a circular conceptualization, because ‘heritage’ then simply becomes a synonym of ‘culture’ at large and thus loses its particular meaning. I therefore suggest to prefer the alternative explanation of ‘heritage,’ namely the one that conceives of it as a selected set of traits in a culture, ones that are explicitly ‘branded,’ (or otherwise ‘marked’) as valuable and indispensable for the subsistence of the given group. In short, culture transmission as such does not become heritage unless the transmitted traits are branded to acquire symbolic values.

Branding cultural traits to make them valuable assets for those who possess them has been a known practice since the dawn of history, and plausibly also a long time before that. There is a magnificent evidence to such branding in pre-historical times from the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of modern-day Turkey, a Neolithic site that was in continued use between 10,000 and 8000 BC. Although we cannot be sure about its uses, Klaus Schmidt, who discovered the site in 1996 and carried out excavations there until 2014, believed that it was used as a sacred site (Schmidt 2010; Dietrich et al. 2012), and that “[d]ie Steinpfeiler stellen womöglich Ahnen, Totengeister oder Dämonen dar” (Schmidt 2007: 14).[2] Its continuous use, elaborate symbolism, and the lack of any remains of dwellings certainly suggests its status as an inter-generational heritage site. Whether such an interpretation is solidly supported by the material findings is still a matter of controversy, but the idea of perpetuated heritage practices in prehistory is no longer something that is inconceivable.

The ancient history of tangible and intangible heritage

By contrast, there is abundant evidence of the prominent use of heritage in historical times since the deepest antiquity in the fourth millennium BC, with the foundation of Egypt, the world’s first state. It is surprising to find that prominent scholars ignore the evidence and present heritage as a novelty.[3] Contrary to these views, it is quite striking to find in these periods of early antiquity all of the components of heritage uses and manipulations that allegedly characterize our own times. First in Egypt, but soon throughout the entire Levant, a large repertoire of cultural traits – both tangible and intangible – has been created and branded to serve as heritage. Naturally, this repertoire included monumental buildings like pyramids and ziggurats, gold and precious stones, statues and stelae, furniture, chariots and horses, hanging gardens and other marvels. They all clearly served to symbolize power and gain prestige by means of assigning values that make them sought-after goods for assuming not only a prominent position in the world system, but also actually any position at all. Since those times immemorial until our own, a set of such possessions has become a standard for being recognized as an entity in the world system. Those who have accumulated such goods naturally have better options to branding them and converting them into heritage assets. Those who are newcomers, like new nations and states, must either adopt them from prior groups or invent them. New circumstances may of course make it possible to add new components to the already established set, and thus get better options for attaining such assets. For example, old Icelandic manuscripts that were scattered for centuries in various homes in Iceland without any sense of importance attached to them all of a sudden became sought-after goods towards the end of the eighteenth century under the vogue of European Romanticism that generated a competition for proving ancientness.

However, the material set of components has been only one way of using heritage since antiquity. The other way, and perhaps the more powerful one, has been the ideational, or intangible, traits that are branded as valuable and become themselves assets by which to gain prestige. Such is the self-image that rulers have been projecting as benefactors of their ruled populations. This kind of projected image, diffused through verbal and visual propaganda, has been perpetuated for centuries. At least from the third millennium BC for some two thousand years onwards, this is how even the cruelest rulers have preferred to present themselves to their subjects. This apparatus was carried out often in combination with proclaiming a strong attachment to some past, even – and perhaps mainly – when reforms were introduced rather than an actual preservation of past traditions.

The examples for such practices are plentiful, but among the highlights I would like to mention the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu (2047-2030 BC) and the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BC), both of whom managed, each in their terms, to create and maintain a large empire in Mesopotamia. In order to pacify the heterogeneous populations whose territories they conquered, they demonstrated loyalty to local past traditions not only through verbal declarations, but more efficiently by initiating large building projects dedicated to the local gods and by maintaining traditions of economic measures, such as keeping up and developing the vast network of irrigation canals in Mesopotamia. The procedures taken by Hammurabi show an almost one-to-one resemblance to his predecessors. A conspicuous initiative taken by him, one that has made him famous in world history is of course his new Code of Law. Since Ur-Nammu, who initiated the first known code of the likes, the making of a code of law has become an indispensable trait, part of the repertoire that must be followed and implemented by any ruler or group. Moreover, the act itself had to be branded as valuable in order to guarantee that it served as a means of gaining prestige. No ruler with aspirations to power has subsequently been able in world history to avoid the creation or adaptation of a code of law.[4] Another trait introduced by Ur-Nammu was a royal hymn. It was perhaps unprecedented but became highly popular with all of his successors[5] and was established ever since in all regimes of heritage. (Heinz 2012: 713; see also Hallo 1963, 2010 and Tinney 1999).

Heritage as a means of persuasion

Showing respect for the past through verbalism and impressive construction projects certainly has been instrumental for such rulers as the Egyptian pharaohs or the Mesopotamian kings to inculcate some degree of socio-cultural cohesion into the populations under their domination. As the Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi cases demonstrate, and so many similar cases in the course of the history of the Levant, persuasion became a preferred manner of interaction with a population rather than the exercise of sheer force. Ultimately, to achieve deference not by creating fear but by gaining respect has turned out to be much more profitable, not the least in terms of expenditure. It makes a lot of difference between acknowledging someone else’s superior status out of fear or out of respect. This is simply so, because respect means acting voluntarily with no coercion. The same sort of procedures served also outwardly, that is as assets that can create prestige vis-à-vis others. When in competition, each participant tries to be at least equal with the others, and possibly more respected. We call this kind of respect “prestige.”

This sought-after prestige means that others may wish to follow one’s example, adopting the same kind of traits that have given one a better status in a contemporary world system. Traits that are established in one period by successful groups, like Egypt, Sumer and Babylonia are thus accepted as branded heritage for many ages to come. Indeed, most of the traits invented and diffused already in the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant are still with us today.[6] Obviously, those who managed to possess those traits and control them did it for profit. Rulers and their elites were those who profited most, but one could say with due caution that in cases of true prosperity, which also meant freedom of movement and safety conveyed by law and order, larger circles also acquired some share in the profit. Nevertheless, evidence tends to indicate that those in control, that is, rulers and governing bodies in general, are more interested than the population at large in those assets that create prestige.

Heritage as a result of conflict

It seems that in both antiquity and nowadays, the efficiency of the group’s proclaimed symbolic goods may grow under conditions of clashes and conflicts, whether violent or otherwise, rather than from peacefulness. Competing claims over heritage assets, such as the recent one over the question who got a share of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, may lead people, who are otherwise normally indifferent to heritage, to suddenly take sides and feud.[7] The Göbekli Tepe discovery renewed tensions between Armenians and Turks, each party claiming historical possession of the discovered culture. Graham Hancock (2015) reports that “many Armenians are outraged that Turkey claims this uniquely important site as its own heritage as though the ancient Armenian connection did not even exist.” In a comment to a YouTube video, cited by Hancock (ibid.), one Armenian wrote: “Those people who built Portasar (the Armenian name of Göbekli Tepe) are here among the Armenians. Their spirits have transcended into the Armenian people of today.” The same kind of unexpected interest for assets kept in some storehouse, like art galleries or museums, surprisingly erupt when someone makes an attempt to change their status or purchase them. In a recent article, my colleagues Elías Torres, Antonio Monegal and I dealt with attempts made in Italy, Portugal, and Brazil to remove certain canonical texts from the school curriculum.[8] Although few people still ever read these texts, and schoolchildren did not particularly cherish them, when the new measures were announced, or even hinted at, it ignited a large outcry, from both learned and popular circles. Although the texts were for most people boring and hard to read, it was evidently unacceptable for them to think that these texts could be eliminated from the world’s literary canon, where they coexisted along with famous French, English, German, Russian, and Spanish texts.

Who profits from heritage ?

Ancient rulers and modern national movements have tried to persuade populations at large that branded traits can be profitable, as well as mold their collective sentiments with them. It certainly has been at least partly successful. Nevertheless, there are strong indications that in our actual world, such symbolic capitals are losing their power in either creating in-group consensus or generating prestige that is convertible to tangible profits for an inter-group competition. Many efforts and financial resources are invested by modern nations, or larger entities like the European Union, in preserving and propagating both material and ideational traits, branding them as valuable and making them part of local and global identities to be emulated by groups and individuals. In spite of all that, when it comes to stable and established societies, what seems to take place was diagnosed twenty years ago by Gísli Sigurðsson in his masterpiece « Icelandic national identity: From nationalism to tourism » (1996). While Icelanders have become relatively indifferent to their heralded heritage, which includes volcanos, glaciers and geysers, Iceland is now flooded by tourists who wish to see all this natural heritage. Thus, as I suggested here in Wageningen back in 2010,

[…] in established countries of the European Union, those which no longer have to legitimize their existence or justify the value of their legacies, heritage work is already often detached from identity work, serving the purpose of reinforcing the value of the assets on display for sale. When there is an abundance of objects and images, the state institutions involved with the promotion of legacies often mostly only work to facilitate the physical access to such assets (like places and monuments, books and manuscripts) or duly promote them via publications, visiting deals, or the Internet (Sigurðsson, 1996). On the other hand, for little known areas, or which need some economic injection, legacy objects and images may be dug from some imaginary or covert sources. In short, it would be justified to contend that heritage has become mostly a matter of competition about ‘who has got the better goods for sale,’ while for the majority of people in everyday life they carry very little meaning. […] (Even-Zohar 2011: 36)

It would be proper to ask once more: “So who profits from heritage now?” The answer must be roughly the same: it is the ruling bodies and their elites that get the profit first in being able to negotiate higher status and gain prestige by attracting more tourism, and then by earning revenues from that industry. It cannot be contested that parts of the population also benefit, but other parts may begin to suffer from over-tourism, which have converted many sites to souvenir shops and disrupted local lifestyles. Entities like states or the European Union have learnt how to embellish this heritage commodification with a sophisticated jargon, provided by members of the educated classes, to actually initiate a new level of competition about desired assets by branding even banal sites as motivated by high values of time-honored heritage. This is a clever strategy or a smoke screen if you wish. It is necessary for us, who are interested in understanding the mechanism of heritage, to take care not to fall into the trap of blind collaboration.

Itamar Even-Zohar


Bugge, Peter 2003. « A European cultural heritage? Reflections on a concept and a programme. » In Rethinking Heritage, Peckham, Robert Shannan, ed. London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 61-73.

Dietrich, Oliver, Manfred Heun, Jens Notroff, Klaus Schmidt, and Martin Zarnkow. 2012. « The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-Eastern Turkey. » Antiquity 86 (333), pp. 674–695.

Even-Zohar, Itamar 2011. « The Market of Collective Identities and Legacy Work. » In Cultural Heritage and Identity Politics, During, Roel, ed. Wageningen: Wageningen UR/ The Silk Road Research Foundation, pp. 31-37.

Even-Zohar, Itamar 2012. « Intellectual Labor and the Success of Societies. » In Zeichen-Kultur Sign Culture [To Honor Roland Posner], Hess-Lüttich, Ernest W.B., ed. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, pp. 307-313.

Even-Zohar, Itamar 2016. “Intercultural competition over resources via contests for symbolic capitals.” Paper delivered at the Lund symposium “The Making of Them and Us,” The Lund School of cultural semiotics & the Lund University Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, December 7-8, 2016.

Even-Zohar, Itamar 2017. « Le patrimoine qui attise les conflits. » In Géopolitique, conflits et patrimoine / Geopolitics, conflicts and heritage [=Ethnologies, Vol. 39: 1] Belot, Robert, ed, pp. 251-264.

Even-Zohar, Itamar, Elias Torres Feijó & Antonio Monegal (in press). « The end of literature, or: What purposes does it continue to serve? » Poetics Today 40 (1)

Hancock, Graham 2015. Magicians of the gods: the forgotten wisdom of earth’s lost civilization. First U.S. edition. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Hallo, William W. 1963. « Royal Hymns and Mesopotamian Unity. » Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17 (4), pp. 112-118.

Hallo, William W. 1996. Origins: the ancient Near Eastern background of some modern western institutions. [=Studies in the history and culture of the ancient Near East,, 6]. Leiden & New York: Brill.

Hallo, William W. 2010. The world’s oldest literature: studies in Sumerian belles-lettres. Leiden & Boston: Brill.

Hammami, Feras et Evren Uzer, 2017, “Heritage and resistance: irregularities, temporalities and cumulative impact”. International Journal of Heritage Studies : 1-20.

Heinz, Marlies 2012. « The Ur III, Old Babylonian, and Kassite Empires. » In A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Potts, Daniel T., ed. Oxford & Malden US: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 706-721.

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. « Culture in Animals: The Case of a Non-Human Primate Culture of Low Aggression and High Affiliation. » Social Forces 85 (1), pp. 217-233.

Schmidt, Klaus 2010. « Göbekli Tepe–the Stone Age Sanctuaries. New results of ongoing excavations with a special focus on sculptures and high reliefs. » Documenta Praehistorica 37, pp. 239-256.

Schmidt, Klaus 2007. « Als die Menschen sesshaft wurden. » Forschung 32 (2), pp. 12-15.

Sigurðsson, Gísli 1996. « Icelandic national identity: From nationalism to tourism. » In Making Europe in Nordic Contexts, Anttonen, Pertti J., ed. Turku: Nordic Institute of Folklore (University of Turku), pp. 41-75.

Tinney, Steve 1999. « Ur-Namma the Canal-Digger: Context, Continuity and Change in Sumerian Literature. » Journal of Cuneiform Studies 51, pp. 31-54.

[1] A revised version of a paper delivered at the first ProPeace meeting, University of Wageningen, Wageningen (The Netherlands), January 16–20, 2017.

[2] “The stone pillars probably represent ancestors, spirits of the dead, or demons.”

[3] For example, Bugge believes that “the idea that such objects have a value beyond their utility and constitute a ‘heritage’ is in itself relatively new” (Bugge 2003: 62). Similarly, in Rodney Harrison’s view, “[h]eritage, and the formally staged experience of encountering the physical traces of the past in the present, has become an all-pervasive aspect of contemporary life” (Harrison 2013: 1).

[4] Among the most famous lawgivers, one can name the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, known in his own country as “The Law-Giver” (Kanunî Sultan). As much as his codex is considered a bold act in view of the sanctity of the Islamic Sharia, it should not be forgotten that Suleiman could not possibly allow himself not to follow both his father Selim I, and his great-grandfather Mehmet II, both of whom had created innovative codes.

[5] “[…] the extent of our genre can be said to cover close to five hundred years and as many as seven different dynasties. At no time is there a certain gap of even so much as a generation between the rulers or dynasties commemorated in the genre.” (Hallo 2010: 185)

[6] See Hallo 1996.

[7] For a more expanded discussion of such cases, see Even-Zohar 2017.

[8] Even-Zohar, Torres Feijó & Monegal (in press).