Muhammad Asad Ullah
The term ‘heritage’ encompasses tangible and intangible elements, in the sense that ideas and memories — of songs and sonnets, food and recipes, language and love, dances and culture, and many other elements defining who we are and how we identify ourselves. Not just cultural intangibilities but historical buildings and archaeological sites as well. It won’t be erroneous to say that heritage is not just a collection of aged buildings, the popular concept, but an insight to the people who use it now and continually modify it. International competition for antiquities has been fierce since the 19th century — because the world existing before that, has been fascinating like anything: a thirst to get an answer to a question for how we have evolved as human beings and from where our heritage roots seem to sink in has been popular for quite some time now.
Ancient walls, glassy skyscrapers, and a mix of African, Native Panamanian, and Spanish cultures have all played a part in forming the frenetic ‘Miami of Central America’: Panama City — the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas — turns 500. From white-sand beaches to tropical rainforests, misty highlands and indigenous culture, Panama has a long long history of traditions, values and heritage embedded within itself. Panama has been a global crossroads ever since humans first passed through the country. The earliest evidence of humans in South America is 12,500 years old. That means that humans passed through Panama before that. Spearheads found in Panama date back to around 11,000 years ago, making them the first solid evidence of humans in the country.
Located on the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow bridge of land connects North and South America. Embracing the isthmus and more than 1,600 islands off its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the tropical nation is renowned as the site of the Panama Canal, which cuts through its midsection. Since 1914 the 51-mile- (82-km-) long Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, has afforded a long-sought shortcut for shipping and assures the country’s standing as one of the most strategic transportation hubs of the world. The canal also secures Panama’s ongoing role in international affairs and world commerce.
Talking about history of Panama Canal, Francisco Navarro, Head of Mission at the Embassy of Panama, told Community, “When Spanish people founded the city in the Pacific, it was a connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific. They first came via the Caribbean Sea. At that time of course there was no Panama Canal. They used to come inside via rivers and then cross the land. Around 300-years later when they started building the infrastructure for the rail road, that was built by the French, those who had taken part in the foundation of Suez Canal in Egypt also took a trial to make a Canal in Panama, but because the geography was extremely different. They failed,” he added, “Following the failure of a French construction team in the 1880s, the United States commenced building a canal across a 50-mile stretch of the Panama isthmus in 1904. Post quite some tensions and riots we then signed an agreement with US in 1977 to return the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000. In the meantime we were also expanding and changes were underway, politically, towards the democratic country.”
Wild and untouched, where the islands in Panama incites a feeling of discovery, its golden sand beaches and jungle paths offers a more bucolic lookout than that from a rooftop party in the capital. But no matter where you are in modern Panama — 500 years in the making — what’s old is new again. In spite of its relatively small area, Panama has a great variety of landscapes and habitats: tropical rainforests, savannas, cool montane forests, tidal lands covered by stilted mangrove trees, coral reefs, and beaches. Because of its ancient role as a land bridge over which species have migrated between the continents, the isthmus is home to a rich intermixture of plant and animal life. Panama has become more focused on preserving its treasures and understands the value of increasing tourism. “Panama is one of the most diversified country in the region, especially in terms of biodiversity. We have a tropical weather, lots of rain and more than 500 rivers. Tourism is very important for us, so we actually sort of invest in the sector as well. Another important thing, in terms of tourism, is that Panama is an extremely safe country. Because of our geography, when a Hurricane hits US, because of the direction of wind – no Hurricane actually hits Panama,” says the embassy official.
A cosmopolitan city where skyscrapers tower above whitewashed bungalows, Panama enjoys a handsome setting and a growing importance as a commercial and financial services centre for the region. Interested in getting the authentic Panamanian experience when visiting Panama? Francisco Navarro has a word. “Well, it depends on what the person is actually looking for because Panama is so diversified that it can cater you however you like. If you’re a person who likes crowd and is into nightlife, we have luxury hotels, shopping malls and commercial centres. But if you want to relax on a beach and resort, then we also offer that experience. You can go to San Blas and experience and unwind without any shenanigans — the authentic experience of how people used to live there years ago without any Wi-Fi or something. In this specific area, you’ll see people working and doing things they used to 100 years ago. Of course, things have modernised but they try to keep true to their roots. One thing about this region is the National Park that is governed by its own law. But let me tell you, the place is as beautiful as Bali or Philippines... rich in nature.”
Talking about the ideal geographical location of Panama, that connects the world, Francisco says, “From Panama you can easily go to Costa Rica by land, visit Columbia or take a route to Miami or Mexico or Europe for that matter.”
Drawing parallel between the cultural heritage of Qatar and Panama, Francisco says, “In the time I’ve been here in Doha, I’ve found many similarities. The music and its expression, the use of domes in architecture — everything is so similar. Even the love of football that both the country shares along with the warmth they have towards their families. It’s all similar.”
How the Embassy of Panama in Qatar celebrated Panama’s 500 years? “We recently organised an event, a get together, here at the embassy with the Panamanians residing in Doha to mark the 500 years anniversary,” Navarro tell us as he sips the last bit of his Panamanian coffee.
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