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How climate change and population growth threaten Egypt’s ancient treasures

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Climate change and environmental degradation are threatening a major pillar of Egypt's tourism industry. (Roger Anis for UN Environment)

In his 40-something years as an archaeological excavator on Luxor’s West Bank, Mustafa Al-Nubi has witnessed a flurry of changes.

Tourist numbers have surged, fallen, and then slowly grown again. Local villages have exploded in size. Even the landscape has undergone a radical transformation, as Egyptologists slowly pick their way through the vast Theban Necropolis. “It’s like one big museum now,” Nubi says. “My grandfather would not recognize his own house.”

Yet none of this, he insists, compares to the unusual weather that’s gripped southern Egypt in recent years. Where once he could work much of the dig season – usually from October to April – without breaking a sweat, now his traditional galabeya robe is often stained dark by 10am. Winter can be chilly one day, and stifling the next. Amid periodic downpours at unusual times of the year, Nubi and his colleagues have almost got used to dashing for cover. “I don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “But it was not like this before.”

The millennia-old treasures tell a similar tale. For much of history, conditions around Luxor were almost calculated to preserve its trove of pharaonic riches. With little rain, low humidity, and piles of swirling desert sand that cocooned the ancient temples in a protective bubble, there were few climatic concerns. And with a comparatively small local population, here on a previously isolated stretch of the Nile, there was little reason to suspect that the likes of the Ramesseum might go the way of their crumbling counterparts in densely populated northern Egypt. The pharaohs called their massive mortuary temples the temples of a million years; they were meant to last forever.

All that, however, is slowly beginning to change. Increasingly erratic weather that many largely attribute to climate change is eating away at the ancient stones. At the same time, booming population growth is complicating preservation efforts. After surviving thousands of years of war, invasion, and cannibalization for building materials, the splendours of ancient Egypt might have finally met their match. “We have a fear,” said Mostafa Ghaddafi Abdel Rehim, a senior antiquities official in Luxor. “Like all the world, we have a fear of climate change.”

Changing conditions

It starts with the temperature. The temple-heavy expanses of Egypt have always been sizzling during the summer, but it was never this hot – or for this long, both locals and archaeologists say. Some excavation days have had to be cut short, as overheating workers wilt in the exposed digging trenches. In other instances, changing conditions have even forced archaeologists to alter the way in which they document the hieroglyph-dotted walls. “We used to make blueprints using natural sunlight, but starting about 20 years ago, we found it harder and harder to burn the image onto the paper,” said Ray Johnson, director of the University of Chicago’s Epigraphic Survey, which has been working at Madinat Habu temple for almost 100 years. “It was then that we realized that it was getting hazier and hazier.” At Karnak, the gargantuan New and Middle Kingdom complex that dominates the northern approach to Luxor, blindingly bright sunshine has already robbed most of the walls of their color, leaving tourists to crane their necks up at the sheltered ceilings.

Even more worryingly, soaring summer highs also appear to be leaving their mark on the building blocks themselves. Around Aswan, several hours train ride south of Luxor, temperatures that sometimes rise well over 40 C are slowly cracking many of the rose granite structures. The granite expands in the daytime sun, and then contracts overnight in the cooler air. “It can look like a bag of wool. It gets rounder and rounder, and then eventually breaks away,” said Johanna Sigl of Cairo’s German Archaeological Institute. On her dig site at the bottom tip of Elephantine island, mid Nile, several inscriptions, including one in which a senior official records his duties collecting stone for his pharaoh, have more or less disappeared as a consequence.

The effects of climate change will only get more intense, experts say, possibly requiring some tricky decisions about the viability of maintaining vulnerable historic sites.

“In some instances these places are the foundations of a tourism industry that brings a lot of benefits to the local people,” said Mette Wilkie, Director of the Ecosystems Division at UN Environment. “But then you have a lot of buildings that are in the middle of nowhere, and here the situation is much more difficult.”

The greatest damage, however, is seemingly done during winter. Though still rare, increasingly frequent downpours are savaging ancient mud brick buildings, most of which have only lasted so long because of limited rain. “Every year, we notice this is more of a problem,” said Christian Leblanc, head of the French Archaeological Mission at West Thebes, who’s directed conservation efforts at the Ramesseum for over 25 years. “Of course it degrades the stone.” Particularly vulnerable are the temple’s half dozen arched mud brick granaries, some of the largest remaining structures of their kind, which are periodically layered with new mud bricks to shield the originals from the elements.

In 1994, a monster storm illustrated the devastation rain can wreak. Hundreds of tombs, including many in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, were swamped, the Temple of Seti I morphed into a lake, and hundreds of traditional mud brick houses collapsed. At Deir al-Bakhit, an early Christian monastery, the rain fell so furiously that it punched drop-shaped imprints into the mud brick. Wary of a repeat and fed up with frequent water-related repairs, most locals have since rebuilt in concrete.

Human impact

And then there’s the direct environmental impact of human activity. Until the late 1960s, the Nile burst its banks every August, inundating the valley for miles on either side. These were the conditions that the ancient architects knew, and they factored them into their designs accordingly. But after the completion of the Aswan High Dam, the annual flood ended, and with it came a glut of new problems for the temples. Without the regular “cleanse”, there’s no longer anything to clear the salt from the topsoil.

“It eats away at the stone like an acid,” Ray Johnson said. And with more humidity, in large part because of the enormous quantities of water evaporating off the dam’s reservoir, there’s more crystallization, as the salt particles in the temples’ sandstone blocks expand. “So the lower walls of almost all temples are missing and filled instead with a kind of breathable mortar,” Johnson added. From the toes of the Colossi of Memnon, the 700-ton statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, to the periphery of Karnak’s Sacred Lake, faint white saline traces betray the danger at hand.

Population growth, too, has levied a heavy toll. More people means more agriculture, and so instead of the fields around the temples lying dry and fallow for part of the year as they once did, they’re now under constant cultivation. It’s raised the water table throughout the East and West Banks (hydrologists suspect that the dam has also played a part), and swamped the foundations with far more water than they were designed to handle.

“Just look, there are people and water everywhere,” Christian Leblanc said. Many of the central pylons of Luxor Temple, the most centrally located of the great sites, have had to be patched up with cement after the fast-expanding city’s sewage percolated upwards. As Egypt’s numbers surge, already leaping from about 66 million in 2000 to over 95 million now, the pharaonic treasures are having to share their space with ever more houses and sugar cane crops.

“This is a phenomenon across the world, and there will be some areas where we will simply have to give up using land for our livelihood,” Mette Wilkie said. UN Environment is working to tackle climate change and environmental degradation by helping countries embrace low-emissions growth; supporting the sustainable management of forests and other ecosystems; and finding innovative new ways to fund climate action. UN Environment also helps countries adapt to the changing climate, and build their resilience to future challenges.

In Egypt, there is some cause for optimism. In fact, officials have more or less resolved the groundwater issue for the time being. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Ministry of Antiquities has installed an extensive drainage network around the key sites, which has seemingly lowered their water levels by up to four meters.

“It has been a big success. The problem is fixed,” said Mohammed Abdelaziz, the ministry’s top official in Upper Egypt. Authorities have ringed many of the antiquities’ zones with walls to prevent further urban or agricultural encroachment, and established four field schools in the Luxor area to teach inspectors how to better treat the treasures and identify potential threats. All this coming at a time of new technological innovations has made some archaeologists quite bullish about the temples’ long-term prospects.

Just to be on the safe side, though, others have stepped up their documentation efforts. If worse comes to the worst, at least we’ll have a record of what’s been lost. “There is more urgency now,” Ray Johnson said. “That’s why we go first to what’s most threatened.”

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Public art that brings a smile to your face

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Artists observe a link between spending time in these spaces and a feeling of relaxation, safeness and peace of mind. Photo by Georgina Avlonitis

This International Day of Happiness on 20 March reminds us that life is happier when we’re together. It urges us to focus on what we have in common, rather than on what divides us.

One thing that has the power to bring us closer together is art. Art can also bring us closer to nature, helping to blur the boundaries between the “concrete jungles” of our cities and outside spaces.

This International Day of Happiness we sought inspiration, especially among young people, in public urban art. Despite being drawn to cities for a myriad of reasons, for many of us, happiness is closely tied with our proximity to nature and green spaces. Humanity evolved in close connection with nature, and a need for its presence is woven deeply into our consciousness.

“Connecting to our living environment through enjoying public art in urban spaces can change how we understand the world, help us relax and reduce stress and anxiety, and provide memorable experiences,” said Garrette Clark, UN Environment’s Sustainable Lifestyles Programme Officer.

“Sustainable living and lifestyles are about reducing negative environmental impacts as well as spending more time and resources on the experiences that add value to our lives.”

One example is Conservation Conversation Corners, in Johannesburg, South Africa and Livingstone, Zambia. This project involves four young artists—South African upcycler Heath Nash, Zambian sculptor Owen Shikabeta, Zambian painter Mwamba Chikwemba and South African installation artist Mbali Dhlamini.

Using mural paintings, public participation and sculpture, they visually and physically transform urban public spaces to reconnect their users with nature.

These artists observed a link between spending time in these spaces and a feeling of relaxation, safeness and peace of mind. Some stated that the only time they really felt safe and happy in these—and other—cities was when they felt connected with nature.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mbali Dhlamini observed: “As a woman in Jozi, you always feel like you need to keep eyes at the back of your head. We stay on our guards and alert at all times, whether walking or driving in the city, because of the crime here. How wonderful it would be to feel free and at peace. Nature has that. Nature gives us that. We need to access it and conserve it more in our towns and cities.”

Public art like this is playing an important role in shaping urban neighbourhoods, boosting a sense of community, and bringing people together.

In 2008, for the first time more people lived in urban areas than in rural ones. Urbanization is occurring everywhere and at unprecedented speed—especially in Africa. Urban populations in Africa are expected to triple in the next 50 years, and urban space is expected to increase by more than 700 per cent between 2000 and 2030.

Reflecting on how we can better bring nature into ever-expanding urban spaces, public art can help us provide access to green spaces in cities as a potential source of happiness.

A growing number of scientific studies demonstrate the power of nature to positively affect our health, well-being and happiness, and in 2017, National Geographic identified the greening of urban areas as one of the top five aspects shaping the future of cities.

Isabel Wetzel, Associate Human Settlements Officer at UN-Habitat and Greener Cities Partnership liaison between UN Environment and UN-Habitat, added: “The beneficial relationship between nature and happiness in urban areas is apparent – and public art can provide a beautiful channel to express it.

“Art has the power to connect people from different backgrounds and generations, and green public spaces have a positive impact on the health of the residents.

“Highlighting the need for nature restoration and conservation of our green and blue ecosystems in urban areas through public art is a powerful way to reconnect people, particularly young people, with the natural world.”

So, if you, your family and your friends are feeling unhappy in your city—seek urban green spaces, and if they don’t exist yet, create them!

UN Environment

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5 Museums You Don’t Want to Miss in Athens

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The National Archaeological Museum is the largest museum in Greece. Although its original purpose was to secure finds from 19th century excavations in and around Athens, it gradually became the central national institution, enriched with finds from all over the country. With more than 11,000 exhibits, its abundant collections provide a panorama of Greek civilisation, from the beginnings of prehistory to late antiquity.

MUST SEE: The famous gold mask of Agamemnon and the Antikythera mechanism. Address: 44 28is Oktovriou St, Athens.

The Benaki Museum was the first private museum established in Greece and has three satellite spaces in hip areas around Athens. Its flagship building can be found in the first-class district of Kolonaki, housed in one of the biggest and most impressive neoclassical buildings in the city. This private collection was cultivated by Antonis Benakis, a wealthy cotton merchant, in memory of his father Emmanuel Benakis. You’ll find artefacts from Greek pre-history right through to the Mycenaean and Classical eras, continuing with items related to such pivotal events as the fall of Constantinople and the Greek War of Independence.

MUST SEE: The reconstruction of mid-18th century reception rooms found in stately mansions in Greek Macedonia, featuring the original gilded ceilings and wood-panelled walls. Address: 1 Koumbari St & Vasilissis Sofias Av, Kolonaki.

The Museum of Cycladic Art also found in Kolonaki, showcases a fascinating collection gathered by the late shipping magnate Nicholas Goulandris and his wife Dolly. Housed in a stately mansion that was built in 1895, this private collection expands over four levels. The artworks give insights into the ancient civilisations of the Cycladic Islands. The semi-abstract figurines inspired Cubism and 20th century artists like Picasso and Brancusi. Intricately painted amphorae (vases) are also on display.

MUST SEE: The renowned male figure believed to come from Amorgos, is one of the very few represented in the upright pose, it is the only known male figure of these monumental dimensions. Address: 4 Neophytou Douka St, Kolonaki.

Visiting the Byzantine and Christian Museum provides an oasis from city life. The building, nestled in a peaceful, well-kept courtyard that is set back from the road, was built in 1948 in a Tuscan Renaissance style and is an architectural rarity in Athens. The permanent exhibition is placed over several levels covering 18 centuries of art and culture. You will be reminded of how much power and influence the Byzantine Empire wielded and the legacy it left behind. More than 25,000 exhibits with rare collections of pictures, scriptures, frescoes, pottery, fabrics, manuscripts and more.

MUST SEE: A rare 13th Century mosaic icon of the Virgin Mary from Constantinople, one of only 40 known to exist. Address: 22 Vasilissis Sofias Av, Kolonaki.

Consistently rated as one of the best in the world, the Acropolis Museum is located at the edge of the southern slope of the Acropolis and should be visited before or after your visit to the ancient city. Devoted to the Parthenon and its surrounding temples, it showcases and protects the surviving treasures from the Acropolis. The collections touch on the Archaic and Roman periods moving all the way through to the 5th century AD. An obvious emphasis is placed on the 5th century BC, considered the pinnacle of Greece’s artistic achievement.

MUST SEE: If you’re short on time, don’t miss the Parthenon Gallery (Level 3) and the five caryatids (Level 1) that are the original maidens that once held up the roof of the southern porch of the Erechtheion. Address: 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou St, Athens.

TIP: The Benaki Museum, Museum of Cycladic Art and Byzantine and Christian Museum are all within walking distance of each other.

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Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again

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Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; jointly owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art; gift of Ethel Redner Scull; © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) announces the exclusive West Coast presentation of the critically acclaimed exhibition, Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again on view from May 19 through September 2, 2019. Spanning the artist’s 40-year career and featuring more than 300 works on three different floors of the museum, the exhibition includes paintings, drawings, graphics, photographs, films, television shows as well as a personal time capsule of ephemera. The retrospective features examples of the artist’s most iconic pieces in addition to lesser-known abstract paintings from later in his career. Uncannily relevant in today’s image-driven world, Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again provides new insight into Andy Warhol himself by examining the complexities of this enigmatic artist more than 30 years after his death in 1987. The show’s title is taken from Warhol’s 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), a memoir featuring the artist’s musings on fame, love, beauty, class, money and other key themes that frequently appear in his work.

“He’s a complicated figure and a complicated artist,” said Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. “His inner emotions, his psychic self were not his subject matter. Warhol is constantly labeled a Pop artist, but all that happened within a couple of years and then he moved on and the work goes quite dark and explores questions of gender and sexual identity, fame, subcultures. At the time of his death, the consensus was that Warhol was no longer relevant. But the last major retrospective in 1989 was a wake-up call: this is an artist we have to reckon with.”

First presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and curated by Donna De Salvo, Deputy Director for International Initiatives and Senior Curator at the Whitney, with Christie Mitchell, senior curatorial assistant, and Mark Loiacono, curatorial associate, this exhibition provides an opportunity for new generations to reconsider Andy Warhol, one of the most influential, inventive and important American artists. Warhol’s understanding of the growing power of images in contemporary life anticipated our social media-focused world and helped to expand the artist’s role in society making him one of the most recognized artists of the 20th century.

Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again also showcases SFMOMA’s impressive holdings of many of the artist’s most important works including National Velvet (1963), Liz #6 (Early Colored Liz) (1963), Triple Elvis (Ferus Type), (1963), Silver Marlon (1963), Robert Mapplethorpe (1983) and self-portraits.

THE EXHIBITION

Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again will be presented on three floors of SFMOMA: two, four and five.

On the museum’s second floor, two galleries of works on paper offer a detailed look at Warhol’s earliest drawings from the 1940s and hand-drawn commercial illustrations created for advertising in the 1950s. These early drawings lay the groundwork for many of the techniques and approaches he would use throughout his career. This portion of the exhibition includes delicate, gilded collages and sketches of shoes for the Miller Shoe Company, and illustrations for publications such as Glamour Magazine and The New York Times.

On display in SFMOMA’s fourth-floor special exhibition galleries, the exhibition takes visitors chronologically through the arc of Warhol’s career and his production in painting, drawing, photography, film and installation. The first half of the exhibition opens with his best known work from the creatively active period of 1960–68, with his earliest paintings such as Dick Tracy (1961) and Superman (1961), followed by the groundbreaking, iconic Pop Art paintings, Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962), 192 One Dollar Bills (1962) and the sculpture, Brillo Boxes (1969, version of 1964 original). The exhibition then highlights Warhol’s depictions of celebrities, including Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy. In a dedicated black box gallery adjacent to the early Pop Art work, samples of Warhol’s films and videos will be on view including his series of Screen Tests featuring Ethel Scull, Edie Sedgwick and Billy Name (1964–65).

Subjects take a darker turn in Warhol’s Death and Disaster paintings (1963–64) memorializing car crashes, the electric chair and a benign yet sinister can of tuna fish contaminated with botulism. An eye-popping gallery filled with 16 colorful Flower paintings (1964) will be installed on top of Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper (1966) for a bold immersive experience. Visitors will have a chance to experience Silver Clouds, Warhol’s sculptural installation of shiny Mylar balloons created in 1966, the point at which he declared himself to be done with painting.

Warhol’s work of the 1970s and 1980s focuses on post-Pop artwork, which Garrels observes are “very unknown to most people.” In these galleries Warhol shifts his focus with a massive portrait of Chairman Mao (1972), followed by a gallery featuring photographs and paintings of trans women and drag queens from the 1970s, which provide a look into Warhol’s fascination with the elusiveness and complexity of gender and identity. A separate suite of photographic self-portraits of Warhol in drag provides a different view into the artist’s carefully cultivated persona. A large single gallery is dedicated to Warhol’s grand experiments with abstract painting, featuring a gold Shadow painting (1978) and two large-scale Rorschach paintings (1984). Warhol’s influence on the young artists of the East Village in the 1980s is highlighted through collaborative works created with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Also on display is an unpacked personal time capsule, one of 610 created over the course of the artist’s life.

Two galleries in the museum’s fifth floor Pop, Minimal and Figurative Art presentation feature a 1970s “facebook” of wall-to-wall grids of large-scale silk-screened portraits representing a “who’s who” of celebrities, cultural icons, gallerists, athletes and business leaders. These galleries feature nearly 40 portraits such as Halston (1975), Dominique de Menil (1969), Liza Minnelli (1978), Pelé (1977), Leo Castelli (1975), Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1976) and Gianni Versace (1979–80), as well as the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola (1974). For the subject, a Warhol portrait provided social validation and an immediate status symbol; for Warhol these commissions were a consistent revenue stream that supported his studio and desire to explore other more personal ventures. Warhol’s television shows and videos are on display in the city gallery on this floor.

THE ARTIST

Andy Warhol was born Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, PA in 1928. In 1949, he graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) with a Bachelor of Arts in pictorial design.  Shortly after graduation, Warhol moved to New York City, where he would live for the rest of his life, and began what would become a vaunted career as a commercial artist, for which he earned numerous awards and accolades. Despite his commercial success, Warhol was determined to pursue a career as a fine artist. He first exhibited his work at the Hugo Gallery in 1952, though he did not gain recognition in the fine art world until 1962 when the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles staged his groundbreaking exhibition of Campbell’s Soup Can paintings. Through the 1960s, Warhol exhibited at Ferus, Stable Gallery, Castelli Gallery, Sonnabend Gallery and internationally to great acclaim. He established “the Factory” in 1963, the same year he began his pioneering work in film. In 1965, Warhol announced his “retirement” from painting to pursue filmmaking full-time; underground films such as Empire (1964) and The Chelsea Girls (1966) remain some of his most influential works.

In 1968, Warhol was shot in a near-fatal assassination attempt, but by 1969 he had founded Interview magazine and his interest in producing work across all media—including sculpture, video and performance—was reignited. In 1975, Warhol published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) and by the late 1970s had expanded his practice to cable television shows with Andy Warhol’s Fashion, Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes and Andy Warhol’s T.V. Warhol’s work of the late 1970s and 1980s exhibits an increased interest in abstraction and collaboration and often reflexively returns to his own earlier work and iconography. His late work speaks to a voracious interest in current events and enthusiasm for artists from the East Village scene such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom he collaborated. In February 1987, Warhol died after a brief illness following routine gallbladder surgery. The Andy Warhol Diaries, his infamous account of his own life from the mid-1970s up to his death, was published posthumously in 1991.

Major exhibitions during Warhol’s lifetime include his first institutional solo exhibition at the ICA Philadelphia in 1965, a 1968 exhibition at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, a 1970 retrospective organized by the Pasadena Art Museum, which traveled extensively and Andy Warhol: Portraits of the 70s organized by the Whitney Museum in 1979–80. The final exhibition of his work during his lifetime, at Robert Miller Gallery, New York, in January 1987, debuted a new series of stitched photographs.  Warhol’s work is collected by significant institutions across the world including major repositories at SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate, The Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum Brandhorst, Munich, The Museum Ludwig, Cologne, The Marx Collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

CATALOGUE

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color, 400-page scholarly monograph edited by Donna De Salvo spanning all periods of Warhol’s career and including paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, videos, photographs, archival and printed material, installations, films and media works. A contextualizing essay by De Salvo is complemented by essays and contributions from Jessica Beck, Okwui Enwezor, Trevor Fairbrother, Hendrik Folkerts, Bill Horrigan, Bruce Jenkins, Branden W. Joseph, Barbara Kruger, Glenn Ligon, Michael Sanchez and Lynne Tillman, as well as a plate section with 450 images. The catalogue is published by the Whitney and is distributed by Yale University Press.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

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