Dr Michael Jansen moved and swayed passionately as he addressed the students at Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture on a mid-October day. Clad in a casual black shirt and jeans, he paced the room excitedly as he talked about one of his most favourite topics — Moenjodaro, the nerve centre of the Indus Valley civilisation.
He fondly recalled the days he spent excavating the site and explained its layout through elaborate maps and powerpoint illustrations while giving detailed answers to all the questions hurled at him.
A burly man with a gruff voice and greying hair which have a hint of copper brown, Jansen is one of the most respected authorities on the Indus Valley civilisation. He first visited Moenjodaro almost 40 years ago and since then it has been his goal to protect the site from damage.
According to the 65-year-old professor from Germany, the Indus Valley civilisation first captured his imagination when he was a master’s student at the Rhenish-Westphalian Technical University, Aachen, in his home country. He first visited Pakistan back in 1970 when he was studying architecture. “I travelled across the Subcontinent in that trip, covering 40,000 kilometres in India on a bike,” he says.
After Jansen completed his doctorate in the architecture of the Indus Valley civilisation in 1979, he began a 10-year research project to find out more about Moenjodaro — and the larger civilisation that the settlement is a part of — than was known at the time. He says even now less than 10 per cent of Moenjodaro has been excavated. “There are close to 2,000 sites that have been identified as part of the Indus civilisation yet hardly any excavation has been done [on any of these sites] so far,” he says.
But Jansen does not want to dig out the earth to just uncover more ruins; he wants to understand how the Indus Valley civilisation worked beyond buildings. “We only have general knowledge of what the Indus Valley civilisation was like and until and unless we excavate more, we will not be able to answer critical questions about their political, societal and religious systems,” he says.
What we know so far speaks volumes about the architectural skills of the inhabitants of that civilisation. “They were high-tech compared to others and were using rationalised and intelligent means to design their cities. Their structures hold close resemblance to contemporary cities, with a well-developed drainage and water supply system,” he explains to the Herald.
What led to the decline of such intelligent people? Since there is no visible evidence of large-scale destruction which could point towards external invasion or warfare, it is hard to pinpoint what really caused the downfall of the Indus Valley civilisation, Jansen says. “One hypothesis is that since they were following an oligarchic system, it is possible that multiple families indulged in power games which led them to fight each other. There might have been an implosion where internal struggles led to destruction,” he says and adds that the real answer cannot be ascertained unless there is more excavation.
Jansen is worried about the constant deterioration of the architectural ruins at Moenjodaro. When he visited the place after the 2010 floods, he could see how “conservation efforts have taken a hit.” But luckily experts are at it. Their strategy consists of burying the entire site under a very thin layer of clay so that salts which are now crystallising on the original structures (and damaging them) affect only the artificial layer,” he says.
It is difficult to imagine how such a scholar would spend his leisurely hours. If he ever gets a break from trying to preserve ancient ruins at all the odd places in the world, like Pakistan, he says he will have to do what all husbands are expected to — fix his own home. And his is no ordinary abode. “My family lives in a castle in Liège, Belgium. It was built 800 years ago. Whenever I go home, my wife tells me to stop travelling and start conserving our own place.”