In Jakarta, an archaeologist races against time to preserve the city’s 400-year-old fortified walls

Asia

JAKARTA: When archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat heard that the Jakarta city government was planning to widen the flood-prone Ciliwung River last year, he was immediately alarmed.

Part of the river cuts through Jakarta’s heritage area and the normalisation project would see the capital’s main waterway broadened by up to 15m, threatening the few remaining sections of the 400-year-old perimeter walls built by the Dutch East India Company.

Only less than 500m of the 4.6km fortified walls still stand today.  

While some sections are well preserved, others are left in varying stages of decay, overrun with trees and vegetation.

In one area, the walls are sinking into the subsiding ground below with more than two-thirds of their 8m body now sitting below sea level. Jakarta has one of the worst subsidence rates in the world due to over-extraction of groundwater.   

But the walls’ biggest threat is modern development. Throughout their history, huge parts of the walls have been dismantled to make way for houses, buildings, streets, railways and toll roads.

Mr Attahiyat and other archaeologists are racing against time to have the walls declared as conservation sites.

“Right now, we are able to keep various development projects from damaging the walls. But we need the heritage site status because future administrations might not be so attentive about the walls’ presence,” the 62-year-old archaeologist told CNA.

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Indonesian archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat standing on top of a section of the 17th century fortified walls in Jakarta. Only 500m of the 4.6km walls still stand today. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)  

But even after more than a year of advocating for the walls’ heritage status, they still have not succeeded and the plan to have the Ciliwung River widened has been merely postponed but not repealed.

Meanwhile, Mr Attahiyat would soon end his tenure as one of Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan’s advisers on cultural preservation, a position which had provided him leverage in the mission to keep the walls intact.

STEEPED IN HISTORY

The walls represented a time when Jakarta, or Batavia as it was known at the time, was a small seaside town no bigger than 1.3 sq km.

The Dutch East India Company intended Batavia to be its regional headquarters, complete with houses, buildings, facilities and city planning modelled after those found in the Netherlands.

After a series of confrontations with the locals and attacks from neighbouring kingdoms, the company decided to build defensive walls in 1620 to protect itself. The walls were completed in 1650.

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Indonesian archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat standing in front of an enlarged copy of a 17th century map of Batavia, now known as Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)   

The company wanted Batavia to be occupied exclusively by Europeans and selected Arab and Chinese merchants. Meanwhile the local population were evicted and made to live outside of the walls in poor living condition.

The only indigenous people allowed inside the walls were slaves, mercenaries and those facing execution.

“The town was very exclusive and very segregated. Trespassers would be severely punished. In fact, the indigenous people would get shot for even approaching the walls,” Mr Attahiyat said.

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“The walls served as a reminder of how the city came to be. An edifice of the struggle of the indigenous people living outside of the walls. A reminder of what life was like back then. They are a part of our history which need to be preserved for future generations.”

The walls stand about 6m to 8m tall. Their thickness ranged between 1.5m and 1.8m, complete with footpaths to allow heavily armed guards to patrol the perimeter. A system of moats and ditches was dug around the walls for extra protection.

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Archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat walking on the remnants of a stretch of the 17th century fortified wall protecting Batavia, now known as Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)  

The fortified walls were linked to a total of 27 bastions equipped with cannons, strategically placed to keep enemies at bay as well as to protect the entrances into the city. Only two of the bastions remain today.

The fortification subsequently became obsolete in the beginning of the 19th century.

Batavia, with its Dutch-style architecture and city planning, proved to be unsuited for Indonesia’s tropical climate and weather. The town was often flooded since its canals and drainage system were not designed to handle torrential rains during the archipelago’s rainy season.

By 1790, Old Batavia was virtually abandoned by its European inhabitants who moved into the suburbs to build villas with large front lawns and porches.

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Meanwhile, the Dutch government took over control of the archipelago after the Dutch East India Company became entangled in financial woes. The company eventually ceased operation at the end of 1799.

The new ruler was not interested in keeping Batavia as a small segregated town and wanted a thriving colonial capital.

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One of the last remaining sections of a 17th century defensive wall protecting Batavia, now known as Jakarta. Many sections of the wall have been dismantled to make way for houses, apartments, streets and railways. (Photo: Nivell Rayda) 

Between 1808 and 1811, all of Batavia’s important administrative buildings were relocated further south in what is now Jakarta’s city centre. To save cost, much of the fortified walls were dismantled to serve as materials for the new buildings.

“For the first time, Old Batavia became desegregated,” Mr Attahiyat said.

UNDER THREAT

The Dutch, the archaeologist said, only allowed the original defensive walls to stand if they were part of existing warehouses. These centuries-old warehouses were located on the seaside northern section of Old Batavia.

“The rest were dismantled, right down to the foundation,” Mr Attahiyat said, adding that for the last 34 years, he had been trying to find remnants of the demolished walls with very little luck.

But today, the 400-year-old warehouses are largely abandoned and the perimeter walls protecting them are crumbling.

The only pristine and well-preserved sections of the walls are the 155m stretch which protected the northern part of what is now the Indonesian Maritime Museum and the 70m walls surrounding a 19th century watchtower built on top of a 17th century bastion.

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Archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat standing on top of a well-preserved part of a 17th century defensive wall surrounding Batavia, now known as Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

The walls there survived because the museum and the watchtower has been declared as cultural heritage sites.

However, even the well-preserved walls are under threat from land subsidence.

At the Maritime Museum, only the upper half of the 8m walls are visible from street level and the moat surrounding the museum has long been paved.

The average land subsidence affecting Jakarta is 1.15cm a year, with some parts of the city sinking as much as 25cm annually.

According to a model conducted by Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), 95 per cent of the coastal areas in Jakarta could be entirely submerged below sea level by 2050, including parts of Old Batavia.

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The subsidence affecting the walls just west of the museum was worse.

The 184m walls there were almost completely buried underneath sediments, reclaimed land and trash, with only 1m to 2m of the massive walls sticking out of the ground.

But despite being flooded by salt water and rain and overrun with thorny shrubs and tall trees, the walls still stand, as abandoned warehouses next to them crumbled and decayed.

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Archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat standing in front a sinking 17th century warehouse in Jakarta. Many heritage sites in the Indonesian capital are under threat of land subsidence, most already sitting below sea level. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)  

Meanwhile, the walls running through the western, southern and eastern parts of Old Batavia are pretty much gone, replaced by busy streets, houses, buildings and apartment blocks.

But a 50m stretch of the wall survived at the ancient town’s north eastern corner, sandwiched between densely populated housing areas and a mud-covered lorry parking lot.

Unaffected by land subsidence, the section is now the only place where visitors can appreciate how massive and tall the defensive walls were.

Although the area is not facing land subsidence, the north eastern section is under threat from the Ciliwung River normalisation plan.

LONG BATTLE AHEAD

Mr Attahiyat said the government has agreed to postpone plans to widen a particular offshoot of the river which straddles near the north eastern wall. “But they need to conduct further studies before formally changing the normalisation plan,” he said.

But the archaeologist is not content with a postponement adding that the only thing which would protect the walls’ future is for them to be granted a heritage site status.

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One of the few surviving sections of a 17th century fortification wall protecting Batavia, now known as Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)  

“A heritage site status would ensure that the walls would be preserved the way they are now regardless of regime and policy changes,” he said.

Parts of the walls were destroyed as recently as 1992 to make way for a toll road. And until now, there are locals who damage the walls by fastening makeshift tents onto their surfaces or stealing exposed bricks and using them as building materials.

“But getting the walls declared as heritage sites is not easy,” Mr Attahiyat said. “The warehouses have been abandoned for so long, no one is sure who owns them any more.”

The archaeologist said many of the warehouses are owned by companies which no longer exist. Officials also need to unearth long forgotten documents to see if the walls are part of their properties or not.

“It is a slow process but we have to do it. We have to preserve these walls,” he said. 

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