The historically rich Koagannu Cemetery in Addu City has once again become the target of vandalism. The acts of desecration occurred during Friday prayer hours, a moment that should be steeped in peace and spirituality. Situated in southernmost Addu City, Koagannu is no ordinary graveyard; it is the oldest and largest cemetery in the Maldives and stands as an essential testament to the nation’s rich cultural and historical fabric.

An Irreversible Loss

The very timing of the act, during Friday prayers, suggests premeditation, a fact that makes this incident all the more unsettling. According to local councilor Aminath Saaliha, no security was present at the heritage site at the time of the event. Though the suspects remain unidentified, what is unequivocally clear is that the damage is not just to coral tombstones and intricate carvings, but to the collective memory and cultural legacy of the Maldivian people.

Koagannu Mosques and Cemetery (Photo: Ali Wiam/WMF)

Why Koagannu Matters

Recognised by the World Monuments Fund as one of the 25 most culturally significant but endangered heritage sites globally in 2022, Koagannu cemetery is no stranger to threats both natural and man-made. Its unique assemblage of coral stone mosques, graves, and other monumental architecture offers an irreplaceable lens into the Maldivian past.

The cemetery, which spans an impressive 9,800 square meters, is home to 1,535 coral grave markers, sheltered and open mausoleums, four small mosques, and three water wells. Each element tells its own story— from the ancient art of coral carving in Dhives Akuru script to the architecture that bears testimony to a confluence of Indian Ocean cultures and the pre-Islamic Buddhist culture that once flourished here.

A Timeline of Resilience and Vulnerability

Located on the island of Hulhumeedhoo, originally part of Hulhudhoo and Meedhoo in Addu Atoll, the site holds a timeline of human activity, possibly dating back to the pre-Islamic period. The island itself was an essential centre of Islamic learning until the 20th century. Some of the grave markers are even associated with the family of Yousuf Naib, an Arab traveller believed to have introduced Islam to the Maldives in 1126. The complexity and stratification of Koagannu’s history make it a vital living record, which makes acts of vandalism particularly poignant and destructive.

Tackling the Challenges Ahead

Heritage Minister Yumna Maumoon has indicated the pressing need for raising awareness among the residents, stating that the site can only be preserved when locals invest in its care and preservation. Local councils are also mandated with the responsibility of safeguarding this irreplaceable heritage.

Moreover, the environmental challenges, notably the adverse effects of climate change, have already begun taking a toll on the site. Its proximity to the beach, just 50 metres away, makes it vulnerable to erosion and extreme weather events. Systematic conservation is crucial for the site to maintain its authenticity and integrity.

A Plea for Preservation

Koagannu is not just a cemetery; it is a repository of national identity, a link to an ancestral past, and a reflection of historical craftsmanship and cultural interchanges. The acts of vandalism here are not merely local crimes; they are crimes against the shared heritage of the Maldives and, indeed, the world.

This should serve as a wake-up call. Whether through educational initiatives, enhanced security, or community engagement, the protection of Koagannu needs to be prioritised. For once the tangible evidence of history is gone, it leaves an irreplaceable void, erasing narratives that future generations have every right to know and cherish.