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This Week in Palestine
By Nazmi Al-Ju’beh
Our cultural heritage assets, in spite of destruction and neglect, are tremendous and include many opportunities for conservation and development. Because we see in cultural heritage not just a testimony of the past, to appreciate its beauty, and an element of national and local identity, but we also have to see in cultural heritage a major economic opportunity, especially for a country like Palestine with few natural resources and not fully developed agricultural and industrial sectors.
Palestine’s rich heritage encompasses different areas and fields. This is reflected in the innumerable archaeological and historical sites, in renowned architectural monuments, in the typical rural and urban buildings and constructions as well as in the wide range of objects and traditional artefacts. Moreover, Palestine’s folk heritage, including craft making, oral traditions, music and customs, is part of this national wealth. However, many factors threaten the survival and continuity of the country’s cultural heritage.
In spite of the problems that we face in understanding the archaeological exploration history, methodologies, intentions and tasks, Palestine is still exceptional in containing thousands of archaeological sites (ca 10,000 archaeological sites and features), a lot of which are internationally known. Some of these sites have managed to change historical assumptions and theories and add new dimensions to international cultural history. An archaeological site in Palestine could be less than one dunum (a dunum is 1,000 m²), but could also reach several tens of dunums. Sites could have one stratum, but also several strata. However, the importance of the site does not depend on its size or the number of strata represented in it. Most of the Palestinian cities, towns and villages have archaeological sites beneath or close to their historic centres; those archaeological sites reflect their cultural continuity. The same fact could be observed, indeed, in most of the holy shrines, regardless of their religious affiliation. Very few sites have been fully excavated; in fact, most of them have had very little excavation (in comparison with the potential) done on them. Old methodologies depended mainly on exploring the acropolis, neglecting the rest of the site. This means that hundreds of sites are still awaiting further exploration, which could dramatically change the cultural history of Palestine and maybe the region.
In the West Bank, there is a large number of archaeological sites, but the more intact ones are in the Gaza Strip, with great importance to Palestinian cultural history in particular and international cultural history in general. In Jerusalem, archaeological remains managed to attract international discussions on history, excavation methodologies and documentation. The results of exploring the history of Jerusalem have become a source of religious and political discourse.
The diversity and wealth of heritage can be seen in Palestinian architecture. In addition to its numerous monumental religious sites such as the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Ibrahimi (Abraham) Mosque, Palestine has a number of valuable historic towns such as the Old City of Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem. Furthermore, Palestinian villages, with their organically beautiful peasant architecture, add to the variety and richness of this heritage. The desert monasteries, located in the eastern slopes, illustrate another typology of architecture in Palestine, as does ‘throne village architecture,’ which refers to the feudal palaces in eighteenth and nineteenth century rural Palestine. The caravanserais along historic trade routes, in addition to the dispersed holy shrines (maqamat) and the beautifully constructed dry stone farmhouses within the typically terraced hills of Palestine, also illustrate the variety and richness of a cultural heritage that the Palestinians have been entrusted with for the world community at large. The Old City of Jerusalem is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as on the list of threatened cultural reserves. Other Palestinian old city centres could be added to the list as soon as proper conditions prevail.
Unfortunately, architectural heritage in Palestine has been facing alarming deterioration, destruction and negligence resulting mainly (but not only) from the construction boom that took place between 1995-2000. As a result of this, the urban as well as rural and natural landscapes have changed in an unprecedented manner. This unprecedented scale of construction in Palestine took place within the boundary limits of Palestinian towns and villages that have not been allowed to expand since 1967. This is due to the fact that Palestinians can only build within areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian National Authority (areas A and B), while the vast majority of land is still under Israeli control (area C). All the Palestinian historic towns and villages are located in areas A and B. As a result of this completely uncontrolled and unplanned, chaotic building sprawl, the historic towns and villages have lost many of their buildings and much of their fabric.
Nazmi Al-Ju’beh is the co-Director of Riwaq – Centre for Architectural Conservation