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132, April 2009 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Bethlehem A Potential World Heritage Site
By Nada Atrash
When I first started to work at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, I came across some breathtaking old photos of Bethlehem: a small town on a mountaintop surrounded by extraordinarily beautiful terraced landscape, filled with olive trees and vines, and vegetable gardens spread around the built-up area. I compared it with the scenery today: crowded buildings that crawl towards the little town that once stood proud on the top of the mountain. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, deserves our promise to conserve and protect its cultural heritage, recognise its uniqueness, and pursue the goal of inscribing it on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (WHL).

The road to include Bethlehem on the WHL is long and rough. It demands our belief in Bethlehem as a town with outstanding universal value that needs to be identified and recognised internationally; and more importantly, it demands our certainty that we have inherited a jewel that needs to be preserved and protected.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the main reasons preventing Palestine from being recognised as a state party of the World Heritage Convention,* which has been the major obstacle to inscribing Palestinian cultural and natural heritage sites on the WHL. In June 2002, having recognised the danger that threatens the unique cultural and natural heritage in Palestine, the World Heritage Committee adopted a resolution to support the protection of the exceptional universal value of Palestinian cultural and natural heritage. Since then, much effort has been expended in advocating for the inclusion of Palestinian sites, particularly Bethlehem, on the WHL. A tentative list of twenty cultural and natural heritage sites in Palestine has been prepared. An important step towards including Bethlehem on the WHL is the formulation of the Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan (BACMP) - for the historic towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour - which articulates the policies that aim to ensure the effective protection of the towns for present and future generations. Parallel activities to be carried out during the formulation of the Plan include a public awareness campaign that highlights the importance of protecting our heritage. Acceptance of the Plan by the municipalities, with the full support of the Palestinian National Authority, is an indication of their commitment to adopt protection measures that ensure the preservation and conservation of the three towns.

The rapid growth of the city, encroaching inwards towards the historic centre - mainly due to the Apartheid Wall and the lack of land - is a major threat that presents a real challenge to the inscription of Bethlehem on the WHL. A thorough analytical study is necessary in order to propose solutions to enhance the quality of the construction in the historic centre and its environs, guaranteeing a level of safeguarding that enhances the living standards, meets the needs of the residents, and helps maintain the characteristics of the historic town.

The rules and regulations applied to the construction works must be reviewed, taking into consideration the balance between the built-up areas and the spaces, and improving the architectural qualities of the proposed buildings. This will create a balance between the historic town and its surroundings, preserving the morphology of the terrain and creating a harmony between the historical and modern parts of the town. Rules and regulations should not only address the issues of building heights, setbacks, and allowed percentage of building but should also be detailed, addressing coherent issues related to the architectural features of the building, its façades, its use, and its compatibility with its surroundings and the urban fabric, focusing on common interest and the needs of the city rather than individual concerns.

After almost two years of working on the BACMP, I have come to believe that preserving our cultural heritage is our duty and our privilege. It can be achieved through improving the architectural qualities of our buildings and open spaces rather than increasing the quantity of the random construction around the city and ignoring the real needs of the city and its inhabitants. A proper conservation and management plan encourages both the inhabitants and the decision makers to take action in setting criteria that serve common interests and guarantee the safeguarding of our cultural inheritance, which identifies our town as a unique cultural heritage site on the map. It is our responsibility towards the Bethlehem area and future generations to contribute to protecting our cultural heritage and pinpointing a place for Palestinian sites on the World Heritage List.

*In 1981, Jerusalem was inscribed on the WHL. The proposal was made by Jordan for the value that Jerusalem represents for the three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan is a project funded by the Italian Government and implemented by UNESCO, in cooperation with the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, as the local implementing agency. The project is being implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Local Government, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, with the technical supervision of an international team of experts.

Nada Atrash is an architect currently working on the Bethlehem Area Conservation and Management Plan at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation - Bethlehem. For more information, write to bacmp@bethlehem2000.org.
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