|Entrance of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Photo by Alessio Romenzi/CCHP 2010.|
|Photo from Palestine Image Bank.|
|Mar Saba convent. Photo courtesy of The Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage archive.|
World Heritage in Palestine: From Inventory to Nomination
By Dr. Hamdan Taha
The submission of a Nomination File for Bethlehem to the World Heritage Centre in Paris on 26 January was an important event in a long journey that started with the World Heritage Committee declaration in 2002 in Budapest. It was a faithful interpretation of the intention of the World Heritage Committee, which provided technical and financial support to the Palestinian team through UNESCO. The submission of the Nomination File followed the signature of the accession request by the Palestinian president to the 1972 convention concerning the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage. But the real story of the world heritage project in Palestine began ten years ago.
Following the events of April 2002 in Palestine, especially the prolonged siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the destruction of significant historical buildings in the old core of the city of Nablus during the Israeli incursions, the World Heritage Committee, at its 26th session in Budapest (June 2002), expressed its concern over possible further destruction and damage to Palestinian heritage. On that occasion, the committee emphasised the exceptional universal value of Palestinian heritage, encouraged the relevant authorities to take appropriate measures for its protection, and decided to provide financial support for the implementation of this task. Three key actions have been identified as a priority:
a. Establishing an inventory of the cultural and natural heritage
b. Evaluating the state of conservation and ensuring protection measures
c. Building capacity within the responsible Palestinian institutions in view of the future implementation of the World Heritage Convention
In October 2002 a UNESCO mission, composed of Mr. Francesco Bandarin, Director of the World Heritage Centre (WHC), and Mr. Giovanni Boccardi, Chief of the Arab States Unit at WHC, visited Palestine to evaluate the general status of cultural heritage. The mission met with officials from the Palestinian Authority and various stakeholders from local institutions, and also visited some of the most significant heritage sites. Subsequently, a work plan was discussed, delineating possible modalities for the implementation of the World Heritage Committee’s decision in Palestine, with specific focus on the preparation of the inventory of the cultural and natural heritage sites, the assessment of the state of conservation of some selected sites, and training activities to introduce Palestinian experts to the objectives and procedures of the World Heritage Convention. The whole work plan focused on familiarisation with the mechanism of the World Heritage Convention as contained in its Operational Guidelines. Since the approval of the work plan a number of activities have been implemented.
A training workshop on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention was organised at ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) in Rome in September 2003 for sixteen Palestinian experts in cultural and natural heritage. The foremost aim of the workshop was to familiarise the participants with the terminologies and procedures of the World Heritage Convention, including the preparation of Tentative Lists and Nomination Files. Afterwards, most of the trainees were involved in the preparation of the Palestinian inventory of cultural and natural heritage of potential outstanding universal value and related activities. Abundant support and consultation have been offered to the trained experts by the coordinators, namely the director-general of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage and the UNESCO Programme Specialist for Culture at the Ramallah Office, who ensured a close coordination with the Arab States Unit at the World Heritage Centre and the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to UNESCO. A second workshop, attended by the same specialists, focusing on the preparation of nomination dossiers and site management, was organised jointly by ICCROM and UNESCO, in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, in Bethlehem in July 2004.
Inventory of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of Potential Outstanding Universal Value in Palestine
In order to establish this first inventory a series of consultative meetings took place at the national level with experts and coordinators in order to identify the short list of proposed sites. Twenty sites were chosen out of more than sixty proposed ones. The inventory identifies cultural and natural sites that meet the criteria and requirements for inscription on the World Heritage List set by the Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. It also reflects the priorities outlined in 1994 by the Global Strategy for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
Five missions of international consultants have been organised with the purpose of examining the state of conservation of sites included in the inventory - including Bethlehem, Hebron, and Nablus - reviewing the final draft of the inventory, and providing advice on management.
To promote the importance of Palestinian heritage, the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage organised seven one-day consultative workshops for awareness-raising in various Palestinian localities, mainly targeting representatives of the local governments and other relevant decision makers. The overarching aim of these workshops was to raise public awareness of the World Heritage Convention and to engage the local communities in the debate, drawing their attention to planning and protection measures required to safeguard the outstanding universal value of the selected sites.
The inventory consists of twenty sites, including seventeen cultural and three natural heritage sites, which reflect the cultural and natural diversity of Palestine. The list includes the historical cities (Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus), major archaeological sites (Tell es-Sultan, Qumran, Sebastia, Mount Gerzim, Anthedon, and Tell Um Amer), cultural and religious routes, natural (Wadi Gaza, Umm er-Rihan) and cultural landscape sites (Palestine, Land of Olives, El-Bariyah), as well as potential trans-boundary sites (Dead Sea).
It is important to mention that “The Old City of Jerusalem and Its Walls” was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981.
The wealth of these exceptional archaeological, historical, and spiritual values places Palestinian culture within the core of human history.
In the framework of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s contribution for the protection of Palestinian heritage, an international workshop was held in Jericho in February 2005, which aimed to discuss strategies to preserve the outstanding universal value of Tell es-Sultan (Ancient Jericho), the oldest known city in the world. The key recommendation of the workshop was to prepare an integrated management plan enabling Tell es-Sultan to meet the requirements for future nomination to the World Heritage List. The Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage is currently preparing nomination files for some of the sites included in this list.
The first English edition was published in 2005 and submitted to the World Heritage Committee in its 29th session in Durban, South Africa, for official endorsement. In 2006, the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) published the first Arabic edition of the inventory. In 2009 a second edition of the inventory was published in Arabic and English, supported by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
In January 2011, the Palestinian government submitted its formal request for membership in UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.
Bethlehem Nomination File: Bethlehem - the Birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Nativity, and the Pilgrimage Route
In early 2010 work began on the preparation of the Nomination File for Bethlehem. It was prepared by a team of Palestinian experts from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, CCHP, UNESCO office in Ramallah, and other individual experts, in cooperation with Prof. Peter Fowler, a world heritage consultant. The preparation of the file was carried out in full coordination with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church through the custody of the Holy Land, the Armenian Church, and the Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of Bethlehem. Another Nomination File for Hebron was prepared and will be submitted next year.
The outstanding universal value of Bethlehem is unquestionable. It bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition centred on the story of the birth of Jesus. The Church of the Nativity represents an outstanding example of a monument that illustrates a significant stage in human history. The place is directly associated with the birth of Jesus and its many related traditions over two millennia.
The city of Bethlehem is acknowledged worldwide as the birthplace of Jesus Christ and is holy to Christians and Muslims. The Church of the Nativity was built by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, to commemorate the event. The church, first dedicated in 339 AD, was built on top of the cave where Jesus was born.
The Church of the Nativity is currently an endangered site and needs immediate intervention. Today, Bethlehem and many of Palestine’s cultural heritage sites are under threat from the destructive effects of a prolonged military occupation. A special committee was established by the president of Palestine for the restoration of the roof of the church as a first step toward a comprehensive restoration of the church. The main objective of the committee is to preserve the human values of the sites.
The Nomination File for Bethlehem was submitted to the World Heritage Centre on 26 January. The submission of the file was announced to the public in a press conference organised at the Peace Centre in Bethlehem on 7 February. The submission of the file represents a major step toward the recognition of the outstanding universal value of the site and the recognition of the cultural rights of the Palestinian people.
Dr. Hamdan Taha is Director-General of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage and Programme Coordinator of the World Heritage Project in Palestine.