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Putting Israel’s historic sites on the map – and on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Posted By Allison Kaplan Sommer On September 18, 2005 @ 8:00 pm In | No Comments

Tel Megiddo, one of the many Israeli historical sites which have been recognized this year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Anyone who has enjoyed a full-scale tour of Israel’s vast array of ancient and modern historic sites knows that the country contains many places that are important and central to the heritage of mankind.

In recent years, the value of these sites has been recognized officially by the international community through UNESCO – the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations.

This summer, the number of sites in Israel recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage sites grew considerably. At the 29th UNESCO World Heritage Conference, several new archaeological destinations made it onto the list, which includes 812 world heritage sites in total.

The new 2005 additions include the biblical archaeological sites of Tel Megiddo, Hazor, Beer Sheva, and the desert cities of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, which are part of the ancient Incense and Spice route.

They join the other three Israeli world heritage sites of Masada and the Old City of Acre, which were chosen in 2001 and the ‘White City – Bauhaus and modern movement of Tel Aviv – which made it onto the list in 2003.

Prof. Michael Turner, and dedicated volunteers like him who are committed to preserving the country’s heritage and having it recognized internationally, have been the driving force behind the achievement of getting these sites on the list.

Turner, a professor of architecture at Bezalel Academy, has been active in the conservation and preservation movement in Israel for many years. A veteran immigrant to Israel from Great Britain, he serves as the chairman of the Israel World Heritage Committee, which decides each year which sites will be submitted to UNESCO for consideration.

The World Heritage Convention has existed since 1972, but for more than two decades, Israel was not a member. Turner explained to ISRAEL21c that the effort to bring Israel into the convention began in the mid-1980s, when he and other architects and archaeologists active in an organization called Icamos -the International Council for Monuments and Sites – began to work towards that goal.

Finally, in 1999, Turner and his colleagues were successful, and Israel became a member. Israel’s late appearance, he explained, was the result both of hostility within the UN organization to Israel and lack of interest by the Israeli government in pushing for membership.

Turner said he was extremely pleased by how far Israel has come in such a short amount of time.

“Israel is so well-positioned at this point that we’ve put ourselves up for nomination for the international World Heritage Committee. There are 21 countries on the committee which has a rotating membership, and the elections will be held next month,” he said.

Getting a site on the UNESCO list is not a simple matter – it literally takes years of effort.

Turner said that in order to sign onto the convention in 1999, the country was required to prepare a list of 25 sites with ‘outstanding universal value.’ For that purpose, the Israeli World Heritage Committee he chairs was formed, which includes representatives of the Education, Foreign and Tourism Ministries; the Antiquities Authority, Nature Reserve and Parks Authority, and Government Tourism Office.

Once Israel was accepted to the convention, it became the committee’s job to choose each year which sites to submit for inclusion. In order to do so, they need the cooperation, dedication and enthusiasm of local and national officials who oversee the care of the site, since becoming a member of the list involves making a commitment to its preservation and safeguarding for future generations to come, and investing a great deal of effort in the nominative process.

“Getting the material ready they prepare the material, can take two to three years of preparation. UNESCO requires an enormous among of documentation, a description of the site’s meaning, a world comparison of similar site, sites, and a detailed management plan – doing this is a real commitment to the future,” Turner explained.

Once the submission is made, it is distributed to expert reviewers who study the material, look at the site and its management, and creates recommendations that are passed on to the UNESCO committee, which decides on a consensus basis.

The fact that Israel has gotten so many sites on the list in a relatively short time, he said, “is a testament to the fact that we are highly professional. Because we are often viewed with hesitation and suspicion, and have to deal with comments from the Arab group, we know that we can’t cut corners and have to be even more prepared and professional than any other country. And as a result, we are doing very well – frankly, people are amazed.”

With no irony in his voice, he said that getting on the list was paramount to “sainthood” as far as recognition of a country’s cultural value was concerned. On a more practical level, he added, there can be real benefits to countries who have many sites on the list and use it to their full advantage.

“UNESCO has worked to evaluate its effects on tourism,” said Turner. “Countries that really take advantage of the opportunity to market and package themselves correctly can double their number of tourists. But just getting on the list doesn’t do that – the country has to capitalize on it themselves.”

Turner said that the next three Israeli sites that will enter the process of applying for inclusion on the list are the migratory bird flyways crossing Israel, the triple arch at Tel Dan which is the first known use of an arch in the world, and the Baha’i holy places in Haifa.

The sites chosen this year were selected for the information and insight they provide the world on its early civilizations. The tels are pre-historic settlement mounds, and more than 200 exist in Israel. The three that were chosen by UNESCO – Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba contain substantial remains of cities with biblical connections. The Megiddo site was excavated by Tel Aviv University Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Prof. David Ussishkin of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archeaology.

The three tels also present some of the best examples of life in the Iron Age, underground water collecting systems, created to serve dense urban communities. Their traces of construction over the millennia reflect the existence of centralized authority, prosperous agricultural activity and the control of important trade routes.

They “represent an interchange of human values throughout the ancient near-east, forged through extensive trade routes and alliances with other states and manifest in building styles which merged Egyptian, Syrian and Aegean influences to create a distinctive local style,” according to UNESCO. Because they were mentioned in the Bible, they also “constitute a religious and spiritual testimony of outstanding universal value.”

Carefully excavated and tended by the Israeli government, the three tels have yielded many treasures that shed light on the history of the different nations that inhabited the area at various times.

The other group of sites which was selected – the four Nabatean cities of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, along with associated fortresses and agricultural landscapes in the Negev Desert – are spread along routes linking them to the Mediterranean end of the Incense and Spice route. The full route stretched from Yemen via Saudi Arabia and Jordan through the Negev to the Mediterranean Sea and on to Europe, was used for transporting and trading spices, jewelry, gold, silver and expensive fabrics.

The hugely profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh from south Arabia to the Mediterranean, flourished from the 3rd century B.C. until to 2nd century A.D.

The Israeli cities include remains of sophisticated irrigation systems, urban constructions, forts, and they bear witness to the way in which the harsh desert was settled for trade and agriculture.

They won inclusion, according to UNESCO for their “eloquent testimony to the economic, social and cultural importance of frankincense to the Hellenistic-Roman world. The routes also provided a means of passage not only for frankincense and other trade goods but also for people and ideas.”

In addition, the “remains of towns, forts, caravans and sophisticated agricultural systems strung out along the Incense route in the Negev desert, display an outstanding response to a hostile desert environment and one that flourished for five centuries.”

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