"The problem is twofold: one of religion and one of culture. In some conflict
conditions a short-circuit occurs between the two and this creates cases like
that of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall. The dispute turns into a religious
allegation, and a heritage that in other circumstances would be divided becomes
used as justification for conflict”.
“It’s all above board”
. PeaceReporter was informed by Fabio Maniscalco, lecturer and protector of architectural
and cultural heritage and underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean, at the
Faculty of Arabic-Islamic and Mediterranean Studies at the Naples Eastern University.
“Think about what happened in Cyprus, or even in Kosovo”, explains the professor,
who is also Director of the Permanent Observatory for the Protection of Cultural
and Environmental Heritages in Areas of Crisis, “each party involved accuses the
other of destroying religious sites, and it’s difficult to get a complete idea
of the situation when cultural heritage ends up in a controversial dispute such
as this one”. In Jerusalem, the situation here is the same. On 6th February a
group of Israeli archaeologists began clearing the rubble that leads from the
Western Wall to the Mugrabi gate, which tourists use to enter the site that the
Western Wall and Temple Mount share. Here one can find the as-Aqsa Mosque, considered
the third holiest Islamic site after Mecca and Medina, and the plan is to build
a 200-metre long steel walkway on this site.
New Tensions at al-Aqsa.
“All worshippers must defend the Holy Sites! You must defend al-Aqsa”, cried
Sheik Taissir Tamimi from the screens of al-Jazeera, one of the main Palestinian
religious representatives. The Israeli Police has imposed strict security measures,
but so far nothing serious has occurred. “We don’t work in secret. Whoever wants
to can come and see us in person”, responded Gideon Avni, the Israeli archaeologist
who leads the team. But WAQF, the Arab administrative body that protects sacred
Muslim sites in Jerusalem, sustains that despite this, work could destabilise
the site. This is the same WAQF who, a while ago, was accused by the Israeli government
of carrying out clandestine work in Temple Mount, destroying Jewish finds. It’s
the same accusation that Palestinians instigate today, using this work as a pretext
to conducting new unplanned evacuations, as a provocation. “And this is precisely
the problem. This ill communication damages archaeological heritage”, says Maniscalco.
“Already in 2001 there were dangerous signs of deterioration at the site, with
a series of small landslides from Temple Mount that fell on the Western Wall.
Both accuse the other, losing sight of the main principle which would be to check
on the eventual necessity of intervention for stable reinforcement of the structure.
Yet another example in living memory would be that of the Tomb of Giuseppe, also
a holy site for Christians, which was burnt during the second Intifada. The problem
is that in the crossover between politics and religion, every find is a mini-conquest
to retain, a sort of proof of territory”.
Culture, the umpteenth victim of war.
The drama of war, with its mourning and desperation, therefore also deepens
the destruction of artistic and cultural patrimony in war zones. One could refer
to international protection, but if the international organisations are incapable
of saving lives, there’s no reason to expect a different outcome for monuments.
And an expert like Professor Maniscalco can confirm this, maintaining that “UNESCO
lies dormant, it doesn’t do anything to protect a heritage in a case like the
Israel-Palestine conflict. They prefer to invest enormous capital in works that
have no use, but which guarantee good media coverage. I don’t like to say it,
but think about the Bridge of Mostar, where billions have been invested to recreate
a lost heritage that will never be the same, when instead it could invest in the
protection and maintenance of what has still survived”. The picture that emerges
is bleak, and more cannot be expected from the current situation in Palestine.
“Look, I have always been convinced that in this conflict the control of territorial
resources is at stake,” concludes Maniscalco, “and artistic and cultural heritage
is too. Think about the wall that Israel is building: every time there is an archaeological
find, a team of experts arrive who are probably only interested in discovering
finds that could interest buyers, as happens everywhere. Here the area and any
archaeological site that comes with it is annexed – perhaps beyond the lines of
the predefined borders – and will perhaps one day find itself on the Israeli side
of the wall. Even tourism is a resource, and one only needs to think of the amount
of tourists that filled this area before the war to understand why Israel is annexing
this potential market too".