Conserving a living laboratory

The Città di Roma center is hosting 6 internationals and 3 Israelis who are learning how better to conserve the city’s physical history. Among them is Muhammad, an Israeli Arab stonecutter from Acre.

acre ramparts 311 (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
acre ramparts 311
(photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
A living conservation laboratory: a new partnership with the City of Rome will boost Acre’s efforts to protect its ancient history. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, for more than 20 years the Israeli city of Acre has been a living conservation laboratory. Its history is apparent in its citadels and fortresses, churches and mosques – all of which tell a story about the people who came, conquered, ruled and then glorified this Mediterranean port town, once considered the key to the Levant.
A new partnership with the City of Rome will give a boost to Acre’s efforts to protect its unique history. The May inauguration of the International Conservation Center ‘Città di Roma’ celebrated a generous donation to Acre from the Mayor of Rome, Mr. Giovanni Alemanno. After winning the annual million-dollar Dan David Prize, bestowed upon different people around the world by Israeli industrialist Dan David, Alemanno chose to funnel his prize back to Israel.
The donation is important because maintaining the living city of Acre along with its preserved heritage sites is a challenge. With a marginalized, low socio-economic population that lacks higher education living within its Old City walls, overseeing and conserving the local treasures is a complex project.
With centuries-old traditions dating back to biblical times, Acre is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the Holy Land, held dear by each of the monotheistic religions. Its territory has belonged to the Israelite tribe of Asher, the Greeks, the Crusaders and the Ottomans, and it is now home to an Israeli Arab population.
The city is a tourist attraction for contemporary reasons, too. Itboasts a colorful oriental market, ancient, water-worn city walls,several museums, beaches, a fisherman’s port, a marina, hotels andcolorful festivals, including a popular annual fringe theater festival.
“We are a stage, this Old City of Acre. An ancient city for Crusadersand the Ottomans, and in all this the people of today live. It’s anarcheological site, a historical city and a living city,” saysarcheologist Shelley Ann Peleg, director of the conservation center.
The conservation center was established four years ago in an Ottomanbuilding, in an effort to halt the current trend of deterioration anddestruction of local heritage sites. The building that houses thecenter has its own story to tell. Dating from the Ottoman period – andconstructed upon the foundations of other ancient structures – thecenter boasts a ceiling mural that’s due to be restored by futurestudents, as well as impressive ornamentation and windows.
The recent official ceremony and renaming celebrated some of theInternational Conservation Center Città di Roma’s current programs andaims.
“Preservation is a field that keeps things as they are and doesn’t doanything else,” says Peleg, while “conservation is about guarding andprotecting.”
She refers to Acre as a “living laboratory.”
Peleg relates that as part of a five-month program, the center ishosting six internationals and three Israelis who are learning betterpractices to conserve Acre’s physical history, particularly its stone.
Among the trainees is an Israeli-Arab stonecutter from Acre namedMuhammad. The rest of the team comprises academics from various fields.
“We’ve built a personal project according to field, interest, knowledgeand what they want to develop. Each has their own personal tract. Thistakes place every year, twice a year, and it’s the flagship program ofthe center,” she says.
The namesake of Rome’s Città di Roma is now the largest conservationlaboratory in Israel. It will be run in partnership with the IsraelAntiquities Authority, the Old Acre Development Company and the AcreMunicipality, with the cooperation and support of Italian institutionsand partners. Additional consultancy and professional training supportis also provided by the Embassy of Italy in Israel and the ItalianMinistry of Culture, which has been assisting the Israel AntiquitiesAuthority since 2005.
“It’s to strengthen the people who live here,” she explains.
“Conservation efforts are expensive, and we want to get the localpeople in Acre involved. Protected by Israel’s antiquities laws, it isagainst the law to destroy ruins.”
The locals are aware of the significance of their surroundings, Pelegexplains. In the case of vandalism, for instance, “instead of chargingthem, we work with them to teach them the importance of their city. Wemanage to give them a kind of understanding of what needs to be done.”
Seeking to attract a broad range of people from the public, academiaand also tourists, the center will offer professional academic coursesand create projects worthy of international cooperation, including asummer program for international students who can come to Acre“Italian-style” to work on preserving buildings as they learn moreabout the field of conservation.
Underlining the importance of the event to all, guests invited to theinauguration ceremony included the Italian ambassador to Israel, LuigiMattiolo, Prof. Umberto Broccoli, the superintendent of monuments andcultural properties of the City of Rome, and the director-general ofthe Israel Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman.