No stone left unturned

Can efforts by international conservation experts raise public awareness of the importance of historical sites for the next generation?

group at petra_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
group at petra_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PETRA/AMMAN – It’s a typical baking-hot day at the famous historical site of Petra, the 2,000-year-old capital of Nabatean civilization built at a crucial spot along its spice trading route. While most of the visiting tourists are milling about, enjoying the breathtaking archeological ruins, expressing awe at the incredible hand-sculpted architecture or riding resident camels or horses, a group of Maltese high school students is hard at work trying to grasp the meaning and value of this slice of ancient world history.
Alongside their photographs of the standard red rock scenery, the youngsters are also busy snapping close-ups of antique stones eroded by a mix of ecological elements, plant growth, air pollution, human hands and numerous other factors over thousands of years.
“It’s important that we see these places with our own eyes and take photos before it’s too late,” comments 17- year-old Lorna Cassar, who says she is most impressed with the intricate hand carvings on the outside of the instantly recognizable Petra treasury. “All these sites will eventually vanish because they are all under threat either from humans or biological factors; we must do our best to preserve them.”
While Cassar and the other nine Maltese students are only at the start of their journey to understanding how to preserve, conserve and protect such sites for future generations to enjoy, this growing appreciation for cultural heritage is exactly the premise of ELAICH (Educational Linkage Approach in Cultural Heritage), a regional project focused on the Mediterranean basin and funded primarily by the European Union’s Euromed Heritage 4 Program. The project’s central goal is to instill in young people an awareness of the importance of cultural heritage preservation.
“We do not expect them to become professionals in the fields of preservation, conservation, archeology or architecture, but we hope this course will give them basic theoretical knowledge so they can understand and appreciate what exactly cultural heritage is,” explains Dr. Anna Lobovikov-Katz, a senior lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and the brain behind ELAICH.
Lobovikov-Katz, who now coordinates the far-reaching, multifaceted project, has pulled together some of the region’s most renowned conservationists, archeologists, historical architects and other experts to share their detailed knowledge with young people from Israel, Turkey and Greece, as well as Malta and Jordan.
She notes that while the knowledge and tools used to preserve cultural heritage have greatly improved in recent years, public awareness of the importance of historical sites is still very low.
In a region rich with historic monuments that shed light on the secrets of past civilizations, failure to address this ignorance, especially in the next generation, could lead to cultural heritage sites disappearing along with the communities that originally built them.
“History is very fragile,” observes Roberta De Angelis, a trained conservationist based at the University of Malta, who worked with the Maltese students earlier this year to study a local parish church in Valletta as part of the ELAICH course there.
“As conservationists, we are very frustrated,” she says, as we make our way through the shaded gorge that leads visitors to and from Petra’s ruins. “People do not understand that we need to preserve these sites for future generations, and they think that because they cannot always see the erosion, there is nothing to worry about.”
Preserving cultural heritage sites is a delicate balance, continues De Angelis, who is originally from Italy. “We would prefer that people do nothing to these historic sites, but then no one would visit, and then there would be even less public awareness.”
RAISING PUBLIC awareness to cultural heritage sites and helping people to understand their value was exactly Lobovikov-Katz’s goal when she laid out the foundations of ELAICH two years ago.
Together with partners Prof. Antonia Moropoulou, vice rector at the National Technical University of Athens; Prof. Rene Van Grieken at the University of Antwerp; Prof. Guido Biscontin at Ca’foscari University of Venice; and Prof. JoAnn Cassar at the University of Malta, Lobovikov-Katz has designed a full-fledged, high-school-friendly educational package that has been used with slight variation in Turkey, Greece, Malta and, more recently, Jordan.
The course piloted late last year in Israel, introducing ninth-graders from the Reali High School in Haifa to concepts such as understanding the deterioration process, working with conservation materials and recognizing practical techniques for preservation.
The group was also taken on in-situ field visits to historic sites in the North, including the ancient synagogue in Tiberias and the natural springs in Hamat Gadera on the Golan Heights.
“At the end of the course, one of the students told me that even though she had been to Tiberias many times, she did not really pay much attention to the small building at the end of the promenade, but afterward, she told me, ‘I now realize how important it is,’” recalls Lobovikov-Katz of the course, which ended in January of this year.
“This is an interdisciplinary program, and it teaches students to realize how everything works together in conservation of cultural heritage,” she adds, explaining that “there is no chemistry without archeology, and no history without biology; conservation pulls all these elements together.”
With similar courses now complete in participating countries, Lobovikov- Katz and the program’s other partners are busy trying to tighten the package and prepare a module that they hope will be adopted as part of the high school curriculum in each country, allowing all pupils to be exposed to their cultural heritage and gain a basic understanding of historic conservation.
In Israel, Lobovikov-Katz has seen some success in this, with Dr. Michael Grunzveig, the Education Ministry’s inspector of the study of Israel and archeology, already exploring the opportunity to make conservation and renovation of heritage sites part of the national curriculum.
“We already had one meeting with educators about this idea,” Grunzveig told The Jerusalem Post. “We are planning to promote this option and integrate it in the learning program over the next few years. Hopefully it will eventually become a separate unit where students can create projects and assignments on the subject.”
BACK IN Jordan, as part of the course, the Maltese students are paired up with a group of Jordanians of a similar age. Together they are charged with examining and recording the conditions at Amman’s historical citadel site.
“Your goal is to piece together the history here. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and you are looking for clues of what is old and what is new,” JoAnn Cassar, head of the Department of the Built Heritage at the University of Malta, tells the students as they sketch, measure and examine the limestone bricks used to build the ancient Umayyad Palace.
“You have to be detectives in this,” she adds, encouraging them to think freely about what might have happened to the stones and how each generation changed or adapted them.
“This course is not just about presenting history to the students,” Cassar tells me as we sit on the entrance steps to the palace, originally built as a church for a long-extinct community.
“I’m teaching them how to think and how to ask questions about their past. One of my students told me that if he does not know his past, then how is he supposed to understand his future?” Cassar says this is the first time she has worked with high school-age students, but freely admits that she has been impressed with their maturity and genuine approach to such a complex subject.
“In many ways, they are more interested and enthusiastic than older students, and I have been impressed at their dedication,” she says.
Indeed, as the students work together in small groups, their dedication to the tasks at hand is immediately evident.
“People always say that teenagers aren’t interested in cultural heritage, but I don’t understand why a young person would not be interested in his or her heritage,” observes Alexandra Camilleri, a 17-year-old member of the Maltese group.
She says that opting to spend a week of her precious summer vacation in Jordan examining historical ruins was an easy decision and that she plans to continue studying this topic next year.
“Learning about history is much more important than having fun,” concurs Jordanian student Yara Hamarney, 16. “It is important for us to think about what has happened before, because then we might be able to know what will happen in the future.”
Later in the evening, Lobovikov- Katz’s assistant, master’s student Asya Natapov, encourages the groups to present their findings. The idea behind this joint meeting is to promote international intercultural dialogue among course participants, and in particular, to find common ground.
One of the Maltese students, Martina Bugelli, sums it up succinctly when she makes her presentation about the assignment one day earlier in Petra: “It is a unique and irreplaceable landmark that belongs to all of us, to all humanity, and we must try to preserve and protect it for as long as we can.”