Global village

A committee is working to protect Ein Kerem’s historic buildings and natural beauty by having the neighborhood acknowledged as a UNESCO heritage site.

Churches and monasteries at Ein Kerem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Churches and monasteries at Ein Kerem
In the picturesque and charming landscape of Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, almond trees are in full bloom this time of year, and the sounds of choirs echo across the village, attracting hundreds of tourists from Israel and abroad.
But the tour buses transporting these visitors into the neighborhood’s small alleyways are at once a blessing and a headache for the residents of Ein Kerem, who are torn between the desire to stand among some of the world’s most valued tourist sites, and the fear of having their quiet lives disturbed by that same tourism.
“It is a real dilemma,” says Pnina Ein-Mor, a resident of the neighborhood. A tour guide herself, she has been active for the past several years in trying to get the neighborhood onto the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List – a process that is now reaching its final stages.
Ein-Mor recalls that she started to push for UNESCO recognition of the neighborhood back in 2007, but when she moved on to other tasks dealing with the area’s cultural development, other parties took over the project.
While a UNESCO listing provides most locations with a significant financial advantage, she says, the most important advantage for Ein Kerem would be the enforcement of strict regulations for new construction – a move that would aid environmental and cultural preservation supporters against real-estate developers.
Ein Kerem – which means “spring of the vineyard” – is best known as the birthplace of St. John the Baptist, and it has both Jewish and Christian history.
In the biblical books of Jeremiah and Nehemiah, it is mentioned as “Beit Hakerem,” located in the tribe of Judah. For Christian visitors and pilgrims, it is also the home of five churches and monasteries: the Church of St. John the Baptist, the Visitation Church, the Notre Dame de Sion convent, the Greek Orthodox St. John convent, and Russian monastery Al Moskovia (originally called the Gorny Monastery).
And of course, it contains Mary’s Well, where many believe that Mary, miraculously pregnant with Jesus, drank the spring’s waters while sitting with Elizabeth, who was herself miraculously pregnant with John. According to Catholic tradition, it was where Mary expressed the words of the Magnificat, one of the pillars of the Catholic faith. Hence the area’s immense importance for Catholics worldwide.
Excavations in Ein Kerem have revealed, among other findings, a statue of Aphrodite from the Roman period, which is now on display at the Rockefeller Museum.
Mostly populated by Christian Arabs before 1948, Ein Kerem had, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 2,200 residents by the end of 2013.
However, it attracts about one million or more visitors a year, according to data from the Tourism Ministry. Tax registers from 1596 indicate 29 Muslim families in the village at the time, though only one Arab Christian family remains today in the whole neighborhood (not including the monks and nuns in the convents and monasteries).
During the War of Independence in 1948, the Arab residents of the village abandoned it after the massacre in the nearby village of Deir Yassin, and soon afterward, the neighborhood came under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem. The abandoned houses – which remained almost intact despite the ravages of war – went to the wave of new immigrants who arrived in the first years after the state’s establishment. Over the years, houses there were sold to artists.
Nevertheless, the village has managed to keep itself vibrant and develop organically, rather than becoming a “ghost neighborhood” reserved for artists, as Yemin Moshe has. According to Ein-Mor, that has enabled Ein Kerem to represent all sectors of society and is what makes the neighborhood such a vivid place.
THE UNESCO application procedure is not a simple one. For years, Israel was not even allowed to submit requests to the UN organization, mostly for fear of political complications. In fact, the Old City, which UNESCO has recognized as a World Heritage site, was submitted for the title by the Jordanians in the 1980s, well after the Six Day War, because Israel wanted to avoid the “hot potato” of Jerusalem’s status. Israel eventually signed the conventions for UNESCO membership in 1999, and has since been able to nominate sites via the local organization ICOMOS.
Tzippi Ron, a well-known supporter of environmental and preservation issues in Jerusalem, is the president of the ICOMOS cultural heritage committee. As such, she and several others active in those issues have run the committee’s work on the matter.
“We are all volunteers,” explains Ron. “We worked day and night on this project [of nominating Ein Kerem]. It is a very long and complicated procedure, but we did it with love and devotion to the cause.”
The committee included two sites in its ICOMOS recommendation – Ein Kerem and Lifta.
Ein Kerem has a notable advantage, as it has continually been a site of active life since the early times of the Bible. Unlike famous UNESCOrecognized sites like Pompeii (where life ceased entirely) or Machu Picchu, which had to be excavated, Ein Kerem is a place where life has not stopped in at least 3,000 years.
“But there is more,” adds Ron, citing preservationworthy cultural sites in the area such as “the terraces that [are used for] agriculture, [or] the houses built in the distinct style of [the neighborhood] that has been preserved throughout the centuries. In a way, Ein Kerem is a living museum; hence its great importance.”
The local committee is nearly ready to submit its recommendation of Ein Kerem (and Lifta) for the UNESCO list. Once sent, it should appear on the “Tentative Lists” section of the UNESCO website.
The international organization will then send experts to the area to do research and reach their own conclusions, a procedure that will take some time.
Of course, if the village is added to the UNESCO list, it won’t resolve the residents’ concerns about the influx of tourists and the attendant increase in traffic and pollution. In fact, it may well exacerbate them.
Still, says Ein-Mor, “for us, who care about the beauty of Ein Kerem and fear it might be lost to trends and construction, this is already one important step forward. It has given us a lot of strength, facing the authorities, facing those whose appetite to build [would] destroy the special character of the village....
[Taken with] the continual efforts to enhance [the area] with high-quality cultural events, it is important work [that is being] done here.”