World heritage, Israeli style

Since Palestine joined UNESCO as a member in 2011, it has had three sites approved: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Battir and Hebron’s Old Town.

Detail from a catacomb wall and a menorah, at Beit She’arim. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Detail from a catacomb wall and a menorah, at Beit She’arim.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
It is hard to imagine how humans lived in caves for millions of years. Caves are dark, dank and dirty, full of bat excrement and seem hardly habitable.
At the Nahal Me’arot Nature Reserve south of Haifa, the long arc of human history that dwarfs our own modern era of iPhones and planes is laid out in a series of prehistoric caves. Overlooking the lush flat plain that stretches out to the coast near Atlit, the large caves were home to humans for 500,000 years and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. They are one of nine officially inscribed sites in Israel, among a total of some 16 recognized places throughout the country.
“We are in the first league of the world in terms of World Heritage [Sites],” says Tsvika Tsuk, chief archeologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. “There are 1,000 sites and we are an important list and should appreciate it and people should come to visit the sites.”
However, Israel suspended cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in October 2016 after it passed a resolution condemning Israel’s actions in Jerusalem as an “occupying power” and appeared to downplay connections between the Jewish people and Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed UNESCO as a “theater of the absurd,” while Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the UN was “breaking its own record of ignorance and antisemitism.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who presides over Israel’s National Commission for UNESCO, said the decision was “a denial of history and gives a boost to terrorism.”
In July 2017, UNESCO recognized Hebron as a World Heritage Site proposed by the Palestinian Authority, again angering Jerusalem because the recognition also downplayed Jewish connections to the site. Netanyahu cut $1 million in fees Israel pays to UNESCO in response. The political relationship may be at a nadir, but Israelis who have been working for decades to promote UNESCO sites in Israel and get them recognized want to remind people that regardless of what happens in Hebron or Jerusalem, Israel’s sites are blooming.
UNESCO was founded in 1945 and is based in Paris. Its initial work was dedicated to education and scientific cooperation. In 1960 it began a program to protect the Great Temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt from being flooded by the Aswan High Dam. This paved the way for guidelines written for a World Heritage Committee to protect sites that “can be considered of outstanding universal values for the peoples of the world.” The next year, 12 sites were named on the first list, including the Island of Goree in Senegal and the Galapagos Islands. The number of countries that have signed on to the convention with the World Heritage Committee has grown from 40 to 193 today. Israel signed an agreement in 1999.
Guy Kav-Venaki, an expert in urban planning who worked in Jerusalem District planning, has served as the chair of Israel’s World Heritage Committee for a year and a half. As a volunteer he worked for many years monitoring recognized sites in Israel and also as a liaison with UNESCO.
“Our work has several parts. The first is the nomination process, the second is the monitoring process. Before you nominate a site, you need to put it on a tentative list.” Israel’s tentative list today includes such sites as early synagogues in the Galilee, the Arbel cliff, Deganya (the first kibbutz), the White Mosque in Ramle and sites related to the life of Jesus.
Kav-Venaki says Israel is a small and densely populated country and it is important to safeguard the values for which sites were inscribed.
“There are development pressures all over the country, so we have to deal with these pressures.”
Choosing which sites to preserve and how to value them is a local process.
“It isn’t like there is something called UNESCO and they would tell us what to do; that’s not the way I see it. We as a society make a decision through local authorities and stakeholders such as the National Parks Authority and through the world heritage committee.”
He also says it’s important to recognize this social agreement and how it relates to sustainable conservation. Towards that end, the committee works on what it calls the “five Cs: conservation, credibility, capacity building, communication and communities.” The last two are society-focused, he says.
Masada and the Old City of Acre were Israel’s first sites, inscribed in 2001. In 2003 came the White City of Tel Aviv and in 2005 the Desert Cities in the Negev and the Biblical Tels (Megiddo, Hazor, Beersheba). Then the Baha’i holy places in 2008, the sites of human evolution at Nahal Me’arot in 2012 and the Caves of Maresha and Beit Guvrin in 2014. The last site recognized was in 2015 at Beit She’arim. Although there are nine sites, Tsuk points out that actually the number of places recognized is around 16. The INPA is responsible for all the sites except the Baha’i areas, Acre and Tel Aviv.
Anyone who has traveled to the Dead Sea can testify to the majesty of Masada. The cliffs of the escarpment rising above the Dead Sea are a natural fortress. A cable car takes visitors who don’t want to take the rigorous, sweaty walk to the top. The UNESCO inscription notes that Masada is a “dramatically located site of great natural beauty overlooking the Dead Sea… after Judea became a province of the Roman Empire, it was the ref-uge of the last survivors of the Jewish revolt… as such it has an emblematic value for the Jewish people.”
Masada meets several criteria, including being a symbol of the Jewish Kingdom of Israel, including Herod’s Palace, which is an example of an early Roman Empire villa. The inscription discusses the site’s “integrity” and “authenticity” as being untouched for 13 centuries. It also details how it is managed and protected by Israel’s Antiquities Law and has facilities that can accommodate 1.25 million annual visitors. Inscribed in 2001, it was one of Israel’s first sites, and Tsuk knows how difficult it is to get these sites inscribed. As a geographer and tour guide, Tsuk has been the chief archeologist of the INPA for 20 years.
“We worked hard to try to arrange the dossier for UNESCO for each of these six sites.” Creating the dossier for UNESCO is “like doing a PhD,” he says.
Tsuk describes the complex layers that make up Israel’s relations with UNESCO. The Education Ministry is responsible for the connection to UNESCO, while the Foreign Affairs Ministry maintains an embassy to UNESCO, currently headed by Carmel Shama-Hacohen. When new sites are proposed, it can take a year before a judgment is made at the annual World Heritage Committee meetings held in July. Tsuk recalls the last few in Krakow, Istanbul, Bonn and Doha. Prior to being recognized, a report on the site is made by the International Council on Monuments and Sites or, if it is a natural site, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Tsuk says politics come into play regardless of whether the professional report recommends the site.
“If it is a popular country, there is no doubt they will follow [the report], but if it is Israel, there will be a big discussion.”
Sites can be approved or meet with varying levels of disapproval – being referred for a year for further study, deferred or turned down completely. For instance, before the Incense Route and Desert Castles in the Negev were inscribed in 2005, there was haggling at the 2004 meeting in Suzhou, China. Although it was recommended by ICOMOS, “state parties, some of them Arab countries like Lebanon and Egypt, succeeded to decrease the level from ‘recommend’ to ‘referral,’ but the next year we succeeded in giving them the information they sought.”
This process is profoundly unscientific. It means sites of universal value might not be recognized and that sites of less value are recognized based on lobbying by countries. He says that in 2006 Israel’s desire to have the Hula Valley recognized – in part due to the unique role it plays in bird migration – did not succeed.
Although UNESCO sites are often seen as a kind of “bucket list” of places to see, many sites consist of what is called “serial nomination” or several sites meeting the same criteria. For instance in France there are 23 belfries of churches that were inscribed in 1999 alongside 32 Belgian belfries. Tsuk jokes, “I visited one and said I went to the whole site.”
Driving down to southern Israel to see the sites of the incense route, I did the same thing Tsuk joked about, visiting two of the sites of the incense route. Inscribed in 2005, the sites are part of a trade route of spices that flourished in the second and third centuries under the Nabateans. They include four towns at Halutza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, as well as smaller forts or travelers’ caravanserai at Nekarot, Makhmal, Grafon, Moa and Saharonim. Avdat, Mamshit and Shivta all charge an admission fee.
Mamshit, not far from Dimona, is located in the scorched hot desert near a dry stream. The restored ruins include a market, a baptismal chamber and Roman- era gate. An explanatory panel notes that “economic difficulties and attacks by Arab tribes led to the destruction of the city in the sixth century.”
A map at the entrance to Avdat, an hour drive from Mamshit, gives some idea of how the Israeli sites are just the tip of a much larger route that connected majestic Petra in Jordan with Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia and Marib in Yemen. Although Avdat is beautiful, it pales in comparison to these other sites. Perched on top of a tall hill, like Masada, it was a natural fortress. Originally a small Nabatean village, it grew into a large site under the Byzantines, with storage for wines, churches and a walled citadel.
An hour from Avdat, southwest of Beersheba, is Halutza, or al-Khalasa, the third of Israel’s UNESCO Desert Cities.
“It was the biggest city in the Negev [in its time], an area of almost 100 hectares,” says Tsuk. Much of the site was destroyed over the years and some of the stone was carried off to build Beersheba after it was re-founded by the Ottomans in 1900. What remains was backfilled by archeologists, covered up for a later date when millions of shekels become available to make it a park.
Several hours north of Halutza, near Kiryat Tivon in the Galilee, is Beit She’arim. A location of great Torah study and the burial site of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, chief redactor and editor of the Mishna, the site is closely connected to the era when the Mishna was compiled.
“The Beit She’arim cemetery is considered one of the most fascinating finds in the archeology of the Land of Israel,” states the pamphlet for the site. There are more than 300 inscriptions in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Palmyrene, a script associated with the ancient Syrian city. Like the incense route, it reminds us of how this land is connected culturally and historically to neighboring states.
Revital Weiss, director of Beit She’arim national park, says she pushed for the site to be inscribed at UNESCO after realizing it was on Israel’s tentative list. “I said, ‘It’s on the list, so why not now,’” she recalls.
After the caves at Nahal Me’arot were inscribed, she sought to get her site on the list.
“I told myself, ‘It will help market the site. If this is declared, then you have done something for the next generation and you can use the declaration to try to invite more people to come next year.’ Since Israel’s relations with UNESCO have suffered so much, it might be the last site to be recognized in the foreseeable future.
Weiss says that the recognition means the government will help support the site more if there are threats to it. She references a flood that damaged Masada in the winter of 2003-4 as an example of how the government has stepped up efforts to protect sites from damage.
Weiss, who has been at Beit She’arim for two decades, says that the number of visitors doubled to 70,000 a year. Access to the rich history of the site is also increasing.
“I hope that soon we are going to open one of the catacombs that will tell the story of the menorah of the Jewish people – the whole story from the destruction of the Temple to the declaration of the State of Israel when they made the menorah the symbol of the Knesset.”
Visitors to Beit She’arim, which is divided into two parts, can see two dozen burial caves and hundreds of burial places. The caves have stately entrances carved in stone and heavy immobile doors to seal them up. In the catacombs of one, the carving of a menorah on a wall can be seen.
From Beit She’arim, driving via the site of Nahal Me’arot to the White City of Tel Aviv provides an opportunity to contemplate the arc of human history that these sites bear testimony to.
Formed in an ancient fossilized reef, the caves of Nahal Me’arot are 100 million years old. They were first excavated by a British expedition headed by Dorothy Garrod in the 1920s. The people who lived in the caves hunted and gathered in the area below. Around 250,000 years ago, a Mousterian culture that dominated the area used stone tools. Their population was small; only 25 to 50 people lived in the caves according to the brochure. There were Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens skeletons found in the caves, which means the two groups lived side by side.
In Tel Aviv, another set of competing interests must also exist side by side.
“There is a major difference between archeological and natural sites and urban sites. It is a generalization, but you can say that development pressures are much higher in urban areas and you have many more stakeholders,” says Kav-Venaki. Managing change in a city that is also a heritage site is complex. For instance, National Outline Plan 38, abbreviated as ‘Tama 38’ encourages buildings to be upgraded against earthquake and security threats.
“To protect against missiles and earthquakes is a legitimate social goal. It’s important, so what we try to do is ‘intelligent evolution.’” After roundtable discussions, the city sought to keep and protect the values of the “White City” with the flexibility of updating buildings along Tama 38 guidelines.
Tel Aviv’s unique UNESCO aspect is provided by the Geddes Plan of 1925, which sought to organize the city along contemporary planning guidelines combining modern European concepts and the local landscape. Kav-Venaki says this layout is evident in certain areas of the city, along with the International Style and Modern Movement of architecture. Walking the streets, one can see the 600 sq.m. plots and similar-sized houses.
“The buildings are like boxes, not baroque. They have the straight lines of a white box with balconies and windows, so these white boxes in similar plots are a major backbone [that] we said must be kept. You should not take three plots and build a 20-story building; you have to keep this fabric,” says Kav-Venaki. The front yard should be kept green with a low fence, but planners have decided adding a floor to the buildings would not violate the heritage of the buildings.
Like the development issues faced by Tel Aviv, both Acre and the Baha’i sites exist within an urban fabric.
Inscribed in 2001, Acre preserves the Ottoman-fortified town from the 19th century, as well as mosques, khans and ruins, both above and below today’s street level, dating back to the Crusader era. Today Acre attracts thousands of visitors who go there on weekends to eat fish by the water, enjoy hummus and see the sites. Signs with the UNESCO symbol guide visitors through some of the key points such as the “land gate” to enter the Old City.
“The wooden doors are coated with a layer of iron and the gate is built with a right-angle turn, which forces any attacker to slow before entry,” explains a sign next to the khaki-colored stone walls. Another wall recalls Haim Farhi, the Jewish adviser to the 18th-century Galilee warlord Jazzar Pasha, who helped build the aqueduct to the city. A map at UNESCO shows that the inscribed site includes the Old City and battlements and a small buffer zone around them; the rest of modern Acre is not included.
Unlike Acre, which has people living within the site and driving on it, the Baha’i UNESCO site consists mostly of gardens and historic properties. These include the Shrine of Baha’ullah in Acre and the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa. Although the gardens in Haifa are better known, the pretty and quiet contemplative site near Acre encompasses the same distinctive elements. Kav-Venaki says the Baha’i community is “very keen on safeguarding the sites. They participate in all our monitoring meetings and are very active members of our World Heritage Community.”
Unlike Tel Aviv, where issues may come up with individual homeowners over maintaining the values of the site, with the Baha’i sites the religious authorities have the authority and means to execute it, he says.
One of the issues that Israel faces in Jerusalem is that the historic Old City is a UNESCO site but is not seen as within the recognized boundaries of Israel. This is an oddity of history caused by the UN Partition Plan of 1947, which sought to create Jewish and Arab states next to each other with Jerusalem as an international city. The eastern part of the city was occupied by Jordan in 1948 and the city remained divided until Israel expelled Jordan from it in 1967.
In 1980 Jordan approached UNESCO at the fourth session of the World Heritage Committee attended by Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, the US and other countries, to recognize the Old City and its walls as a site. The meeting’s protocol states:
“The committee was in full agreement in appreciating their unique importance in view of the universal values they represent and the religious, historical architectural and artistic points of view.” The 1981 inscription in mentions that the city is holy for “Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” including the “Wailing Wall” as part of 220 historic monuments.
Relations between UNESCO and Israel don’t seem poised to improve in coming years. Since Palestine joined UNESCO as a member in 2011, it has had three sites approved: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Battir and Hebron’s Old Town. Its tentative list includes sites such as Jericho and Sebastia, but also sites such as Qumran and the Baptism site on the Jordan that are run by Israel, the former of which is the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In response to UNESCO’s recognition of Palestinian sites, Israel has reduced its connection to the organization, which means its ability to get new sites recognized is reduced.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon wrote, “We deplore the abuse of UNESCO by some of its members who promote a blatantly anti-Israel agenda and distort history and reality.”
Distorting history and reality would have been familiar to those who inhabited most of the UNESCO sites in Israel. At Masada, the synagogue, the Byzantine Church, Herod’s palace and the Roman ramp are all remnants of eras come and gone with people who often despised what came before and after. The caves overlooking the coast are a reminder this back-and-forth has gone on for thousands of years.