Preserving one's patrimony is a way of maintaining one's cultural heritage. For Palestinians, who have been occupied by Israel for decades, this is particularly important — restoring monuments and raising awareness about the past is a way to assert a place in contemporary history.
France is leading European efforts to restore and protect what remains of Palestinian patrimony. Emanating from the more condescending mission civilisatrice of French colonialism that imposed its haute culture on its colonies, the more benign cultural missions linked to French consulates around the world encourage the promotion of culture. Not surprisingly then, the Consulate of France in Occupied Jerusalem, with the French Foreign Ministry and Unesco, endorsed the preservation and restoration work led by a French archaeologist, René Elter, of St Hilarion's Monastery in Gaza, in November 2010.
As described by Elter at an international scientific seminar about "Placing Value on Palestinian Patrimony" in Paris recently, the monastery is located on the Tell Umm Al Amr excavation site in the centre of the Gaza Strip, and depicts the stratification of history: the site shows the remains of three different churches and the influence of Byzantine and Umayyad architecture.
Elter and his Palestinian colleagues have worked to preserve the site from erosion and terrain degradation caused by heavy rains that have led to the caving in of entire mosaics within the central crypt — believed to be the largest ancient crypt in the Arab world with over 60 sepulchres. Sandbags and other buttress walls have been put in place as have protective tin-roofed frame structures that collect rainwater for other uses, such as gardening and construction.
In October 2011, St Hilarion's Monastery was listed by the World Monument Watch as one of the top archaeological sites around the world that requires most urgent attention. The World Monument Fund does not help fund the excavation work in Gaza but it does provide international visibility to "Preserve the Past, Change the Future".
Gaza is replete with archaeological arte-facts from different eras. Any construction site will throw up all kinds of pottery, ceramics, statues and columns. As a crossroads and stopping point for armies and merchants travelling from Syria to Egypt or from the monasteries of Syria to St Catherine's in the Sinai, St Hilarion's Monastery also consisted of a boarding house for travellers and pilgrims.
Like elsewhere in Western Asia and North Africa, remnants of Roman columns were reused in the architectural structures and the floors were made of incredible Byzantine fusaifisat (mosaics) depicting fruits, animals and intricate geometric designs later adopted in Arab art.
The French have also been active in preserving and restoring the fusaifisat of Gaza. Patrick Blanc trained Palestinian workers in the techniques of mosaic restoration. They worked on the Abu Barakeh and Abasan sites in the centre and south of Gaza and the 600-square-metre site in Jabaliyeh in the north between 1995-2005.
In 2004, the restoration work of the Jabaliyeh mosaics during military incursions fell to Israeli tanks. With the exit of the Israelis in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, the French helped build a wall around the archaeological site that now houses a modest welcome centre and museum.
With their training programmes, the French hope to involve more Gazans in the restoration of mosaics and help raise awareness about conservation and inculcate respect for public spaces.
Sandrine Bert Geith from the Hebron-France Cultural Exchange Association said that many of the more than 3,000 archaeological sites around Hebron are used as trash dumps by Palestinians, or looted by bandits. The pillaged sites are usually under Israeli jurisdiction since they fall within Area C of the West Bank.
The French provide assistance in organising school trips to the sites and making official declarations against the defamation of Palestinian heritage, thus raising awareness about the illicit trade of Palestinian artefacts and the need to preserve sites that should be within a supposed sovereign Palestine. This is being done around Hebron and Gaza, which are meant to be connected, and around Bethlehem, Occupied Jerusalem, Ramallah and Nablus, where the French are also active alongside Palestinian NGOs, such as Riwaq, and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities that emerged with the Oslo process in the early 1990s.
As Palestinians scramble to collect pieces of history and to preserve a place called Palestine, this ministry — like others — has two ministers: one from Hamas in Gaza and one from Fatah in Ramallah. This political rivalry parallels the sad state of Palestinian archaeology, which has been abandoned and abused by the Israeli occupation.
Stuart Reigeluth is editor of Revolve Magazine and works at the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR) in Brussels.