By Giovanni Fontana Antonelli
On 31 January, an international jury chaired by Mounir Bouchenaki, Director-General of ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), bestowed a prestigious honour upon the village of Battir.
The Battir Cultural Landscape File, submitted by the PRCS (Palestinian Red Crescent Society), will be awarded the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova will present the award to the Battir Village Council and the multi-disciplinary team who prepared the file at a ceremony to be held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in May 2011. The international recognition is awarded ex-aequo to Battir and to another cultural landscape in Armenia.
The Battir Cultural Landscape File refers to an area of 12 square kilometres located in the central West Bank (Bethlehem Governorate), seven kilometres south west of Jerusalem. It is composed of a system of valleys (widian) and ridges that stretch from Beit Jala, approximately 900 meters above sea level, to the Green Line, approximately 500 meters above sea level. The landscape includes water springs and caves, archaeological sites and features, vernacular architectures, the historic core of Battir Village, as well as its urban expansion - the “sprawl town.” All of these features are immersed in a dense texture of terraces that are cultivated with olives, vines, almonds, fruit trees, and, when irrigated, vegetables, including the famous Battiri aubergine.
Dry-stone terrace walls in Battir, the predominant characterising feature within the whole area, amount to approximately 554,000 metres, whereas the terraces were classified into six main categories according to their typology:
a) Valley-bottom terraces
b) Irrigated terraces
c) Enclosed terraces
d) Contour terraces
e) Cross-channel terraces (khalle)
f) Relic terraces
The latter type refers to abandoned areas where the lack of maintenance caused the progressive collapse of masonries and subsequent re-naturalisation of those portions of territory and their vegetation. This process has created interesting transitional situations. Olive groves can now be found intertwined with the pioneering species of the Eastern Mediterranean Maquis, such as oak and carob trees, aromatic shrubs (e.g., Salvia fruticosa) and wild flowers (e.g., Cistus incanus).
Today this beautiful landscape is threatened by a variety of factors, both endogenous and exogenous; Palestinian land management and the Israeli policies and measures unilaterally imposed within the occupied Palestinian territory. The most threatening factors affecting the integrity of this living landscape are the abandonment of cultivated land and the lack of urban management tools, networks, and services including, waste management and plans to mitigate the urban sprawl encroaching on agricultural land.
Further threats include the growing presence of landfills and garbage dumps in the valleys, pollution of the water sources, intensive Israeli settlement expansion, and construction of the Separation Wall (along the by-pass road of Beit Jala-Malcha). The settlement of Har Gilo and the Wall are both growing at the time of writing. The increasing construction of housing units, infrastructures, roads, and other kinds of services for the exclusive use of settlers has resulted in the progressive “enclavisation” of both the territorial area and the inhabitants of Battir. This process is severely threatening the integrity of Battir’s landscape and the sustainability of its ecological and environmental equilibrium. It is causing progressive erosion of the traditional relationship between Battir’s rural population and its traditional spaces, as well as damaging socio-economic transformations.
Since 2006, the UNESCO Ramallah Office, in cooperation with local stakeholders, introduced a phased project for the safeguarding of the cultural landscape. The project is aligned with the joint Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities/UNESCO initiative of publishing its Inventory of Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of Potential Outstanding Universal Value in Palestine (2005). The Palestinian cultural landscape, referred to as the Land of Olives and Vines, was ranked number eight in the Inventory.
One year later the Ministry prepared its first report on Palestinian cultural landscapes, choosing Battir as a case study. Based on the recommendations of this report, and benefiting from a Norway-funded project, UNESCO commissioned a comparative study on the perception of landscape within the oPt in 2007. The findings of the study were published in Research and Documentation of the Tangible and Intangible Elements of Olive Cultural Landscape in the Palestinian Highlands: The Villages of Battir and ‘Asira el-Shamaliya.
Within the same project framework, it was possible to establish and equip a field office in Battir for the direct surveying of the cultural landscape with the aim of documenting, monitoring, and planning for future protection of the area. Three young Palestinian architects, guided by the writer and assisted by consultants specialising in disciplines such as hydro-geology, botany, agronomy, sociology, anthropology, and landscape planning, were exposed to a tailored on-the-job training programme for over two years. The result of their work was the Battir Landscape Conservation and Management Plan, with its set of maps and guidelines. The Plan became the core of the Nomination File which was awarded the international prize. Community participation actions, in close cooperation with the local authority, were carried out with the village’s children and youth: planting trees, cleaning springs and restoring retaining walls. Various groups of visitors were guided through the hiking trails in the valleys. A joint Al-Quds University Bard Honors College/Decolonising Architecture/UNESCO summer programme titled Space, Law and Planning was also carried out from July to September 2010 and its findings published and exhibited abroad.
Thanks to the serious and professional work carried out during the various phases of the project, the Battir Village Council was recently awarded a two-year commitment from the Italian Co-operation, within the framework of its Palestinian Municipalities Support Programme (PMSP). The project aims to reinforce the capacities of local authorities and stakeholders in the fields of natural and cultural landscape management. Crucial to this initiative is the development of a model of sustainable use of the territory, notably the establishment of a Landscape Eco-museum in Battir, which will include the provision of tourist infrastructures in the village and light, sparse interventions in its territory - e.g., hiking trails.
To conclude, the writer - together with all the professionals and stakeholders who believe in the safeguarding of this landscape in order to promote sustainable use of the oPt’s natural resources - call for internationally-recognised protection of this area. We must not allow Battir to continue suffering from the numerous factors that may irreversibly jeopardise the product of millennia of human activity, intimately intertwined with the work of nature.
Giovanni Fontana-Antonelli is the Culture Programme Specialist at UNESCO’s Ramallah office.
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