Countering the Destruction of Islamic Culture

The conflict in the Middle East is a threat to many valuable objects that are part of the Palestinian cultural heritage. A European-Mediterranean collaborative organization is trying to do something about it. By Werner Bloch

photo: Museum with No Frontiers
The project aims to preserve Islamic artefacts threatened by the Israeli occupation

​​Things look bad for the cultural heritage of the Palestinians. In the past four years since the start of the Intifada, cultural relics have been caught between the fronts, says Sa'd Nimr, coordinator of the organization "Museum without Borders." The group is trying to salvage what it can.

"The Israelis show no respect for Muslim sanctuaries and cultural assets. Just in the past four years, seven of our national monuments were destroyed or confiscated by the Israelis," complains Sa'd Nimr.

"In Nablus, for example, they damaged the Al Khadra mosque, a mosque from the Mameluke period. And the old caravanserai, a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, was torn down by bulldozers. It can never be reconstructed. And all this just so that the Israeli soldiers have a better view of the old town in Nablus."

Israeli settlers destroying Palestinian cultural assets

Israeli settlers in Hebron have confiscated the Ali al Bakka shrine and closed it off with barbed wire. A whole street of 800-year old houses from the Mameluke period was torn up by the Israeli army so that the settlers have easier access to Abraham's tomb. In Hebron, 400 radical settlers live among 120,000 Palestinians.

"In Jerusalem, Israelis occupied a Koran school, the famous Madrasa al Tankizijja, one of the most beautiful objects from the Mameluke period," says Nimr. The Israeli border police put up a outpost there.

"Palestinians are not allowed to go to East Jerusalem, and men between the ages of 16 and 45 are forbidden access to the Al Aqsa mosque. We are not allowed to visit our holy sites. This makes our work for ‘Museum without Borders' very difficult."

The treatment of Islamic cultural sites in Israeli territory is not any better. Some mosques have been transformed into Israeli cultural centers. At other holy sites parking lots have been built.

The appropriation of Palestinian art objects

The most important museum in the region, the Palestinian Archaeological Museum, was founded in 1927 with a donation from the American multimillionaire Rockefeller. Wooden objects and carvings from the Al Aqsa mosque are kept there, among other artefacts. But since the occupation of East Jerusalem, the museum has been renamed the "Rockefeller Museum" and annexed to the Israel museum.

"The main mosque in Jaffa, an Arabic suburb of Tel Aviv, was the target of a bomb attack a few years ago. The minaret was destroyed, but then when the Israelis wanted to tear up the entire mosque, the inhabitants successfully resisted," says Nimr.

"Islamic sites have been systematically and intentionally neglected in Israeli and after 1967 also in the occupied areas. The Israelis also did a lot of archaeological excavations. Whatever art was found in Palestine was brought to Israel. Mosche Dajan, the former Israeli defence minister, was an internationally known art collector."

The destruction continues every day

Sixty-five monuments are listed in a meticulously researched book published by the "Museum without Borders" organization. But their inventory of Palestinian cultural artefacts is already outdated because the loss has continued.

Many monuments don't exist anymore. And even Christian churches have been damaged, says Sa'd Nimr, for example in a village near Ramallah. The destruction continues every day.

"There are so many things the West just isn't aware of. A cultural heritage is important for any people, but it is particularly important for a people who live under occupation. The occupation means more than just humiliation, death and the destruction of homes."

"We waited for the Oslo treaty to take effect, then, for example, the museum would have been returned to us automatically, but it is well known that nothing has come of it. We are living in a very difficult situation."

Werner Bloch

© 2004

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