Al-Ahram Weekly Online
2 - 8 August 2001
Issue No.545
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'Not impartial, not scientific'

As political conflict threatens the survival of monuments in the world's most coveted city, Omayma Abdel-Latif speaks to UNESCO's special envoy to Jerusalem

Oleg Grabar
Oleg Grabar
"A provocative act by a group of lunatics": such were the words used by UNESCO's special envoy to Jerusalem, the French-American Oleg Grabar, to describe the symbolic placing of a foundation-stone for a third temple by an extremist Jewish group at the Moors Gate or Bab Al-Maghareba in East Jerusalem.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on Monday, Grabar said that the problem in Al-Haram Al-Sharif, known to Israelis as Temple Mount, where Sunday's brief ceremony took place, is that "there is no authority to decide who can do what."

Grabar pointed out that the Temple Mount Faithful group, who placed the foundation-stone briefly and then took it away, performs the same ceremony every year although, according to Jewish tradition, the third temple will be built only with the arrival of the Messiah.

The significance of this year's event, says Grabar, is that it followed a court ruling which allowed the group to place the stone outside Al-Haram Al-Sharif, but only a few hundred metres away from the Al-Aqsa mosque.

"The sharpening of the conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, and the Israeli court order, gave much more weight and attention to a group of lunatics and made them feel good about what they do," said Grabar, who taught Islamic art and architecture at Harvard University for almost 20 years and was the first Agha Khan Professor of Islamic Art.

Seventy-two-year old Grabar is no stranger to Jerusalem. He lived in the old city first as a student in 1956, and then as director of the Albright Institute in the 1960s. He is also the author of three books on Jerusalem.

Though appointed UNESCO special envoy to Jerusalem almost a year ago, Grabar has been unable to visit the old city and assess the condition of its monuments.

"I was not allowed to make the visit because the Israeli government told me the political situation was not appropriate for the mission to be conducted," Grabar said. He believes, however, that the Israeli rejection is due to their fear of coming under additional criticism. A UNESCO report issued three years ago accused Israeli antiquities authorities of "not adopting a scientific and impartial approach to the city's centuries-old past."

"They fear that another UN mission is going to criticise them [further], so they simply rejected it," Grabar said.

The latest complaint, however, has come from the Israelis and targets the Muslim Waqf [Trust]. According to Grabar, they accused the Palestinian Waqf of introducing changes to Al- Haram Al-Sharif by building a new mosque, the Marwanyia, on the ruins of monuments.

"I saw the mosque but I cannot assess the amount of damage. This time the Israelis want to push the case against the Waqf because they think that it is the Muslims who did something wrong," Grabar added.

It was back in 1981 when attempts were made by Arab members of UNESCO to inscribe the Arab heritage in Jerusalem on the world heritage list. Jordan submitted a request in this connection, asking that Jerusalem be listed as an endangered site. In 1982 came recognition by the World Heritage Committee of the danger to religious properties, threats of destruction and a general deterioration of the state of monuments.

Years earlier, in 1971, UNESCO had appointed its first special representative to Jerusalem, Professor Raymond Lemaire, who died two years ago. The envoy's basic mission is to report on the status of archaeological excavations there. Most reports were highly critical of Israeli excavations in a city which the UN does not consider to be under Israeli sovereignty.

According to Grabar, major damage was inflicted when the Israelis removed a 15th century building to make space in front of the Western Wall. Israeli excavations to the south of Al-Haram Al- Sharif revealed mostly Islamic remains, to the dismay of the Israelis. The digs were supervised by the Israeli Rabbis Council and not the Israeli Antiquities Department, said Grabar.

Grabar conceded that the monuments are deteriorating largely because of conflicts over who is responsible for them -- the Jordanian government, the local Palestinian authority or the Israeli government.

Despite the grim situation in the old city, Grabar is hopeful that some settlement might be reached to salvage the historic treasures of the city. He proposes the setting up of a joint authority, with representatives from all concerned parties. Such an authority, explains Grabar, would be responsible for approving or disapproving any new projects in the old city, whether new buildings or restorations of old ones. Grabar pointed out that this committee should be made up of local people and not outsiders. The figures could be selected either on religious grounds -- Christian, Muslim and Jew -- or by nationality, Palestinian and Israeli.

"It would have the authority to judge proposals on the basis of whether or not they are good for the preservation of the city, and not upon any other criteria," Grabar said.

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