Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 October 2003
Issue No. 658
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Save our heritage in the Holy Land

Four years ago an eight-ton baptismal font sacred to both Muslims and Christians disappeared from its home on the West Bank. Only now is the full story emerging, writes Jerry Levin from Hebron

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Top: The Church of Ascension, Mount of Olives; Below: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as they were in the 1970's
For centuries an octagonal, pinkish limestone baptismal font rested among the tumbled ruins of the Basilica of St Nicholas at the biblical site of Tuqu'. The inhabitants of the town on the West Bank, all Muslims, regarded it as part of their heritage.

It stood upright in the ancient basilica which, with its neighbouring buildings, was erected in the fourth and fifth centuries to cater to a transient pilgrim trade. Christians who made their way from shrine to shrine in the Judean hill country southeast of Jerusalem and Bethlehem passed through Tuqu'. And although the basilica fell into ruin and its fallen stones were usurped and reused in later Crusader, Mamluke and Ottoman buildings, the font survived. It was the only sizeable intact relic from the Byzantine era on the site, and the inhabitants of Tuqu' were proud of it.

In the early 1990s Tuqu' was smaller than it is today, and lay some way from the ruins of the basilica. Each evening after sunset, when the sound of Israeli army vehicles was heard rumbling about the village or the adjacent areas, most of the inhabitants stayed indoors to keep out of harm's way. But late one night, added to the whir of vehicles, there were other, more ominous mechanical sounds: whirring, clanking and clattering. The people of Tuqu' listened but did not venture outdoors, and it was not until the next morning that they realised that the baptismal font was gone: all eight tons of it.

How could so huge an artefact be spirited out of the West Bank? There were whispers that it was hidden not too far away, in the Bethlehem area perhaps. But to do anything about it was beyond the power of the villagers.

The famous limestone quarry from which the font was cut, in the Bethlehem area of Slyeb, has long disappeared. It lies buried beneath the foundations of the large Israeli West Bank settlement of Gilo, one of the chain of communities built to encircle Palestinian towns, Christian and Muslim, and thereby limiting their potential for growth in the greater Bethlehem area.

Rumours of what had happened to the Tuqu' font were rife. Some people spoke of shady Israeli interests, antiquities dealers and their well-heeled clients who were involved in looting and the clandestine purchase of artefacts from undeveloped archeological sites in the Holy Land. Others made mention of Palestinian entrepreneurs familiar with the locality and ready to exploit a potentially rich area for financial interest. Whoever the looters were, their task was naturally facilitated by the Palestinians villagers' hear-no-evil-see-no-evil stance in the face of occupation.

Then came 1997 and Oslo II, and events took a turn that enabled the Muslim villagers to mount a campaign to recover the font. My friend Hisham Ali, who along with another man, George Rishmawi, had accompanied me to Tuqu', told me:

"That was the year the Palestinian Authority was given administrative control over the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian municipalities were created for the first time. We were a traditional village in Tuqu', so here and elsewhere management was ceded to 12 tribal elders. But after six months, finding themselves not up to the task of planning, initiating, and carrying out sorely needed improvements, the Tuqu' elders voluntarily relinquished the reins of local power to the village's younger generation, energetic young men who were able to make things happen."

They formed a special council to manage Tuqu's affairs, Hisham Ali said. A young man of outstanding capability, Suleiman Abu Mufarreh, was elected mayor.

Abu Mufarreh initiated several projects, among them the building of the village's first-ever municipal headquarters (known in Palestinian cities, towns and villages as the Baladyeh) -- and the retrieval of the baptismal font. Ali quoted the mayor:

"You know, the Israelis did not take care of our shrines because they were important for Christians but not for the Israelis. In fact, before the first Oslo agreement in 1993, the Israeli's dug trenches here for 45 days and did not come up with any significant remains so they quit. Within a month the font was stolen."

Abu Mufarreh recruited private investigators who fairly rapidly learnt there had been more than one attempt to move the Byzantine relic and hide it temporarily on the West Bank until a sale could be completed with Israel. The looters were thwarted at first, but eventually they made away with it.

In time the investigators produced good news. They had found where it was being hidden. Again Ali quoted the Mayor:

"This time the font was successfully removed by accomplices, taken across a wadi (dry valley) from Gilo in Beit Jala, and hidden there. We found it in a field covered with branches, and the man guarding it told us it had already been moved maybe three times, but never for very long."

The Palestinian Authority's minister of antiquities ruled that the font should belong to the people of Tuqu', and so it was brought back home. But the mayor did not think it would be safe in the ruins of the St Nicholas Basilica, so he decided put it in front of the Baladyeh, in a small garden now being especially planted. Meanwhile it has been placed temporarily behind walls in an orchard adjoining the house of a villager.

But whether the baptismal font can be successfully installed in the garden in front of the Tuqu's bright new white Baladyeh is uncertain. As soon as the villagers, with sweat and their own money, began developing the area, Israeli settlers and the army threatened to tear it up. According to the last report received on 26 August 2003, tanks were moving relentlessly towards Tuqu'.

Similar events have been happening elsewhere. On 2 June BBC2 aired a programme about damage to historical sites in Nablus and Hebron. The producer of Road to Armageddon was Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian. "I came to make a programme about what's happening to some important buildings, and the damage is awesome," said Cruickshank, whose programme outlined the history of Nablus, one of the most important towns in the Middle East. The town was founded by the Romans in about 70 AD and grew into an important Crusader town, which later became a trading centre of the Ottoman Empire. Cruickshank said that buildings from all these historic eras "survived until a few months ago... but they just aren't there any more. The historically important town has been devastated." He made particular mention of "a beautiful Ottoman soap factory, a market place, a lot of 16th-century stuff... "

Everywhere Cruickshank went it was the same story: "smouldering wrecks" where there had once been important buildings, many sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. He described the destruction of the tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron, believed to be the resting place of Adam and Eve, and reported on damage from several attacks made on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Why this focus on architectural heritage? Cruickshank asked, and himself supplied the answer. "Buildings are of immense significance. It is important to remember that the biblical Patriarchs are also sacred to Islam; that the two faiths are intricately entwined, they are two branches from the same root... The greatest bone of contention is the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem, a site is of unsurpassed importance to both Muslim and Jewish faiths. It was built in 690 AD as an Islamic edifice to complement the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre opposite. Its significance cannot be over-estimated; it's a terribly vulnerable site."

Cruickshank pointed out that the ownership of historic buildings was used to justify political and military positions, that tanks and bombs were used to blast holes in the walls between houses in Hebron because Israel believed it was "full of terrorists" and that "for every attack there is a counter-attack".

And so the destruction goes on. "What Cruickshank found inside Hebron was a small-scale enactment of a wider picture," wrote The Guardian. In the three months since the programme was aired, things have moved inexorably on.

' While we mourn the loss of the heritage of Afghanistan by the Taliban and decry the damage to archaeological sites in Iraq, it is timely to draw attention to the desecration of historic sites that has occurred on the West Bank as a result of the Arab/Israeli conflict. The story of a baptismal font is a single example.'

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