Finding Common Ground In Cultural Heritage
Tue, 08/23/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
ELIACH educational program provides teens with on-site visits throughout the Mediterranean area.
ELIACH educational program provides teens with on-site visits throughout the Mediterranean area.

Jerusalem — In theory, nothing about the program dubbed ELIACH (Educational Linkage Approach in Cultural Heritage) is unusual. In essence, it’s an ongoing course and educational tool kit created by some of the Mediterranean region’s most renowned conservationists, archeologists, historical architects and other experts who are united in their passion for preserving the past.

What is exceptional about ELIACH and its Euromed Heritage 4 project, however, is its audience: teenagers from Israel, Turkey, Greece, Malta and Jordan, who over the past two years have become eager students studying what erodes or destroys physical heritage and recognizing the techniques that can help save history for future generations to enjoy.

“People always say that teenagers aren’t interested in cultural heritage but I don’t understand why a young person would not be interested in his or her heritage,” said Alexandra Camilleri, 17, a student from the University of Malta Junior College High School, who recently spent a week in Jordan with nine other Maltese students studying heritage sites there.

While getting young people turned onto heritage preservation might be the main aim of ELAICH, an equally important aspect of the program is that it unites young people from across the region — even those from countries with less than optimal diplomatic relations — in a shared enthusiasm for history regardless of whose history it might be or where the actual heritage site is located.

“It is important for us to know about the history of other nations,” observed another Maltese student, Martina Bugelli. “I am not so interested in archaeology, but this should not prevent me from learning about ancient civilizations.

“History does not belong to a certain country; it is a world heritage and I think that everyone should learn how past generations lived,” added Bugelli during a visit to Jordan’s most well-known heritage site, the 2,000 year old Nabatean city of Petra. “It’s a unique and irreplaceable landmark that belongs to all of us, to all humanity, and we must try to preserve and protect it for as long as we can.”

“Learning about history is much more important than having fun,” declared Yara Hamarney, a 16-year-old Jordanian, who joined the Maltese students at Amman’s historic citadel and archeological museum to study the elements that have eroded the site over the last few thousand years. “It is important for us to think about what has happened before because then we might be able to know what will happen in the future.”

“This is a unique opportunity to encourage international intercultural dialogue between course participants in the field of cultural heritage protection,” said Dr. Anna Lobovikov-Katz, a senior lecturer and researcher at Haifa’s Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. She is the brainchild behind ELAICH and is its current coordinator.

She explained that while the knowledge and tools used to preserve cultural heritage have greatly improved in recent years, public awareness of the importance of historical sites is still very low. In a region rich with historic monuments, failure to address this could lead to cultural heritage sites disappearing.

Along with regional partners Professor Antonia Moropoulou, vice-rector at the National Technical University of Athens; Professor Rene Van Grieken at the University of Antwerp; Professor Guido Biscontin at Ca’foscari University of Venice; and Professor JoAnn Cassar, University of Malta, Lobovikov-Katz hopes that instilling a love for cultural heritage in young people will also address the challenge of preservation and conservation across the region.

The course’s pilot program ran in Israel late last year with a group of ninth graders from the Reali High School in Haifa. Together with her assistant, master’s student Asya Natapov, Lobovikov-Katz introduced the students to concepts such as understanding the deterioration process, working with conservation materials and recognizing practical techniques for preservation.

The group was also taken on in-situ field visits to historic sites in northern Israel, including the ancient synagogue in Tiberius and the natural springs in Hamat Gadera on the Golan Heights.

“At the end of the course, one of the students told me that even though she had been to Tiberius many times, she did not really pay much attention to the small building at the end of the promenade but afterwards, she told me ‘I now realize how important it is,’” recalled Lobovikov-Katz of the course, which ended in January this year.

“This is an interdisciplinary program and it teaches students to realize how everything works together in conservation of cultural heritage,” she added, explaining “there is no chemistry without archeology and no history without biology; conservation pulls all these elements together.”

With the courses now complete, Lobovikov-Katz and the program’s other partners are busy trying to tighten the package and prepare it as a module to hopefully be adopted as part of the high school curriculum in each country, allowing all teenagers to be exposed to their cultural heritage and grasp a basic understanding of historic conservation.

In Israel, Dr. Michael Grunzveig, inspector of the Land of Israel and Archeological studies in the Education Ministry, said he is already exploring the opportunity of making conservation and renovation of heritage sites part of the national curriculum.

“We are planning to promote this option and integrate it in the learning program over the next few years,” he said, adding “hopefully it will eventually become a separate unit where students can create projects and assignments on the subject.”

“We do not expect students to become professionals in the fields of preservation, conservation, archeology or architecture,” explained Lobovikov-Katz. “But we hope this course will give them a basic theoretical knowledge so they can understand and appreciate what exactly cultural heritage is.”