It’s been a busy week for news regarding Israel’s somewhat fraught relations with UNESCO. On Monday, I reported CNN’s decision to list Jerusalem’s Old City as the world’s no.1 “magnificent structure” on the “verge of extinction,” in part, because of the political tension that exists between Israel and UNESCO, which has prevented preservation measures from being put into place. And on Tuesday, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israel publicly “slammed” UNESCO for its “one-sided resolution” regarding the Old City.
The resolution, adopted by the World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany, takes Israel to task for—among other grievances—the following allegations: engaging in “illegal excavations” in the Old City; causing damage to structures on the Temple Mount; impeding restoration work on the Temple Mount; and damaging the “visual integrity” of the Old City with the Jerusalem light rail.
It also deplored various Israeli projects in and around the Old City and the Western Wall Plaza, which it referred to as the “Buraq Plaza.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry director Dore Gold did the slamming. In a statement, he argued that UNESCO completely ignores the Jewish as well as Christian heritage of the Old City by solely privileging the Islamic claim to the Temple Mount. Muslims see the Old City as the key location within the Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous “Night Journey,” in which he bore witness to heaven. Gold pointed out the ancient tie between Jewish people and Jerusalem and accused UNESCO of hypocrisy for blaming Israel of damaging a heritage site, while ignoring the Islamic State’s “systematic destruction” of world heritage sites like the Syrian City of Palmyra.
On a more positive—and related—note, UNESCO has just decided on a number of of new locations into its list of World Heritage Sites. One site is a landmark of ancient Judaism, the Necropolis of Beth She’arim found near the city of Haifa, Israel. Another is the city of Susa, located in Iran. Susa contains the remnants of ancient urban settlements which hold a great significance within Jewish history. Susa is the location of the Biblical story of Esther, which is read during Purim. However, it’s also the widely accepted location of the tomb of the prophet Daniel.
According to The Times of Israel, the Necropolis of Beth She’arim is now the ninth site in Israel to be included on the UNESCO list after “the caves of Maresha Beit-Guvrin national park, the prehistoric remains at Nahal Me’arot, the Bahai temple in Haifa, the remains of Nabatean towns in the Negev built along the spice route, Tel Aviv’s collection of Bauhaus or International Style buildings known as the White City, the ancient fortress of Masada, and the Old City of Acre.”
The Necropolis of Beth She’arim consists of a series of catacombs carved out of soft limestone. The site was excavated in 1936 and was identified as Beth She’arim because of a marble tablet that was found inscribed with the locations Greek name: Beisara. The place became an important cultural center for the Sanhedrin Jewish people following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The leader of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Judah the Prince, is credited with being essential to the Jewish renewal of 135 CE because of his redaction of the Mishnah text. When the Rabbi died and was buried in Beth She’arim, the rest of the Sanhedrin wanted to be buried close to their great leader and so the vast series of over 30 burial caves that make up the Necropolis was developed. The proposal for including the catacombs within the UNESCO list was submitted in 2002. The proposal describes the partially excavated site as being
likened to a book inscribed in stone. Its catacombs, mausoleums, and sarcophagi are adorned with elaborate symbols and figures as well as an impressive quantity of incised and painted inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene, and Greek, documenting two centuries of historical and cultural achievement. The wealth of artistic adornments contained in this, the most ancient extensive Jewish cemetery in the world, is unparalleled anywhere.”
Another new member of the UNESCO list, the ancient city of Susa, is found in the South East of Iran. According to UNESCO, it has a huge amount of significance for the “Elamite, Persian and Parthian” traditions. It currently comprises of a series of archaeological mounds that have been excavated to reveal ruins that would have once been “administrative, residential and palatial structures.” Which, according to the Hebrew Bible, would have been the setting in which Esther rose to become Queen, rescuing the Jewish people from annihilation in the process. Within the majority of Muslim and Jewish archaeological and academic circles, Susa is also considered to contain the prophet Daniel’s tomb, a grand towering structure which attracts countless pilgrims and visitors from Iran’s Muslim and Jewish communities alike.
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Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.