A country amidst its worst crisis – where does cultural heritage preservation stand?

Lebanon, the once celebrated “Switzerland of the Middle East”, is undergoing its worst economic crisis: From skyrocketing inflation and public school closings to increasing poverty. The UN has declared Lebanon a failed state. Yet lavish life remains feasible for those earning the US $, coming from abroad or for any mysterious reason. 

 The massive blast at Beirut’s port in 2020 has shaped Lebanese people’s collective memories. 

Further, it damaged hundreds of buildings in the Lebanese capital’s historic quarters, mainly in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël. Yet many buildings remain completely abandoned and destroyed. 

 

The preservation of cultural buildings has forever been a hot topic amongst urbanists and architects in Lebanon. A yet obsolete heritage law preserves only monuments built before 1700.

Lebanon has no legislation designed to incentivise the preservation of historic buildings

Given the current political turmoil, it will not become on the political agenda soon!  

Yet, Lebanon remains a stunningly beautiful and modern country. Lebanon prides itself, despite its small size, in being one of the religiously most diverse countries, home to 18 religions

My voyage encompassed:  Beirut, Jounieh, and Byblos to Tyre.

One of the most outstanding archaeological sites and the world, Baalbek (1984)

It is “one of the finest examples of Imperial Roman architecture at its apogee and took 120 years and 100,000 slaves to construct. There are three ancient temples at the Baalbeck Archaeological Site—the Temple of Venus, Jupiter, and Bacchus. The Temple of Jupiter is the principal temple of the Baalbek triad and was originally one of the most critical columns in the world. The Temple of Bacchus is easily one of the best-preserved remains of a Roman temple in the world.

 

Every summer, Bacchus Temple transforms into a unique venue and hosts concerts. 

Baalbek is not only reminiscent of its roman past but is a pilgrim site for Shia Muslims visiting the Sayyida Khawla Shrine.

Sayyida Khawla was Imam Hussein’s daughter and Prophet Muhammad’s great-granddaughter.

 

 

 

Egypt – more than world wonders

The next country on my MENA tour was Egypt, with Cairo, a city of more than 20 million people, as the first stop. 

However, my first connotation of the Arab metropolis was nothing but negative. (My fellow Egyptian friends recommended avoiding it.) 

Cairo is one of the worst major global cities in air quality, probably even #1.

The roads are heavily jammed. Be cautious—There is no such thing as traffic lights or driving signals! Everything is chaotic and hectic, moving at a different pace. 

Cairo and Egypt are simply intense, unique and charming with its thousand flavours and smells all around the corner, where modernity and tradition meet in any corner. 

From Cairo, Giza to Dahab – Egypt has stolen my heart. 

However, getting to Dahab, the diver’s paradise on the Red Sea, was nightmarish. With North Sinai adjoining Israel and the Gaza Strip, the area remains a “powder keg.” I have never surpassed so many checkpoints and shown my ID this many times in a few hours. 

During our drive, we ought to pass 14 checkpoints and, most of the time, get out of the minivan and show our IDs.

Yet Egypt surpassed all my expectations.  Two outstanding world heritage sites were as follows:

  1. Old Cairo 1979

Historic Cairo is one of the world’s oldest Islamic cities, established in the 10th century. It is so rich, with its 800 monuments, dating back to the 7th century: ancient mosques, madrasas, hammams and fountains. For breathtaking Islamic architecture and, surprisingly to me, the many Coptic churches, Cairo is a treasure trove. Indeed, Christians resided in Egypt before Islam entered the country in the seventh century, making Egyptian Christians the most significant Christian minority in MENA.  

2. Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur (1979)

For many reasons, the pyramids of Giza are the biggest draw for visitors to Egypt. In Hellenistic times, the Great Pyramids were listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Yet they remain the only ones still in existence, making them probably the most well-known “world heritage” sites worldwide.

The opposite turned out to be reality. Instead of recounting why Giza has earned world heritage status, I listed what surprised me as someone who has always dreamt of going and watched uncountable documentaries and movies about it. However, what astonished me was the size of the fields themselves. It is impossible to visit the pyramids by simply walking around; it is impossible!!! You need a guide/van to carry you from one pyramid to another one. While the Great Pyramid represents the largest one, there are 9 pyramids and burial sites not to be missed! A camel or horse ride might seem like a tourist trap, but it is worth it! The paranormal viewpoint is the best place to marvel at the greatness of the fields. On one right, you can astonish Cairo’s skyscrapers; in the back lay the Sahara’s endless outlays.

As I was visiting the place at an insane 47 degrees (again!) Giza was not packed by its tourist crowds nor by (the many!) pushy vendors. 

You can visit the empty pyramids from the inside for an extra fee. Not to be recommended for claustrophobes, the entrance and hallway are tiny! 

 

Tunisa: a mix of roman and arabo-muslim heritage

I had the blast of finally visiting my amazing friend, who I met during my studies in Udine, Italy. She is from Tunis, Tunisia, and within ten days, we visit many intriguing places of the beautiful country, its people and culture, its cultural sites and its delicacies. Some places we visited are: Ell Haouria, Sousse, Carthage, la Marsa, Sidi Bou Saïd, Bizerte to El Jem to the northernmost tip of North Africa, Cap Angela.

Tunisia is also the country, where the Arab Spring started and ignited waves of demonstrations across the Middle East.  However, 10 years later society seems uncertain about how far positive changes have been accomplished.

Yet my friends complain a lot about the current economic challenges and soaring prices that harden living conditions in Tunisia.

The many breathtaking world heritage sites we visit testify to Tunisia’s both roman and arabo-muslim heritage: In particular I loved the  Amphitheatre of El Jem  and Medina of Tunis.

 Wonders of Roman architecture in El Jem – Amphitheatre of El Jem (1979)

Today is a brutally hot day. 47 degrees, and we arrive in the village of El Jem. Here stands the Colosseum, We can’t see any tourists at this point, but a camel sheltered under an umbrella. We dare not to resist and accept to take a  ride on the camel along the impressive ruins of the largest Colosseum in North Africa.

Its excellent state of preservation makes visitors feel awe and wonder. Built 2 centuries after Rome’s Colosseum, El Jem is visited by fewer tourists. We had the luck of being one of the few tourists this day which granted us a unique and adventurous discovery. The entrance fee is only 3 euros.

During summer evenings, even concerts are held in the marvelous monument. Interesting as I found that these cultural events were organized by the German embassy in Tunisia. 😲

Strolling through the enchanting Medina of Tunis (1979)

The Medina of Tunis is one of the first Arabo-Muslim towns of the Maghreb (698 A.D.) Under the Almohads and the Hafsids, from the 12th to the 16th century, Tunis was considered one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in the Islamic world. We are exploring the Medina   with Salah, found via  Guru Walk (same concept as Free Walking Tours) He is one of the best tour guides I have ever had and we spend a remarkable 4 hours together in the Medina. (You could absolutely spend even more time there)

By strolling through the Medina and listening to Salah’s stories bear witness to the interaction between architecture, urbanism and the effects of sociocultural and economic changes of earlier cultures.  700 monuments, including palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas, and fountains, testify to this remarkable past.  Everything is simply unique – every door has its beauty and story: 

This Medina is probably the best one I have ever been and an interesting example of how people live within a world heritage site. 🥰

Have a look here to understand the versatile character of the Medina 🙂

 

World heritage and youths 🤝 – a quick intro

“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations” reminds us of the rationale of preserving world heritage and youth’s role in taking an active lead. Whereas the universality of the concept is given per se, it remains often criticised as  “elusive and elitist” and barely understood by those outside its orbit. If this is the case, how can we overcome this challenge and bring world heritage to the spectrum of youth and the new generation, who are ultimately tasked with preserving and cherishing it? 

En route to Amsterdam, Beemster, Brussels, Brügge, Fontainebleau, and Bordeaux, I am most curious to explore the feelings of youth in and within the concept of a World Heritage city. 

  • What does World Heritage mean for young people? How do young people feel living in a world-heritage city?
  • In which ways do youth engage with “World Heritage”?  What motivates youth to shape the future of world heritage?  
  • How can we engage in the preservation and promotion of heritage? 
  • How can we increase the number of young people engaged? 

My name is Lena Eisenreich (24 yo), originally from the heart of Bavaria (Plattling). I have developed my cultural curiosity since I was a child with the dream of travelling to every country in the world and evolving myself in as many cultures as possible.  My approach to travel is to see a different country through interacting and becoming friends with locals and listening to their stories. Before visiting the main cities on my route, I had the chance to visit three amazing North African and middle-eastern countries. (Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon)