Religious and political conflicts, violence and wars, migration flows, the upsurge of populism, growing mass tourism – the equilibrium of our society is undergoing enormous fluctuations. The view of our common roots seems lost and cultural diversity is understood by many as a threat rather than an enrichment. We therefore need to bring back into people’s consciousness fabrics which hold our societies and civilisations together. The Mediterranean is a region full of cultural treasures and its history is our common heritage. By protecting our cultural heritage across borders together, we can help strengthen relations between the North and the South, particularly in the Mediterranean. Many EU and Unesco projects and initiatives are striving towards this goal.
The Mediterranean – the cradle of human civilisations is teetering in the balance
Fernand Braudel, a great French historian of the Mediterranean, describes the region’s history as follows: “What is the Mediterranean? Thousands of things at once; not landscapes, but countless landscapes; not a sea, but many seas; not just one culture, but many cultures stacked atop one another”. The countries around the Mediterranean Sea are particularly rich in cultural treasures and historical memories – think only of the great Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Carthaginian and Islamic cultures, and all the many historical cities such as Athens, Rome, Jerusalem Alexandria and Constantinople, and all the many great mythologies and legendary epics of universal value such as the Odyssey or the legend of Cleopatra.
Over the centuries, the Mediterranean has also been an area of the transfer of science and knowledge, marked by many important personalities: Augustine (354–430 AD), a native of North Africa educated in Carthage, lived in Rome and Milan and is one of the founding fathers of the Latin Church; Averroes (1126–1198), a Spanish-born Muslim, was a brilliant philosopher and the father of modern rationalism; Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), a Tunis-born historian, philosopher, diplomat and politician, was a pioneer of modern sociology; Michelangelo (1475–1564) was an outstanding Renaissance figure of modern times. Their knowledge and insights have been carried far beyond the borders of their home countries. The list of such figures is nearly endless.
Just as long is the list of great monuments and memorial sites, which includes such impressive buildings as the Pantheon in Athens, the Colosseum of Rome, the Alhambra in Granada, the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Istanbul, and many more. Of course, notably, the city of Jerusalem itself is the universal symbol of the religious heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it will long remain the key to war or peace in the Middle East and around the world.
However, mass tourism in particular has serious impacts on the Mediterranean heritage and region, which according to the World Trade Organisation is the biggest tourist destination in the world at almost 27 percent. But high urban concentrations in many coastal regions, climate change, increasing desertification, revolutions and civil wars also have serious environmental, economic and political consequences. They threaten to destabilise the region and endanger many historical monuments and cultural and archaeological sites. Particularly in Syria, Egypt and Libya many cultural heritage sites have already been largely destroyed. Even entire natural and cultural landscapes, islands, oases, marine species and intangible cultural assets such as manuscripts and musical works are in danger. Especially threatened are the landscapes of the Costa Brava, Venice, the oasis Tozeur in Tunisia and Palmyra, one of the martyred cities of Syria.
Europe, Unesco and the protection of the Mediterranean heritage
Since its founding in 1945, Unesco has implemented an impressive number of measures and programmes to preserve the cultural, natural and intellectual heritage of humanity. An important year in the history of Unesco is 1972, when the World Heritage Centre in Paris was founded and the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was signed. Even in the decades before, numerous international projects for the preservation of important historic sites and monuments, such as the Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt (1960) and the city of Timbuktu (World heritage since 1988), were already initiated.
Another important milestone was the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, also known as Euromed, initiated in 1995 and dedicated to the protection of Mediterranean cultural heritage. The aim of this programme is to bring the traditions of cultures on both sides of the Mediterranean closer together by promoting personal, scientific and technological dialogue and strengthening mutual understanding between peoples. In 1998, the European Union also launched the Euromed Heritage programme, whose projects are being implemented not only in the EU but also and especially in Mediterranean partner countries like Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Palestine. The numerous Euromed Heritage projects include the establishment of cultural routes between Phoenician and Greek cities and Mediterranean ports and the promotion of sustainable tourism in historic centres such as Amalfi, Valletta, Alexandria and other cities.
Since 1995, the European Union has been keenly aware of its responsibility for European architectural and urban heritage in the southern Mediterranean.
It funds various programmes for the restoration of monuments and buildings in various cities in the Maghreb and in Egypt. For example, between 2002 and 2005, the Hercomances programme promoted the establishment of an administrative system for the preservation of cultural heritage in Egypt and Syria. With Euromed Heritage II (2002 – 2008), the programme has been extended to other southern Mediterranean countries and cities, including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
Over the past 20 years the protection of Europe’s cultural and urban heritage has mobilised numerous civil society and public actors in the Maghreb countries. The construction of many cities in North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries took place under the influence of European architecture, and at the same time, through the use of Arab and Islamic elements, oriental styles flowed into the cityscape. Because of their artistic and constructional affinity, which affects both urban structures and decorative elements, these cities are now considered part of the shared heritage of the Mediterranean region. Public authorities have already restored numerous monuments, palaces and European city quarters in Tunis, Casablanca and Algiers. For example, in Egypt, the question of protecting cultural sites and monuments of the late nineteenth century has been on the agenda of public media and major cultural and scholarly events for almost 15 years. Today the country is even experiencing the emergence of a widespread longing for this Belle Époque with its monumental architectural symbols. Particularly noteworthy is the restoration plan for the monuments of Heliopolis. The “City of the Sun” is a relatively new city founded in 1906. Its architecture is very multi-facetted and reflects the most important trends of the first half of the twentieth century.
Cultural bridge-building to strengthen relations between North and South
All of these programmes and projects show that Europe today recognises the Mediterranean as a core of culture and history. These efforts also reveal that the joint preservation of the Mediterranean cultural heritage can revive North-South partnerships. Such initiatives are especially needed in times of religious fanaticism and xenophobia. Unesco and Europe have accomplished much to protect this heritage and many cultural approaches are heading in the right direction. But much remains to be done, and it is important that we look at the common or shared heritage of the Mediterranean peoples beyond Islamic and Western cultural borders. By reconstructing and renewing the bridges between Europe and the Arab world in literature and art, we may slowly begin to overcome the problems and conflicts of the past and present.