World heritage not just for tourists
Bethlehem and Visby are a long way apart. But Akram Ijla, a guest researcher at Campus Gotland’s Department of Art History who has compared the two World Heritage sites, sees many similarities.
Conserving cultural heritage means not only tending old buildings for tourists to visit. Akram Ijla envisions a Visby full of life all the year round, not only in summer.
‘We researchers worry about social sustainability when urban areas exist for tourists, not their own population. How can we create sustainable urban cultural heritage sites where the residents are part of their development?’
Ijla is from Gaza, Palestine, where he lectures at Al-Azhar University. In the midst of a conflict area, he works to preserve Palestinian cultural heritage.
‘But cultural heritage belongs not to a country but to all humankind. Historical remains tell of a time when different civilisations could coexist in tolerance and peace.’
In September 2014 Ijla came to Visby on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship. In his study, he has compared the World Heritage cities of Visby and Bethlehem. In both, historical buildings abound, and both are popular tourist attractions, but share the problem of abandonment by the locals.
In Bethlehem, the affluent have left the city centre and built houses on the outskirts. In Visby, Gotlanders leave in summer and let their flats to tourists. In winter, too, many summer residences in central Visby are left empty.
‘We need to bring tourists here who can share some experience with the Gotlanders rather than just being welcomed like visitors to a theme park. We need to find a balance between economic, environmental and social considerations.’
How can this best be done?
‘We need politicians’ support in this development. They must back a sustainable plan for Visby as part of historical Gotland and how to make the old city vibrant all year round.’
Ijla has experienced several countries and universities since training as an architect in Gaza. He took a master’s in London and a doctorate in Cleveland. Ohio — and in retrospect is glad he did.
‘When I got back, I began teaching my students, colleagues and neighbours about western values.’
With colleagues Tor Broström and Christer Gustafsson, he plans a study programme in cooperation with Sharjah University in Dubai and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), which works worldwide.