During the past six years in the course of field work on a project in architectural history, I've traveled extensively in the Mideast and India and visited Central Asia. My particular interest is the Islamic period; at some sites, buildings were in ruins; some were being excavated or were under restoration, others were well preserved. Throughout history, it was common in this part of the world for one civilization to build on the site of previous structures; so, inevitably, I've observed many archaeological excavations of ancient sites.
In the pursuit of this study, I've seen architectural monuments saved by technical assistance from UNESCO, such as the 10th century Ismail Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, Soviet Central Asia. UNESCO has also recorded and preserved in wonderful volumes unique art treasures, such as the ancient frescos in the Ajanta Cave temples of Central India. For such valuable work in preserving the world's artistic heritage, UNESCO must be applauded and thanked.
Like many people mindful of such contributions by UNESCO, I felt dismayed by the actions taken at its general conference in 1974. A resolution introduced by the Arab bloc and passed with communist and Third World support to withhold economic assistance for cultural activities from Israel also excluded it from European regional membership -- effectively banning Israel from any regional grouping.
A similar controversial resolution was passed at the Nairobi conference in 1976, though with softer language, and Israel was reinstated in the European regional group. (Mainly because of the regional ban, the U.S. Congress voted to withold UNESCO dues for two years.)
On Nov. 28, 1978, at the 20th general conference, UNESCO members voted to continue economic sanctions in a resolution that was a harshly worded, blatant political attack upon Israel. The stated basis for these repeated condemnations is that Israeli archaeological excavations being conducted at the South Wall of Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem endangered Moslem and Christian religious monuments.
On Nov. 28, I was in Jerusalem and visited the South Wall with Prof. M. Ben-Dov of Hebrew University, now in charge of the site.I have never seen an excavation conducted with such care and historical sensitivity. Far from damaging existing Moslem buildings on the Mount, the Israeli archaeologists have uncovered a previously unknown Islamic palace and complex of five other buildings of the Omayyad period (660-750) adjacent to the Wall. Apparently destroyed in the major earthquake of 747-748, the large buildings were then neglected and forgotten, became buried under debris and eventually built upon by later inferior buildings. Preservation of the remains and schematic reconstruction of the palace have been possible as a result of the painstaking excavations.
Begun in 1968, the dig at the South Wall has been conducted by a skilled team working at the highest level of competence. As archaeology is a science that usually destroys its evidence, one layer of civilization disappearing as another is revealed, this excavation is unusual and very exciting. The buildings in this area were not razed when the city was taken by successive invaders, perhaps because it was a residential quarter and not a fortification. The stratigraphy is dramatic: Standing in the Omayyad palace courtyard, one can look down through two stories of Byzantine houses to buildings dating from the Second Jewish Common-wealth, destroyed by the Romans in the first century.
Discoveries have been made that are important to Christians, Moslems and Jews. That was confirmed by a series of on-site investigations conducted for UNESCO by the Belgian archaeologist, Raymond Lemaire. He found that the allegations against Israel were groundless. A visit to the South Wall supports that view.
Israel is not the loser in this example of what The Times of London called "the politicization of UNESCO" -- the amount of assistance withheld was a fraction of its own contribution to the world body.The world is the loser. UNESCO has been seriously damaged and its future endangered by its use for political and propaganda purposes. In a strong statement, the American delegate, Ambassador John Reinhardt, objected to the language of the resolution in which Israel was accused of continuing to "Judaize" Jerusalem. The Israeli delegate, Ambassador Amiel Najar, aptly defined this charge as "a blatant expression of cultural imperialism by the Arabs" The language of the resolution suggests an attempt to suppress the evidence of history; its passage a discouraging willingness to debase UNESCO for political ends.
When visiting the South Wall, one feels a responsible UNESCO membership would have supported the excavations, not condemned them.