An interesting contest is being waged over a Judean hilltop known as Betar or Battir.
This hilltop village with a system of stone-walled hillside terraces has been nominated by the Palestinian Authority for recognition as a World Heritage Site, and has won the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes, awarded by UNESCO.
Is the Mercouri prize political? Well, this is a biennial prize, first awarded in 1999 to Elishia’s Spring, Jericho, Palestine ; the 2011 award to Battir, Palestine marks the first time the prize has been given twice to a the same country.
The World Heritage site nomination caught the attention of a number of commentators since the village is best known under the older, Hebrew version of the name: Betar. Betar was the military headquarters of the Bar Kochba Revolt, a Jewish revolt against Roman rule in 135 CE, and it was that revolt’s last stronghold. When Betar fell, the defenders and their leader, Shimon Bar Kochba, were killed. The event is commemorated by the villagers who call the ancient defensive tower “Khirbet el-Yahud”, “the Jewish ruin”.
Amusingly, UNESCO does not mention this historical significance in the Mercouri prize citation, although it is more than slightly relevant to the landscape being honored. The village dated back to the Iron Age, the archaeological discovery of a “Lmlk” seal impression establishes that it was part of the Judean kingdom in the eighth century BCE, and the stone terraces may predate the Arab conquest. Bar Kochba apparently chose the small, hilltop farming village because it has a constant spring of water and was on a defensible hill beside the Jerusalem-Gaza road. The site was abandoned after the battle. The archaeological survey done in 1993 by David Ussishkin (D. Ussishkin, “Archaeological Soundings at Betar, Bar-Kochba’s Last Stronghold”, Tel Aviv 20, 1993, pp. 66-97) reports that the the Jewish liberation fighters hastily threw up crude stone fortification walls, incorporating parts of the walls and buildings of the Jewish village.
In effect if not in intent, UNESCO has awarded the Mercouri prize to a set of retaining walls at least the upper tier of which belonged to an ancient Jewish village.
The Jewish claim to the land is that Jews are the original people of the land, as attested by the ancient Jewish kingdoms.
The Arab claim to the land is that they are the indigenous people of the land, as attested by farming villages like this one. It is not an unreasonable claim, but perhaps nominating an ancient Jewish village for UNESCO World heritage Status is not the most effective way to make it.