On Fragility, Neglect and Priorities
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
We are not always certain about how to look after fragile things. Sometimes our efforts to care for them only endanger them the more. It is not always easy to know whether one should come to their aid or leave well-enough alone. Any owner of an aging car, as, until recently I myself was, knows this dilemma, summed up in the debatable maxim - if it's not broken don't fix it. I once found an injured sparrow, picked it up and carried it home in the hope of rescuing it from predators and nursing it back to health. But birds are such fragile things. In my hands it had almost no weight. It was like holding onto a puff of smoke. I could feel in my fingers the tiny bones beneath its feathers, its warmth and the rapid beating of its tiny heart. It was the essence of fragility. It did not recover from the trauma, and probably my well-intended attempts to come to its aid only sealed its fate.
But, by the same token, not taking measures can be devastating. Like that tiny sparrow, the planet we live on is a fragile thing, but few sane people would advocate allowing rampant viruses or out of control bushfires to spread. And even if we are tragically slow on the uptake, there is a general consensus that we need to stop polluting the atmosphere, smothering the seas with plastics, chopping down rainforests and slaughtering whales and dolphins.
But let's come down for the moment from these vital global issues and consider matters less painful and weighty, in that they do not concern our existence or the state of the environment we live in, but that are nonetheless of importance to our cultural heritage. We are understandably shocked by disasters that befall national and world monuments such as the 2019 fire at Notre Dame or the wanton destruction of Palmyra, and it is easy to see why we regard these as cultural tragedies. The problem is with the lesser monuments, those numerous minor sites that, if we are at all aware of their existence we generally neglect. It is only when they are lost, and it is too late that we sometimes begin to appreciate what we had. In Israel there are hundreds of buildings scattered through the towns and countryside that the majority of people never even regard. Many of them are in danger of vanishing altogether and indeed some have. After several years of drought, two winters of increased rainfall in the Galilee have taken their toll on a number of crusader period rural buildings. In recent weeks two structures; the abbey of St George in the village of Deir al-Asad and a Templar rural administrative centre, Somelaria Templi on the road north of Acre, have suffered partial collapse.
As an archaeologist I am constantly aware of the frailty of ancient buildings. People tend to think of stone as a solid thing that survives, but over time even stone crumbles to the elements and to misguided human actions. One can only hope that some of those people who are in the position to protect buildings like the Deir al-Asad monastery and Somelaria Templi with realise that these structures may not be source material of major tourist dollars, but they are an important part of the cultural heritage of the Holy Land, and as such, worth of a greater degree of care than they have hitherto received.