This prestigious label will also lead to increased tourism, appreciation of local culture and sustainable development in the region.
Unesco has approved the inscription of the island of Djerba on its world heritage list. The Tunisian site is renowned for its ancient ruins, its whitewashed villages, its mosques, churches and synagogues. Aliou Niane from The Conversation Afrique asked Najoua Tobji Ben Rejeb, researcher in environmental and architectural heritage, what were the specificities of the site which led to this decision and its possible repercussions.
Can you trace the history of the site?
Open to the sea, Djerba, the largest island in the southern Mediterranean, has had a turbulent and eventful history since ancient times. Its geographical location in the south-east of Tunisia guaranteed it a strategic location between the two shores of the Mediterranean basin and allowed it to play, very early on, the roles of host land and trading hub between Africa. sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
Furthermore, the advent of Islam in Djerba constituted a decisive turning point in the history of the island, particularly because of the specificity of the Ibadi rite embraced by its population.
In the XNUMXth century, society in Djerba was organized according to a predominantly Ibadi Muslim system alongside Jewish and Christian minorities; which gave the island a multi-faith character.
The island's Jewish community is considered by many historians to be among the oldest, if not the oldest, Jewish communities in North Africa.
These cultural and religious specificities of Djerbian society have generated, in interaction with other parameters such as insularity, historical circumstances and the physical setting, a specific landscape where the natural alternated with the built in an exceptional symbiosis.
Moreover, the serial property “Djerba, testimony to a mode of occupation of an island territory” includes:
- five areas located in the orchards of the island.
- two urban agglomerations, namely the village of Hara Sghira, the oldest of the two villages of the Jewish community of Djerba and the historic center of Houmt-Souk.
- 22 mosques, the Ghriba synagogue and the Saint Nicolas church, witnesses to the cohabitation of three communities with distinct identity and religious references.
Why is it so crucial that the site be designated as a World Heritage Site?
The inclusion of the site on this world heritage list constitutes international recognition of the exceptional value of this heritage and the importance of its preservation and development.
Indeed, the Djerbian heritage constitutes exceptional testimony to a distinctive pattern of settlement and land use. However, this centuries-old model faces multiple challenges today.
What are these challenges?
Today, Djerba is faced with the challenges of controlling urban growth and the changes that can result from it, particularly those affecting its specific heritage. These are manifested in its vernacular architecture, the result of an efficient interaction between the Djerbian and its environment. These specificities are also perceptible through the traditional mode of occupation and exploitation of the island space.
The inclusion of Djerba on the UNESCO list could play a determining role in its preservation and development. Indeed, the Tunisian State, through the management plan, one of the main constituents of the file, is committed to taking adequate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures to protect the property.
Could you explain the eligibility criteria for the World Heritage List and how this site meets these criteria?
According to world heritage convention “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must have outstanding universal value and meet at least one of the ten selection criteria”. Authenticity, integrity, protection and management of assets are also important parameters to consider when developing a registration file.
On the other hand, the document entitled The Operational Guidelines to Guide the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention developed by the World Heritage Committee lists the steps and procedures necessary for the inscription of properties on the prestigious UNESCO list.
The property “Djerba, testimony to a mode of occupation of an island territory” is inscribed according to criterion V:
be an outstanding example of traditional human settlement, traditional use of land or sea, which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or of human interaction with the environment, especially when it This has become vulnerable under the impact of an irreversible mutation.
The nature of land use in Djerba is based on a rural system of territorial division. In fact, the Djerbians did not gather around a water source or around a mosque. They opted instead for distribution over the entire territory according to a defensive logic. The nature of the water table and its distribution have contributed to the adoption of a dispersed habitat and encouraged the improvement of cistern systems to compensate for the lack of water.
This exceptional urban system was made up of districts/Houma which are a group composed of Menzels (agricultural estates) to which a network of roads leads. Two urban centers constitute an exception: Houmt-Souk, a center of economic and commercial exchange, and the Jewish village of Hara Sghira.
Djerba thus represents, according to Eric Falt, director of the UNESCO Office for the Maghreb:
an exceptional testimony to a unique settlement pattern and a remarkable human adaptation, over the centuries, to the constraints of an environment marked by water scarcity and numerous threats from the sea.
This specific landscape was also the result of the tumultuous and bloody periods that Djerba had experienced since the early Middle Ages and which had left their mark on its architectural and urban landscape.
Furthermore, the property correctly meets the conditions of integrity and authenticity and benefits from an appropriate system of protection and management necessary for the safeguarding of the attributes which give it its Outstanding Universal Value.
According to paragraph 49 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention,
Outstanding universal value means such exceptional cultural and/or natural importance that it transcends national boundaries and is equally invaluable to current and future generations of all humanity.
Can you explain the process of evaluating the site once it is nominated for this distinction?
The National Heritage Institute (INP) proposed in 2012, on behalf of the Tunisian State, to include the island of Djerba on the tentative list of World Heritage.
Since then, a team of Tunisian experts belonging to various fields and specialties has worked on the development of a detailed scientific and technical report, in order to meet all the requirements formulated in the UNESCO guidelines. The efforts of the Association for the Safeguarding of the Island of Djerba (ASSIDJE) were, moreover, decisive in the progress of the file. This long-term work ended on February 1, 2022, with the final and official submission of the file to UNESCO headquarters.
In September 2022, a technical mission to evaluate the (International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) went to Djerba in order to examine the property and the issues related to its protection, management and conservation, as well as those associated with its integrity and authenticity, in accordance with the requirements established by the Operational Guidelines before guide the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and its Annex 6.
The additional information provided by the Tunisian State, as well as the mission report and the document studies were carefully examined by the members of the ICOMOS World Heritage Commission during the meeting of the World Heritage Commission of ICOMOS, which was held at the end of November 2022.
Finally, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee which took place in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, the file for the integration of the property into the UNESCO world heritage list was examined and accepted.
What will be the implications of the new status of the site?
Inclusion of a site on the World Heritage List signifies its exceptional value to humanity and the need to preserve it for future generations. It also aims to raise awareness among the local population of the importance of preserving the property. This quest will constitute an effective means of ensuring social cohesion around a common cause, in this case the protection of common heritage and its development.
Furthermore, the site will be further protected by national and local authorities. This prestigious label will also lead to increased tourism, appreciation of local culture and sustainable development in the region.
Doesn't this registration provide additional financial resources to the Tunisian State to ensure the protection of the site?
To financially assist States Parties in protecting properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, UNESCO has created the World Heritage Fund which can finance projects concerning inscribed properties. This assistance must relate either to emergency assistance or to the conservation and management of the property. To benefit from this financial assistance, the Tunisian State must therefore submit a request to the UNESCO World Heritage Center.