Journey to discover the Mosaic Centre in Bethlehem

Giacomo Pizzi8 December 2022

In the heart of Bethlehem, in the picturesque street of Star Street, already decorated in these days for the Christmas holidays, is the Mosaic Centre. It is a non-profit organization, supported by Pro Terra Sancta, committed to the promotion and preservation of Palestinian cultural heritage.

History and objectives of the project

The establishment of the Mosaic Centre dates back to 2004, when, thanks to the intervention and supervision of Father Michele Piccirillo, an Italian-Palestinian project was completed. The main purpose is the enhancement and conservation of mosaics, for centuries Palestinian cultural heritage. The collaboration with local and international institutions has allowed, over time, the dissemination of this initiative both to local communities and to tourists and pilgrims passing through the Holy Land.

The arts and crafts centres start in the towns of Jericho, Bethlehem and Nisf Jubeil/Sebastia. In fact, the idea of sustainable and experiential tourism has made its way into these places. In fact, thanks to the local communities, directly and actively involved in the construction and promotion of the art of mosaic and ceramics, visitors are invited to participate in workshops in which to put into practice what they have learned from this millenary tradition.

In recent years, Pro Terra Santa has been able to support the activities of the workshops and craft workshops of the Mosaic Centre thanks to the Swiss Italian foundation FAI. In this regard, young women and social groups in difficulty were actively involved. In this way, it has been possible to give more space to local communities to offer the public quality services and at the same time obtain numerous and useful cultural, social and economic benefits.

Despite the difficulties caused by the advent of the pandemic in 2020, the project has never stopped and, thanks to some repairs, the support and active presence of local communities has never failed.

Adham Hamdan during a visit to the Mosaic Centre in Bethlehem
Adham Hamdan during a visit to the Mosaic Centre in Bethlehem

The Mosaic Centre in Bethlehem

In the ancient and traditional street of Star Street in Bethlehem, direct to the Basilica of the Nativity, stands the Mosaic Centre, born as a branch of the main Mosaic Centre of Jericho.

Before 2017 the current building was an old bakery now in disuse. Thanks to the entrustment of the building to Pro Terra Santa, which financed the renovation work with the contribution of the Associazione Amici P. Kaswalder, Associazione Artigiani Trentina, Associazione Missioni Francescane Trento, Aca de Vita and the patronage of the Autonomous Province of Trento, the renovation work began. The works were chaired by the architect Osama Hamdan, director of the Mosaic Centre in Jericho.

We know Samah, Yasmeen and Adham

At the moment the activities of the Mosaic Centre in Bethlehem are carried out thanks to the active intervention of five different personalities.

The beating heart of the construction of the mosaics is the work of the two Palestinian women Samah Alakra and Yasmeen Zawahrah. After an initial period of training, for some years Samah and Yasmeen have been engaged in the active realization of products for sale to the public. Despite some difficulties related to being deaf-mute, thanks to the Mosaic Centre project Samah and Yasmeen had the triple opportunity to express their creativity, through their typical cultural tradition, to interact with pilgrims from all over the world and, not least, to be financially independent.

Adham Hamdan is an active collaborator for the administrative management of the center, who is involved in issues related to the sales of mosaics and products of the center.

A chat with Maria Fraccia, Italian civil volunteer

Maria Fraccia is also a volunteer within the center. Arriving at the end of July thanks to a universal civil service project, Maria is currently working in the office of Pro Terra Santa in Jerusalem for project management. In addition to this, he currently spends two days a week in Bethlehem to offer his contribution both for the administrative part and for the promotion and dissemination of the spirit of the center to visitors and the local population.

“It is a welcoming place of passage, where you can also test yourself in the construction of mosaics, thanks to the valuable advice of Samah and Yasmeen”. Mary also emphasizes the potential of the center also as a place of conviviality, considering the possibility of enjoying local food prepared by families of Bethlehem, and as a cultural center for possible meetings dedicated to discussion on cultural issues. To ensure that this project has resonance, Maria has also taken care, in recent months, of opening and carrying out, in parallel with the profile on Facebook, an Instagram page, dedicated to the presentation of activities to reach as many audiences as possible.

In this regard, Maria also tells us about the possibility of making the Mosaic Centre a gathering place for local young people. “Many Palestinians enter the Mosaic Centre, even for a few minutes, to take some pictures in the centre or in the garden in the back yard. They realize how carefully the place is kept and express appreciation of amazement for the work we do”. For this type of promotion it is also important at the moment the help offered by Yasmeen and Samah, often engaged in promoting the results of their work on their social pages.

In view of Christmas

On the occasion of the Christmas holiday period, there are many requests from tourists and pilgrims for mosaics that represent symbols of the nativity, such as the famous Christmas star. The subjects on which the mosaicists work daily are often dedicated to places and images typical of the Holy Land. Some examples are the tree of life, a copy of the eighth-century Umayyad mosaic of the Palace of Hisham in Jericho, the representation of the holy city of Jerusalem from the map of Madaba of the sixth century, and some illustrations by the well-known artist Banksy. Sometimes, however, requests for customizations also arrive, on the occasion of events such as weddings: there are those who ask for an image that recalls the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and those who ask for extremely personal representations.