Sebastia on exhibition: photos and videos dedicated to the splendid village, in Milan from the end of February

Giacomo Pizzi3 February 2011

The restoration of Palestinian artistic and cultural heritage, the training of the population and the development of the local economy: the splendid village of Sebastia, located to the north of Nablus in the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, will soon be at the center of an exhibition of videos and photographs to be exhibited in Milan by ATS pro Terra Sancta. Sebastia, a locality still unspoiled by mass tourism despite the presence of a

Roman archaeological site of immense value, the tomb of John the Baptist and breathtaking panoramas, is a small town that was founded by Herod the Great on the site of ancient Samaria in honor of Emperor Augustus. A small town that, thanks to the projects carried out in recent years primarily through the support of Italian private donors and institutions, has today recovered its own cultural heritage. The exhibition, which will be open to the public beginning the last week of February (more details to follow shortly) offers the opportunity to discover first hand the activities carried out in recent years within the framework of the project “Sebastia, between past and present” sponsored by ATS pro Terra Sancta, which has literally changed the aspect of this small village that from both a historical and cultural perspective is extremely wealthy.
Carla Benelli, an art historian and the coordinator of the project, explains how the idea came about for an exhibition and what one can discover by visiting it.

How did the idea of an exposition on Sebastia come about?

The idea to create an exposition entirely dedicated to Sebastia was born in Italy, in the sense that it was thought of and conceived in Italian, and for an Italian public, specifically because since 2005 the works at Sebastia have been carried out thanks to Italian public and private contributions. For this reason, after years of efforts and virtually uninterrupted presence in this village, we wanted to take stock of the situation and show the results. The exposition is part of a project financed by the Cariplo Foundation that has permitted us to continue the works for all of 2010, and will, appropriately, conclude with this exhibition of photographic panels and videos to be presented in Milan. And the choice of the city wasn’t by chance: for all of 2011, in fact, we will continue our work in Sebastia thanks to contributions from Lombardy, in particular thanks to the Lombardy Region, whose assistance has allowed us access to a national fund for support between local Italian and Palestinian entities that will provide for the technical assistance of ATS pro Terra Sancta.

How has Sebastia changed since you began to work here?

Sebastia is unrecognizable. Anyone who visited here at the end of 2005, before the works began, and who comes back to visit today, after five years of continual works, will barely recognize the village. Like ATS pro Terra Sancta, we have always worked with relatively modest funding, but we have nevertheless been able to completely modify the appearance of the historical center, which now is cleaned up and in good order. We have removed a total of 500 cubic meters of rubbish from the alleyways in the center, working almost entirely with local labor. Sebastia today is a splendid little town, a medieval village made up of Ottoman cement houses, gathered around the large Crusader cathedral. This monument, which is the most important structure in the historical center, rises over the tomb of John the Baptist, and is today the central mosque of the village.

But the changes in Sebastian are not only from an aesthetic and architectural point of view: the presence of handicraft shops and a very attractive guest house, brought about through the intervention of ATS pro Terra Sancta and which provide first-rate services to tourists, have transformed the village’s appearance.

Has there been an increase in the number of tourists in the past few years?

Definitely. In 2005 there weren’t any, while now there are people all the time: small groups of both local and international tourists visit Sebastia on an almost daily basis. Sebastia has become a fundamental destination of Christian pilgrimage. The village has been reopened to tourist buses but much of the tourism is local: Palestinian schools and universities now make visits to Sebastia.

All this brings a lot to the local population, above all because a big effort has been made precisely to avoid the type of mass tourism that would only benefit a small number, and have no effect on the rest of the community. In view of the desperate economic conditions in which most of the population found themselves at the beginning of the works, we have tried to broaden the scope of the impact to include the largest possible number of beneficiaries, rather than concentrating on a few who would be better off. Instead of focusing on hotels and restaurants, ATS pro Terra Sancta has created small diffuse structures at the local level. This has allowed the local population to benefit from the possibility of renting out rooms, rather than managing family restaurants and businesses. In other words, we have supported the entire family economy, and above all the feminine element, aiding and supporting the production of typical local products that are distributed in the artisanal center that has been opened in the Sebastia tourist information center.

How has the local population reacted to the new developments?

At the moment there are 20 workers employed within the new Crusader hall that we are cleaning up. Out of a population of 3,000 inhabitants, made up for the most part of large nuclear families, 20 workers represents a significant number, in the sense that there are a far larger number of people who benefit from their employment. The relations with the families directly involved in the project are for this reason exceedingly good, inasmuch in many cases the salaries received by the workers represent the only source of revenue for the entire nuclear family. However, even while trying to rotate the workers so as to extend the benefits to the largest possible number of people, we are not able to reach everyone. Those who are not part of the project are in general quite indifferent to it. In any case, ATS pro Terra Sancta is seeking to extend its activities, working above all with small children and women in the village through the development of various initiatives and classes.

What are the activities in the 2011 program?

In 2011 the project will provide for the restoration and cleaning up of what has today come to be used as a sewer, but in reality is a Crusader hall with a particularly impressive vaulted roof. As a first step, ATS pro Terra Sancta is creating an alternative sewer with an ecological system for recycling water, in order to provide an alternative to families who use the old sewer. After this we will clean up the Crusader hall, in order to transform it into a museum center which will be home to the various historical finds that have turned up in recent years, some of which are of great value. We will also use it as a center for cultural activities, including several days dedicated to children and focusing on the theme of cultural heritage, which in a village like Sebastia is of fundamental importance. ATS pro Terra Sancta will continue to support annual festivals of cultural heritage that will be developed in Sebastia, and will support the lodging sector, which currently has 13 beds but by the end of 2011 will be able to accommodate 25 people. In addition, ATS pro Terra Sancta will continue, through its own activities, to support the women’s association for the local production of jams, soaps and olives, as well as the mosaic shop.