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Kids, be proud of your past if you want to build the future

They want to educate children about their heritage, instilling in them the desire to respect it and to protect it. They work on the creation of responsible tourism circuits with an eye to the economic development of communities. They promote the local culture, the products, the markets, the sea... They are the ‘Mare Nostrum’ consortium. And they believe in the heritage trail left by the Phoenicians along their maritime routes and port-cities in the Mediterranean.

TYRE - Talking about the Phoenicians conveys much to the imagination. It brings to mind the ‘people of the sea’ and their culture of exchange and integration, it evokes the ancient Mediterranean as an open space of exchange, and it also conjures the luxury and pomp of purple.

The Phoenicians witnessed their apogee between 1200 and 800 BC. They were the masters of navigation and ship-building and controlled the trade of the inner sea for centuries through their state-of-the-art ships, the establishment of city-states all around the Mediterranean and, most importantly, through what we call today business acumen. They monopolised the manufacture and trading of purple, an expensive dye that became a status symbol and the use of which was eventually restricted to royals. However, their most significant legacy for global civilisation was the alphabet: they invented the non-pictographic alphabet and through their transactions and travel, they disseminated it throughout the region and it was assimilated by the many peoples they came in contact with.

There are many accounts about the Phoenicians, some very scholarly and others less so, some to the mark but many inaccurate and incoherent. The project Mare Nostrum does not pretend to contribute another such account. Funded by the European Union through the Euromed Heritage programme, it is inscribed within a logic of local development, which translates into enhancing this heritage amongst the local communities, particularly the youth, and creating tourism circuits within a perspective of socio-economic growth. Its action involves five Mediterranean port cities that are believed to have started with the emergence of those sea-faring people: Tyre, Rhodes, Syracuse, Marsaxlokk, and Carthage.

“Our project is mainly about raising people’s awareness of the value of these Mediterranean port-cities in order to see to it that they are preserved in a manner that is compatible with the needs of the local communities that live in them and their vicinity, and that is in line with the precepts of a responsible and sustainable tourism,” tells me Giorgio Risicaris between two rather lengthy phone conversations. Risicaris is the Project Manager and operates out of his office at DiCR-University of Florence. The excitement level is running high as partners are preparing for their consortium meeting in Tyre. For the Lebanese partners, the deadline is impending as they put the last touches to the Melkart regional handicrafts exhibition. At the Municipality of Tyre, the telephone is ringing off the hook: the media got wind of the event, which was highly publicised, and they are interested to get some more background information.

Although it is still an assumption, Tyre is considered to be the first Phoenician city-state and has some signs of habitation going back to 6000 B.C, and the Municipality is building its new approach to the development of its tourism on this assumption. “We have a lot to offer - says Mayor Hassan Dbouk as he shows around the Melkart exhibition for handicrafts and local produce - and the challenge is not to just promote our history, but also our local culture, our products, our markets, and our way of life. We have the most beautiful beaches in Lebanon, did you know that?” I didn’t. I only discovered them upon my first visit to Tyre at the occasion of the meeting, and they are indeed clean and beautiful and quite competitive with those of Byblos, the rival Phoenician city further north that gets all the limelight. I also discovered the old city, cosily huddled around the bay and quite vulnerable to the unruly development that has germinated recently.

As the Lebanese partners, two dynamic ladies and their young assistant, drive me down from Beirut to Tyre, all the conversation revolves around the prospects the project opens for the future. According to them, all the information gathered should serve as the basis to elaborate management plans for Tyre, which is crucial for its sustainable development. Liliane Barakat speaks first: “There is a rupture between the old and the new that needs to be bridged – she says - and what we have managed to accomplish through the project is to break this barrier in people’s minds and get them to think in terms of a continuum: what was done in the past affects our present and what we do today shapes our future.”

As we enter the city, I make note of the haphazard new buildings totally lacking in aesthetics. Unseemly piles of rubble strew the sides of the bumpy streets and stare me in the eye. Neglected plots of land betray signs of agricultural activity that has been put to rest and fill me with nostalgia. It’s a constant aggression on the vision until we reach the old city with its harmonious proportions and quaint, although dilapidated beauty. It’s Claudine Abdelmassih’s turn to explain: “When we first took the school children on a tour of the old city, the fishing port and the Mamluke palace, they were agog with admiration. It was a whole new discovery to them, and that’s what makes it so sad. Kids flash their I-pods and talk of reality shows and yet they know nothing about what they have right at their door step.” I remark that it’s true for all youth nowadays and mumble something about the ills of globalisation, but her answer doesn’t come as a surprise: “That may be so, but youth in other countries get educated properly, they get to travel and to experience other things, but these kids get nothing in comparison, and certainly not the opportunity to learn about their own culture.” For Abdellatif Taboubi, who has come from Tunisia, the stakes are even more poignant: “Educating children in the value of Carthage when so many changes are sweeping the country is extremely crucial; our children have to learn to appreciate their past and be proud of it, if they are to construct a new future; and this project is making it possible.”

This is what makes the whole difference with a project such as Mare Nostrum, which gathers a variety of partners around the region. Its emphasis on educating children about their heritage and instilling in them the reflexes to respect it and the desire to see it well preserved, is remarkable. Towards that end, and in addition to site visits and classroom work, drawing competitions are organised for children in all partner cities, and two competitions were organised in Lebanon, one for students of architecture - in an exercise of reflection on urban design and the definition of public spaces - and one for students in graphic design for the realisation of the Melkart logo, the label of quality the project has adopted to mark the tourism itineraries it has developed in its partner cities, and the handicrafts sold in the markets of those cities.

Once the conference “Phoenician Routes in the Mediterranean Sea” is over, a splendid mezze is served in the large dining room of one of the resort hotels, after which we will all head to the exhibition hall, equipped with the brochures and maps produced through the project. I try to catch the attention of the Mayor of Tyre, a dynamic man and a perfect host who, as I am told, has given the project his full support. I ask him what he thinks of this event and of Mare Nostrum in general: “It has brought positive energy within the Municipality and amongst our youth. The summer come, I hope that we will start seeing tourists walking down our streets and enjoying our beaches and restaurants. We have good food, and we are a hospitable lot, after all!” I have no doubts whatsoever on both counts and as we head towards the historic centre, I think it would be nice to come here for a holiday with my family.

Christiane Dabdoub Nasser

Mare Nostrum Partners: Medieval City of Rhodes, Municipality of Tyre, USJ - Département de Géographie, Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines, Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, PARALLELI - Istituto Euromediterraneo del Nord Ovest

Project: Mare Nostrum

  • To contribute to public awareness-raising of the preservation and promotion of the Mediterranean port-cities sites and its archaeological sites along the Phoenician ring-thread routes in a past-present continuum
  • To promote initiatives of community participation in decision-making for designing Mediterranean port-city sites to be culturally, physically and visually accessible by re-interpreting the spaces as new places of life
  • To promote through different awareness-raising means the rediscovery and re-shaping in a historical past-into-present overview of the local tangible and intangible heritage in a view of connecting Mediterranean port-cities sites along the Phoenician ring-thread routes
  • To trace specific educational paths along the historical role of the cities involved in the action in the Mediterranean culture
  • To strengthen and address the actions of the local authorities/governments to the preservation and re-qualification of the tangible and intangible heritage of their areas, through shared and integrated sustainable tourism plans of new tourist itineraries
  • To suggest new port-city sites designs-that show their past-present continuum-integrated with the urban fabric and archaeological sites
  • To promote the Mediterranean handicraft and safeguard of its design and production

From: 15.01.09 To: 01.03.13
Budget: € 1.365.272,00
Countries involved: Greece,Italy,Lebanon,Malta,Syria,Tunisia

Project sheet

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