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Compromise or be Compromised: Heritage as a Conflict of Values

by Grace Arnouk

One of the main objectives of the World Heritage Convention is to ensure the effective Conservation of World Heritage properties so that future generations may have the opportunity to enjoy it. Over the past 50 years, this process has become more and more fixed, as it relays on the strategic objectives set by UNESCO but only focusing on the first 3Cs, (Credibility, Conservation, Capacity-building), where expert practitioners and institutions get to determine what heritage is and how to deal with it in the long term. While these Strategic Objectives are important, the two remaining Cs (Communication and Communities) have been forgotten or marginalised without considering the importance and impact of communities on the sustainability of the site and the associated value that the living cultures give to heritage properties.

Despite the existence of a guiding document discussing people-centred approaches published by ICCROM in 2015, and as we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention this year, the requirements for community participation in the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention remain incomplete and vague. State Parties that nominate properties on the World Heritage List are not yet required to systematically and truly demonstrate the nature or type of community participation in order to identify and manage their heritage (Deacon and Smeets, 2013). Here it becomes clear that the mere mention in the international texts is mirrored by a mere mention also in the management plans of the World Heritage sites without real implementation on the ground. Both the cultural heritage sector and the natural heritage sector are shifting to a new paradigm that focuses on the well-being of both people and heritage. Recent cases have shown that although practitioners are well aware of the many benefits that communities can provide for heritage identification and preservation, there is limited data and evidence on how to actually implement community participation at different stages of heritage processes.

The multiplicity of interested parties, beneficiaries or stakeholders of heritage sites currently means, in most cases, the conflict of these parties over their interests within the heritage framework, and this is what I mean by the conflict of values. This conflict is more noticeable in countries with limited resources or with societal diversity. Between the interest of professionals in the material aspect of heritage, where the main value for them lies, and the interest of the administrative authorities in the economic value, and the communities’ interest in heritage as it resembles identity and continuity for them, everyone is stuck fighting a losing war. While I do not suppose that these interests cannot be achieved and meet in one place, for this to happen, there are many strict conditions, the first of which is dialogue and communication.

What I find really interesting in this controversy is that I myself have experienced being part of the conversation with all three parties at some point in one heritage site in my hometown. I conducted interviews back when I lived in Tartous, Syria, with residents of the old town, residents from the city, experts in the field, authorities from the department of Antiquity. Each party conveyed their interests, which all seemed valid.  What struck me the most is that I myself was incapable of making decisions, as I was in an internal struggle trying to balance all those values that I found important and essential.

Here is the issue: the old city of Tartous was placed on the Tentative World Heritage List in 1999 under the criterion (ii) and (iv) for being “an exceptional and representative example of the types of medieval Syro-Palestinian cities that the Crusaders occupied for two centuries (12th – 13th centuries) and transformed in order to adapt them to their strategic needs” (UNESCO World Heritage Center, 2011), but has not been yet nominated by the State Party. This part of the city is still holding a lot of its intangible heritage behind the walls despite the urban and technological development of the other sections of the city. The local residents have preserved their social and religious practices. Being a conservative society that shares a relatively small residential area, in the means of high population in a condensed weave of urban structure, they created a sense of belonging not only to the place but also to each other. The main problem that forced the State Party to delay applying the nomination dossier is the existence of the local residents and the behaviours associated with their daily lives. Although there were many attempts to spread awareness about the cultural significance of the place and the exceptional story that these architectural materials hold, there are major differences in values. Now the major question is, who has the higher authority over this site? What is more important to focus on: keeping people’s rights to their own residence or preserving the cultural significance of one of the most well-preserved crusader castles?

In the past years, the authorities have held awareness-raising sessions and presented some solutions to the area’s community. Two of the main proposals were either to buy houses from the residents or to conduct a limited-time evacuation with the provision of alternative housing in order to carry out real restoration operations that guarantee sustainability of the area for the coming years. Neither were deemed acceptable by the local community.

The community looks at the region through its own lens and does not see the historical value, other than that, it is a place that cradles their cultural practices since their ancestors until now. Here lies another question, who should compromise, and how do we reach a balanced solution that guarantees the preservation of all values? Is it possible to unite the values? Who gets to win this conflict and at what price?

Although we, as heritage professionals and scholars, see that heritage can unite and we encourage it as a peace-making tool, we must acknowledge that without the proper practices and knowledge, it can also divide.


  • H, & Smeets, R. 2013, Heritage & Society, Authenticity, Value and Community Involvement in Heritage Management under the World Heritage and Intangible Heritage Conventions.
  • Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Damaskus. Tartus und sein Hinterland : Archäologische Forschungen in der syrischen Küstenregion von der Antike bis ins Mittelalter. 2001.
  • People-Centred Approaches to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage: Living Heritage. 2015.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Center: Tentative List, Tartus: The Crusaders Citadel-City. 20
  • UNESCO World Heritage Conventio

About the author

Grace Arnouk is a Postgraduate student in World Heritage Studies at Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus, Germany. This Blog post is based on her post-graduate research and inspired by her participation in the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme on “Cultural Heritage and the Planning of European Landscapes”, October 2022.

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