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Interview with preservationist Will Raynolds

Belgium-based Will Raynolds is co-Director of Cultural Heritage Initiatives at the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR). Having worked in Tunisia on heritage preservation and documentation projects for over a decade, he has traversed all corners of the country and worked with teams ranging from Tunisia Scouts to the Institut National du Patrimoine.

What first brought you to Tunisia?
I first visited Tunisia to attend a conference in 2006. During that short week, I rented a car and caught a glimpse of the amazing layers to explore in the country. I knew I would be back. Over the past decade, I started to return regularly to work with colleagues from Libya. As the security situation became more difficult in Libya, Tunis became an important refuge and meeting ground, facilitating ongoing work with Libyan archaeologists and academics. We’ve all been very grateful for the hospitality we’ve found in Tunisia.

Sunset at the Qasr of Douiret Tunisia

Sunset at the Qasr of Douiret (Image: Will Raynolds/ASOR)

Tell us a little more about your role as co-director of ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives?
ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives began in 2014 as the ASOR community was galvanized to respond to the iconoclasm of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq at the hands of Daesh. Nearly a decade later, we have ongoing projects across North Africa and in the Sahel. We partner with both government authorities as well as civil society advocates working to protect heritage resources across the region.

In Tunisia, much of our recent work has focused on documenting sites associated with religious and ethnic minorities and equipping these communities with stronger tools to advocate for the sites that matter most to them. Carthagina, a Tunisian non-profit focused on heritage protection, and the Laboratoire Regions et Ressources patrimoniales de Tunisie at Manouba University have both been key partners in this ongoing project.

With the support of a Cultural Property Agreement Implementation Grant from the U.S. State Department, we’ve also been gratified to partner with the Tunisian Scouts to increase public awareness and participation in heritage protection activities.

Finally, thanks to the support of the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, we’ve been able to offer travel grants to Tunisian colleagues, allowing them to travel to the United States and contribute to ASOR’s recent annual meeting in Boston.

Will Raynolds with Tunisian Scouts training in the use of photogrammetry for heritage documentation

Will Raynolds with Tunisian Scouts training in the use of photogrammetry for heritage documentation (Image: Talal Bariun/ASOR)

What accomplishment with ASOR in Tunisia has made you feel most proud?
It has been very exciting to partner with the Tunisian Scouts. Not only do they have an unmatched network of nearly 60,000 members around the country, but they bring a huge amount of enthusiasm to every event they join. At ASOR, we’ve been proud to get a younger generation of Tunisians involved with our work, and this would not have been possible without the help of the Scouts.

Libyan and Tunisian Scouts joined ASOR at the ancient site of Oudna to work together for heritage protection

Libyan and Tunisian Scouts joined ASOR at the ancient site of Oudna to work together for heritage protection. (Image: Will Raynolds/ASOR)

How did you get into the profession of heritage conservation?
I had been working as an archaeologist when I had the chance to meet a delegation from the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities during a training program in Jordan. They were glad to hear that I was interested in the past, but pushed me to recognize that in the present, too many sites and collections were being damaged or disappearing. They suggested that working to protect the ancient places that serve living communities was at least as important as further excavations to make new discoveries. I found their arguments convincing, and this single conversation played an outsized role in leading me towards conservation.

Opening of House of Jewish Memory in Nabeul, attended by members of the Manouba Laboratory, Carthagina, and ASOR

Opening of House of Jewish Memory in Nabeul, attended by members of the Manouba Laboratory, Carthagina, and ASOR (Image: Will Raynolds/ASOR)

What is an unexpected discovery you made while working in Tunisia?
Over a number of visits, I’m sure I’ve spent weeks exploring the medina of Tunis on my own. It was only in visiting the same streets with partners at Manouba and Carthagina that I realized that I had missed so much of the essential story. They helped me understand the deep cosmopolitan tendency of Tunis, a pluralistic city that has a rich tradition of welcoming outsiders.

I’ve been gratified to learn about the long history of the Jewish community in Tunis. While the center of Jewish life in Tunisia is no longer in the capital, a visit to the Borgel Cemetery helped me understand the role the Jewish community played in making Tunis a great city. From tombs of stars like the singer Habiba Msika to those of average shopkeepers of Hafsia, Borgel contains many stories that should be more broadly known.

Where is your favorite place to visit within Tunisia? Why?
As someone who grew up along the front range mountains of Colorado, I like the views from Boukornine [mountain] out over the ocean.

What is one Tunisian dish you crave?
Roz Djerbi*

The fortified granary of Ksar Hadada

The fortified granary of Ksar Hadada (Will Raynolds/ASOR)

What is one thing every visitor to Tunisia should experience?
The stark beauty of the Amazigh castles and fortified granaries. Communities like Douiret, Chenini, and Guermassa in southern Tunisia were once centers of regional trade, stretching into the Nafusa Mountains of what is now Libya, and down into the trans-Saharan caravan routes even further south. These towns and the Amazigh cultural traditions that sustain them are unlike anything that typical visitor may have experienced elsewhere.

Who is a Tunisian you admire?
Yasser Jrad, who works for the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP). He recently helped produce a great exhibition showcasing illicit antiquities that have been intercepted by Tunisian authorities, helping raise public awareness about this growing problem. Unfortunately, archaeological sites around the country are under threat from looters who seek to make private profit from something that is really the common property of all Tunisians. There are also strong indications that looted antiquities from Libya also pass through Tunisia on their way to an international marketplace. Yasser’s work is emblematic of the tireless efforts of others at the INP and in Tunisian law enforcement who strive to protect the country’s remarkable cultural heritage for the benefit of all Tunisians and visitors from around the world.

What do you wish the world knew about Tunisia?
A typical visitor may have heard about one aspect of Tunisia—the beaches, the desert, or the classical ruins, for instance. From a distance, it is difficult to appreciate just how much there is to enjoy in such a densely packed geography. Once you’ve come to Tunisia for a week and started to explore this diversity, you’ll definitely need to return.

* Roz Jerbi is a flavorful steamed rice dish originating from the southeastern island of Djerba. The rice is steamed with harissa, vegetables, spices and herbs, according to the seasons. This dish can be prepared vegetarian or with a protein.

Learn more about ASOR’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives in Tunisia:
Celebrating February’s Black History Month—Documentation and Outreach Event Commemorating the End of Slavery in Tunisia – February 2023
Documentation of Jewish Cultural Heritage in Nabeul – August 2022
Documentation of Amazigh Heritage in Southern Tunisia – October 2022
Oudna Archaeological Site Workshop with Libyan Department of Antiquities, INP, and Tunisia Scouts – May 2022

All ASOR Projects in Tunisia

March 2023

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