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Volume 51, Number 6November/December 2000

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Stirring Up Beauty

Written by Kerry Abbott
Photographed by David H. Wells

Tucked away off the main thoroughfare that links El-Bireh with Jerusalem, some 20 minutes' drive to the south, stands an elegant house built of ochre stone, with an outside staircase that winds up to a riwaq, or portico. There, a generously shaded floor of colored tiles leads into the offices of the Palestinian organization that has taken on the job of protecting local vernacular architecture from the fast-paced commercial development characteristic of Palestine today. The organization is named Riwaq.

Co-director and historical archeologist Nazmi Al-Jubeh explains that the riwaq is one of the most distinctive features of the urban Palestinian dwelling built before World War II. "Most traditional houses have a type of riwaq,'" he says. "We wanted the name of our society to reflect an architectural aspect of the entrance, so that when people hear our name the first thing they think of is a traditional building."

This is a time of rapid change in the Palestinian landscape. Since 1993, in El-Bireh as in neighboring Ramallah and in towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, long-vacant lots have sprouted multistory offices and apartment buildings. A boom in speculative construction has made the preservation of those buildings that define the Palestinian architectural heritage into a critical task.

Riwaq was conceived by architect Suad Amiry who, with archeologist Ali Ziadeh and graphic artist Tayseer Masriyeh, taught at Palestine's Birzeit University, not far from El-Bireh. In 1990, they observed that, while some aspects of Palestinian material culture such as embroidery and handicrafts had become subjects of well-organized cultural preservation efforts, traditional architecture was largely neglected and, as a result, was rapidly disappearing. Yet unlike handicrafts, architectural conservation cannot be supported by a network of retail sales outlets, and preserving it demands work on a larger and inevitably more costly scale. At the very least, the three reasoned, Palestinian architecture should be documented in a publicly available historical register. According to Al-Jubeh, some 300 West Bank cities, towns and villages have "valuable historic centers," many of which have seriously deteriorated.

Beyond financial obstacles, Riwaq's founders foresaw cultural ones. Modern residents often prefer new houses, where such materials as factory-cut tile floors are easily available and quickly prove easier to keep clean than traditional rough-hewn stone. Additionally, renovating an old building often costs more than starting anew, and with the passing years it has become harder and harder to even find builders whose skills include traditional building techniques.

In 1991, Riwaq opened its doors as the first Palestinian organization for the preservation of architectural heritage. At first, it was funded modestly by the founders themselves. Later, they rented the house where they are today, choosing it because it included several key features of Palestinian design: the red tile roof, the floor of decorative tiles, the balcony with a balustrade and, of course, the arched portico —the riwaq.

Their first project was to compile a catalogue of traditional floor-tile designs. Produced mostly in the Ramallah and Nablus regions from the 19th century to before World War II, these tiles, intricately ornamented with variously colored geometric shapes such as stars and rosettes, now are treasures found—often in damaged and discolored condition— in houses of the late Ottoman period. They are produced today by only a few craftsmen, among them members of the Wazwaz family, which owns a tile factory in the nearby village of Al-Ram. There, traditional tiles can be made to order at a cost competitive with quality stone flooring. The family finds buyers among high-end homebuilders, and the tiles are a prominent feature in a new housing development at Tel Safa, on the edge of Ramallah, where a new neighborhood is being recreated in traditional style.

Since 1993 Ramallah has been a West Bank administrative center for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and rapid commercial and residential development has altered the face of the modest town, whose cool, gentle hills and graceful stone houses were once popular among visitors from the Arabian Peninsula seeking relief from summer's heat.

"Ramallah has not only changed its face," says Al-Jubeh. "It has also changed its character, its function and its demography." In the 1950's, he explains, what was built was "poor buildings to accommodate middle-class refugees." Since 1993, most construction has been funded by what Palestinians call "the returnees": Palestinians who lived abroad until 1993, many of whom returned—often with considerable wealth— to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their capital, Al-Jubeh says, made it possible for landowners to convert their holdings into profitable investments. Indeed, across the road from Riwaq's building, in the midst of an otherwise residential area, stands a new, eight-story office tower.

To develop their documentation methods, Al-Jubeh recalls, Riwaq secured a grant in 1994 to conduct a pilot study of old buildings in Ramallah. When the project came in under budget, Riwaq was encouraged to use the rest of the money to document neighboring El-Bireh.

The work was urgent. The rush to set up the PNA's West Bank operations often meant that builders' bulldozers worked faster than Riwaq's pens, cameras and database software. Besides a few documents by Christian missionaries and archeologists, whose concerns were limited to structures of possible biblical significance, the only previous architectural documentation of the city consisted of the late 19th-century British Survey of Eastern Palestine. Following the local success of the Ramallah survey, Riwaq expanded its documentation effort and recruited 60 students from Birzeit and Al-Najah universities to help over several summers.

In the legal arena, Riwaq has built a constituency for passage of a comprehensive historic-preservation law by the Palestinian legislature. At present, the only law protecting historical sites is a British Mandate law, still technically in force, that requires preservation of sites that pre-date the 16th century. "Most of our heritage is later than that," says Al-Jubeh, and thus unprotected. More recent is a scattering of local laws that have been promulgated as parts of the master plans of several West Bank cities. While working to pass its proposal through the legislature, Riwaq successfully encouraged the PNA's Minister of Local Government to issue a decree—which lacks the full force of law—banning the destruction of old buildings in cities or villages. More recently, the Palestinian Ministries of Culture and Tourism have joined Riwaq in these efforts, as have a number of legal professionals who have become members of the "Friends of Riwaq."

On the ground, Riwaq teamed up with the Palestinian Youth Union in 1997 to organize a work camp in the historic village of Mazare' al-Nobani, north of Ramallah. Over four months, an Ottoman-era village diwan, or reception room, was renovated and adapted for use as a youth center. Later, Riwaq's fundraising expertise, technical help and design assistance helped give such centers to more than half a dozen other villages.

In the course of this and other early projects, the architects often found previous restoration work that had been improperly done. Some stone houses, for example, had been patched with Portland cement, a material whose weight and changes in moisture content actually weaken the structure. In response, in 1998 Riwaq offered its first nine-week course in restoration techniques to some 40 architects working in the public and private sectors. It was so successful that five more courses have been given so far introducing more than 100 Palestinian architects to the problems of conservation and teaching them "how not to make major mistakes," says Al-Jubeh. Now, some of those graduates work with the Rehabilitation Committee in Hebron.

"Conservation is a philosophy, not just a technique," says Al-Jubeh, who adds that one of the most common conflicts is whether to stop with stabilization and renovation of a building, or go on to actually rebuild it, to make it more attractive while maintaining the stylistic integrity of the original. "If a facade is not straight, even if the structure is stable, the people will maybe not trust it," Al-Jubeh warns."If you want people to have confidence and respect for the building, you have to rebuild it to make it look stable."

The range of homes Riwaq has helped to renovate extends from simple dwellings in the Old City of Jerusalem all the way to the elaborate Sakakini villa in Ramallah. Its eponym, Khalil Sakakini (1878-1953), was one of the godfathers of Palestinian national identity. "If you wish to awaken a nation," he wrote, "stir up and develop its sense of beauty.... For if you stimulate this sense, [it] will regard virtue as beauty and not veer toward vice."

Sakakini's family home is now the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, founded in 1996 after Riwaq-led renovations in that year and again in 1998. Operated by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, the center sponsors artistic, musical and cultural events. Inside, sunlight filtering through the original stained-glass windows superimposes additional patterns on the traditional floor tiles, some of which Riwaq salvaged from a dump. Director Adila Laidi shows off the villa with pride. "Whenever we have problems with fund-raising and things I think, 'Thank God I'm working in a beautiful building.' It's such a pleasure to come to work each day and see these beautiful tiles and windows."

Riwaq has also worked successfully in Bethlehem: In 1996, its design for the renovation of one of the town's main streets won an international competition sponsored jointly by the United Nations Development Program, the Swedish International Development Agency and the municipality. Today, Bethlehem has its own renovation plan for the city center under the auspices of the Palestinian ministries of culture and tourism.

In Hebron, Riwaq has a helping role, assisting the local Rehabilitation Committee with the support of international donors that include Arab groups and Spanish government agencies. Al-Jubeh and co-director Suad Amiry, along with architects Saher Ghazal and Firas Rahhal, serve largely as consultants, and as more local organizations form their own reconstruction teams, this is a role Riwaq plays increasingly. With Riwaq's help in preparing their entry, the Hebron project in 1998 won a triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Emad Hamdan, administrative manager for the Rehabilitation Committee, says that some 160 homes have been renovated and reoccupied in Hebron so far—about half the total the group aims to renew, with an emphasis on the largely abandoned buildings bordering the old market. As these dwellings range from one to six bedrooms, post-renovation residents are selected according to family size, financial need and level of education. They pay no rent for the first five years, and there is a ceiling on utilities charges. These financial incentives are designed to help assure the area is populated by people most likely to take best advantage of the buildings.

Amiry points to these incentives as one way to make the costs of conservation realistic, especially among people who live with political instability, economic uncertainty and high land costs. Under these circumstances, he points out, Palestinian historic towns and buildings "are bound to be under threat."

Riwaq today consists of the conservation unit, headed by Amiry, which deals with preservation and restoration; a second team that plans land-use and community revitalization strategies; and the national registry unit, headed by Al-Jubeh. Using photography and technical drawings, the registry unit has catalogued all the major towns presently under Palestinian administration in the West Bank, as well as some 80 villages. Together with PNA surveys now under way, the process of documenting the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip could be complete in a few years, Amiry believes.

One fact that appears to be emerging from Riwaq's survey data is that by protecting an area of only 10 to 20 dunams (9000-18,000 sq m, 2 ¼–4 ½ acres) in each town, some 90 percent of the stock of Palestinian architecture worth preserving could be protected. By working with the municipality of Ramallah, 40 dunams (3.6 ha, 9 acres) in the old town has been set aside for restoration as a historic district. A plan has been drafted for the renovation work and funding is currently being sought.

Current projects also include publishing, which will disseminate the wealth of knowledge Riwaq has gathered. Books under production include one on floor tiles, another on the social history of Ramallah, viewed through its buildings, and The Houses of Palestine by architect Diala Nasser, which uses typologies of housing to illustrate Palestinian social, economic, and political history.

According to Al-Jubeh, Riwaq's success comes in large part because its members work in fluid, complementary teams. The organization has also resisted the pressure to expand, he says, that inevitably comes during the flush phases of the cycles of expansion and contraction that are common to grant-funded, non-profit organizations. And as the Palestinian Ministry of Culture has grown, Riwaq has transferred oversight of some projects to the ministry, with some of Riwaq's core staff continuing to work on the projects under ministry auspices. This, Al-Jubeh maintains, demonstrates the extent to which Riwaq has become part of the emerging national fabric of Palestine. As more local preservation groups are founded to expand on the principles first championed by Riwaq not even a decade ago, they form links throughout the nascent country, pillars supporting yet another arch that shelters a fragile heritage.

Kerry Abott is a free-lance writer and development consultant based in Virginia.

David H. Wells is a free-lance photographer affiliated with the Matrix agency of New York. He has several times taught the art of the photo essay at the Maine Photographic Workshops and, in 1999, taught in India as a Fulbright scholar.

This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the November/December 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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