In 2013, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture recognized the historic center of Birzeit for its stunning architectural revitalization. The Master Jury praised the mobilization of “stakeholders and local craftsmen into a process of healing that is not merely physical but that is social, economic and political.” Every family home was consulted to ensure that the renewal process would not transform the historic center into a touristy promenade, but, rather, a center that would embody the living spirit of the village. As the Jury noted, “The project offers an alternative to ‘museified’ historic cores and it pioneers the regeneration of Birzeit’s historic centre into cultural infrastructure.”
It was the Ramallah-based Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation that designed and constructed the projects in Birzeit. Founded in 1991, Riwaq documents and preserves Palestinian architecture in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. After a 13-year study published as the Registry of Historic Buildings with the respective histories, maps and photographs of 422 villages across the three territories (the first of its kind in Palestine), Riwaq discovered that about 50% of historic Palestinian buildings – over 50,000 structures – are in 50 villages in the West Bank and Gaza. While Riwaq is constrained by Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the instituted has launched the 50 Villages project to revitalize the historic buildings in the villages under the Palestinian Authority’s rule. Palestinians in the West Bank are also, of course, under occupation, but the limited autonomy afforded to Palestinians has allowed Riwaq to undertake the ambitious project.
The institution employs not just architects, but also archaeologists and historians as it takes care not only to preserve historical buildings, but maintain an aesthetic harmony between the past and present when building modifications, or even new structures, are necessary.
Proclaiming architecture as part of the collective memory of Palestinians, Riwaq is civic-minded in its approach, employs local merchants and materials in its projects, and enhances not only the appearance of Palestinian villages, but also the social and economic well-being of the village’s community. Riwaq creates incentives for people to move back into renovated homes along with resources to open up new small businesses. Village centers that were previously neglected are transformed into enlivened spaces for meetings and trade.
Against a historical backdrop of devastation for Palestinian architecture – the Nakba razing of over 400 villages by Israel during the 1948 war – and unceasing Israeli house demolitions, Riwaq’s mission is a testament to the power of architecture in giving form to a people’s determination to remain steadfast on the land and continually renew their moral presence.
Below are five villages where Riwaq has left its mark. A renaissance of Palestinian architecture:
Most of the 108 historic buildings in this predominately Christian village date back to the Ottoman period and some even further back to the 16th-13th Mamluk era. The city’s center fell into decay after the gradual decline in rural life following the 1967 War combined with the relocation of its famed university from the historic center to outside the village; and the gravitational pull of nearby Ramallah, which has further driven urbanization outside of the historic center. Riwaq, however, has brought new life to the old heart of the city.
Deir Ghassana’s historic center consists of 279 buildings, half of which had been abandoned prior to Riwaq’s renovation work. The center has traditionally been divided along 3 regions according to class – tax collectors for the Ottoman Empire or peasants. The main plaza harbors the Sheikh Saleh Castle (first photograph), which was home to one of the ruling families in Palestine who acted as tax collectors for the Ottoman Empire. During the British Mandate, Deir Ghassana resumed its traditional role of tax collection on behalf of the Jerusalem and Hebron provinces. Today, the village is surrounded by olive trees and more populous due to an influx of refugees following the 1948 war.
The village of Hajja near Nablus is historically renowned for its camel saddles (a center of trade, its Aramaic name translates into “market”), but, today, its roughly 3,000 residents till the fields. Its historic center had witnessed a massive population drift toward the periphery of the village which left 64% of buildings abandoned. In March 2011, Riwaq began work to rebuild the center’s public spaces and homes, and restore its population.
Al Madafah is the village’s first guest house and school. Today, it serves as the office of a local organization, which hosts public events.
Above private home.
Perched on the green hills, Abwein is famous for its agricultural bounty: pomegranates, figs, grapes, peaches, apples, pears, and olives and walnuts, and so much more. Its Sehweil Castle ruled over 2 dozen nearby villages during the Ottoman Empire. The 1967 Israeli occupation brought a decline in agriculture and a corollary mass exodus from the historic center as Palestinian lands were confiscated or restricted and many young men sought employment in Israel. Prior to Riwaq’s renovation work only 45 families lived in the historic center. As part of its project, Riwaq has built an archaeological park in the village’s historic center.
Riwaq restored ruins and laid down a pathway between the old Mosque and the Castle.
On the border of the Negev desert, Adh Dhahiriya is a central market town for desert Bedouins due to its position as the southernmost Palestinian village on the West Bank. Unlike many other village centers, Adh Dhahiriya’s remained in relatively decent shape with 850 buildings in tact when Riwaq conducted its survey. In the latter half of the 20th century, much of the center was abandoned for newer homes elsewhere. The village is also an archaeological site with ruins dating back to the Hellenic period and a Roman fort renovated by Riwaq (last photograph).
The Hosh al Sabbar was renovated into a small hotel with eleven rooms.
The al Tall courtyards were turned into a community center with a farmers union, youth club, computer lab, radio station and municipal offices.
To learn more about Riwaq, visit their website.
For those further interested in Riwaq’s work, and readers of Arabic, the institution co-published with the Institute of Palestine Studies a textual and illustrative history of architecture in Ramallah, which captures the historical transformation of a major Palestinian city: Ramallah, History and Architecture.
Photos Credits: Riwaq.
By Khelil Bouarrouj.