It's a preservationist's dream: a virtually intact Islamic city, with buildings dating from the 18th back to the 12th century.
Thick-walled stone structures two and three stories high, built to house extended families, are asymmetrically clustered around a courtyard. A labyrinth of qanater - low, narrow lanes under vaulted stone ceilings - winds through the old town connecting one family compound to another and separating private from public space. The typical elements of the common quarters of a medieval Islamic town - bathhouse, caravansary or inn, and market - are all there.
The houses were inhabited as recently as 1967, when 10,000 people still populated the old city center of Hebron. After the Israeli occupation and the establishment of Jewish settlements in the heart of Hebron - and overlooking it - most of the inhabitants were forced to flee. Some of the houses were taken over by 400 of Hebron's poorest of the poor; the winding lanes and abandoned buildings became a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, and thieves. The city turned into a ghost town.
Now a bold preservation effort that is part political statement by the Palestinian Authority and part imaginative solution to a housing problem is bringing Hebronites back to their city.
"It was like a slum," says Khalid Qawasmi, of the semigovernmental Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC). "No one wanted to live here. We wanted to restore the buildings, but we also wanted to make sure that we put people in them." The high cost of housing elsewhere and the political provocation of the expanding settlements prompted the committee to lure back Hebronites with a deal too good to refuse.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat assembled the most important of the town's original ruling families, key officials and ministers, and persuaded them that rehabilitating Hebron was a point of national pride. "It was a political decision by Arafat," says Mr. Qawasmi, since Hebron was the only Arab city the Israelis had not withdrawn from.
The HRC rented many of the buildings from the original owners, restored them, then turned them over to tenants rent-free for a period of five years. Health insurance, subsidized electricity, and water were thrown in to sweeten the deal. At the end of the five-year period, in 2001-02, the owners and the tenants will agree on a rental price, negotiated, if necessary, by the Rehabilitation Committee to make sure it's "fair and reasonable," says Qawasmi. Each tenant will also pay a fixed amount to the HRC for building maintenance.
With a $6.5 million budget from the Palestine Authority, the Saudis, the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, and the Spanish government, the HRC has so far restored more than 300 of the targeted 800 units along with infrastructure for the old city. The project has provided housing for 2,000 people and in 1998 won the coveted Aga Khan Award, given for architectural distinction in the Islamic world.
Only natural building materials
The HRC's technical interventions were conservative wherever possible: Neither sandblasting nor chemicals were used to clean the limestone faades, only water and plastic brushes. The walls were repointed with lime mortar, which allows the buildings to breathe. Crumbling fa-ades were dismantled and reassembled; bowed fronts were stabilized or taken down and rebuilt; modern additions were removed. Most of the labor was done by 400 local people trained by engineers and architects who themselves had received training from Riwaq, a nongovernmental organization working to preserve and promote Palestine's vernacular architecture.
Founded in 1992, Ramallah-based Riwaq has compiled a partial inventory of 30,000 historic buildings in cities and villages of the West Bank. To make their list, buildings must be constructed before 1945 - an architectural turning point in Palestine, when traditional building materials and techniques gave way to cement and reinforced concrete, says Nazmi al-Ju'beh, one of Riwaq's founders.
"We're a lobby working against the mentality that values modern buildings," says Mr. Ju'beh. Since they lack any legislative clout - there is no national preservation law, other than one dating from the British Mandate that protects pre-18th-century buildings only - Riwaq relies on education, training, and the power of persuasion and demonstration.
"We work more in the direction of convincing local councils to rehabilitate and develop historical centers to attract businesses and create places where people can breathe," says Ju'beh. So far, the organization has renovated 13 key deserted buildings in Palestine and turned several of them into cultural centers. "We want people to be jealous, to say this used to be garbage, now it's beautiful," he says.
Consultants to the Hebron rehabilitation, Riwaq staff concede that Hebron is a unique case, but point out that many of the West Bank's historic inner cities remain largely intact.
During the Israeli occupation, "people deserted the old town centers. They were preserved by being abandoned," says Ju'beh. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, Palestinians started drifting back. But land prices in the limited areas controlled by the Palestinians have skyrocketed, and the pressure from developers to raze historic structures is great.
Riwaq is working with the government to formulate a national preservation law to retain what's left of the country's architectural heritage, says Riwaq director, architect Suad Amiry. More than 400 Palestinian villages, most built in traditional style, were destroyed by the Israelis from 1948 to 1952.
Not every community's preservation efforts enjoy the political backing of President Arafat. The significance for the whole country of Hebron's preservation is that "we got away from the idea of bulldozers demolishing everything," says Qawasmi, although not without resistance from Hebron's several hundred arms-toting settlers and the Israeli military.
"We can't work on Saturdays, if the settlers are passing through. The army occasionally prevents transportation of goods," says Qawasmi. And two days after the Hebron Agreement was signed in January 1997, 416 restoration workers were arrested for working too close to the settlements. "The problem is that the settlers - and these are the most fanatic ones from Brooklyn [New York] - want to live in Hebron, but they don't want to see any Arabs," says Qawasmi. "We don't believe violence will solve the problem. We wait and hope that the settlements will be evacuated." Unfortunately, Hebron's preservation is not a model that can be applied to other Palestinian towns. Each city reflects a different pattern of occupation, conflict, flight, and emigration, depending on the historical factors that shaped the town. The solutions for each are as individual as their histories.
The most famous is Bethlehem, many of whose inner-city residents fled to South America. Bethlehem's significance for the international community as the place of Jesus' birth has prompted the restoration of the old town theoretically to coincide with the new millennium. The current state of affairs - torn up roads, international donors watching over their patch of restoration with little regard for an integrated plan, frantic attempts to throw up enough hotels to accommodate the millions expected to descend on the city in 2000, construction rubble everywhere - has local wags saying that the engineers are trying to take the city itself back to the time of Jesus.
In search of homeowners
Ramallah, some 25 miles north of Hebron and the unofficial capital of Palestine, faces an entirely different situation. The city lost most of its homeowners to emigration, beginning at the turn of the century. Missionary churches poured into the area and established a base among the Christian population, many of whom used those connections to emigrate to the United States. Only 2,000 of the original 37,000 homeowners still remain, but most kept their old residences.
Palestinians from other towns, particularly Hebronites who came to Ramallah as wage laborers, gradually became caretakers, then tenants of the empty houses.
These landlords residing abroad, and the tenants who moved in, says Riwaq's Ms. Amiry, protected historic residential Ramallah from demolition. It's a different story in commercial areas, where many historic buildings have been lost to the wrecker's ball. Land is simply too valuable post-Oslo Accords. Riwaq's property, for example, was valued at $200,000 when it was purchased in 1990. Now, it's worth about $1.2 million.
Nablus, located in the northern part of the West Bank, is yet again different, but just as much a product of its past. Once a Crusader stronghold - to this day, many of its residents are light-haired and green-eyed - the city was taken back by Salah El Din in 1189. Five Crusader churches built from the remains of mosques have been identified by Riwaq, a few of them transformed once again in later centuries into Islamic places of worship.
Built on the remains of a Canaanite town dating back to 2500 BC, Nablus also boasts Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman layers of history and architecture. Faded signs downtown point the visitor to a Roman amphitheater and hippodrome. Unlike Hebron, Nablus has no settlements in its historic center. Would-be settlers in the 1980s were repelled by stone-throwing inhabitants. But the scars of occupation show in the refugee camps of 35,000 people, roughly 20 percent of Nablus's population, in the Israeli military towers that overlook the old city, and in the roads built by the Army encircling all but the western flank of the town.
Ironically, without the pressure of settlements, preservation is moving more slowly in Nablus, though the city is far wealthier than Hebron. The municipality has renovated the markets and arches of the old town and tiled the commercial area with $2 million worth of paving stones donated by the Japanese.
The old city has 300 deserted buildings, which the municipality is trying to buy from the owners at half market value, then restore. But so far, only two or three have been renovated.
"The old city is the only thing that is evidence of our past history. People die or move on. What's left? Culture. Our struggle with the Israelis is a cultural one," says Naseer Arafat, an architect.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society