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The Heart of Nablus: Nine Thousand Years and More …

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

A Revitalisation Plan for the Old City

By Dr. Shadia Touqan

Nablus, ‘Neopolis’ the Pearl of the North-carrying thousands of years of Palestinian history and the imprints of layers of civilizations in and around its historic core-embraces in its small area all the elements and remains of cultural heritage found scattered all over the region. A luxury seldom found in one place.

The old city of Nablus today may not have retained the most spectacular visible monuments seen in nearby historic cities such as Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, or Cairo. However, and in spite of a series of natural and man-made disasters that destroyed the city fabric many times over throughout the centuries, its dense architectural fabric, dynamic urban spaces, narrow streets and alleyways, and distinctive stone facades tell thousands of stories about its rich and diverse history.

The hidden beauty of the old city of Nablus lies more in its horizontally and vertically linked internal spaces, its carefully carved wooden and stone details, its lush gardens and fountains rather than its glamorous decorated entrances and exteriors. Its physical beauty is low-key, mysterious, and somehow cunning.

Once you arrive at the centre of Nablus, you immediately recognize the invisible borders of the old city. Concealed behind modern facades and commercial clutter, the many entry-points to its narrow streets draw you to the labyrinth of alleyways and footpaths that encircle its famous harat (such as Al Qaryoun, Al Yasmineh), historic landmarks, exceptional khans and souqs, and amazing lifestyle.

These modest, discreet entrances-gates leading to one of the most fabulous and exciting historic cities in the region-are also a sign, albeit accidental, of the physical integration of the historic core of Nablus with the rest of the city. No sign, no direction, no grand sense of arrival but an invitation, a nudge, and wink to a journey of discovery.

Walk the narrow and the not-so-narrow streets, and you will only be a few steps inside the heart of the old city, where a different world unfolds. Throbbing, beating, this heart echoes the loud pulse of the Nabulsis buying and selling their meat and vegetables, spices and pulses, sweets and bread, cloths and kitchenware-Nabulsis going to work in any of the various workshops, schools, shops. This is the place where you can buy your soap, take a bath, make your cloths, mend your shoes, or buy your furniture.

Historically, Nablus has always been a key centre for trade-locally, regionally, and internationally. During the peak of the cotton trade, it played a leading part in the export of this once-important local produce to Europe. Over the centuries, it also played a major political role with various external powers.

The old city has five main commercial streets. Its spine, Al Nasr Street, connects it to the east and west sides of the expanded modern city, with parallel and connecting smaller streets that complement its exceptional khans. In spite of the current recession, the streets, lanes, and souqs are still rich with merchandise, busy with shoppers, and buzzing with life.

Surrounded by densely populated residential quarters, there are 12 historic mosques in the old city (built or rebuilt during the Omari, Ayyubid, or Ottoman eras), two churches and a Samaritan synagogue, in addition to a number of mazarat, maqamat, and zawaya. Traditionally known for natural soap-making from olive oil, the old city contains over 20 soap factories. Some are still in use, others are abandoned, and sadly, three were devastated during the Israeli invasion in 2002. Of its eight traditional hammams, only two are in use.

This incredible wealth and history has given Nablus (what is now known as the old city) the strength, resilience, and pride that seeps through to all the new parts of the expanded city.

The population of the old city today is approximately 20,000. Most of the original residents of the historic core moved out gradually since the earthquake of 1927 and, as in many historic cities in the region, the wealthier groups of the society moved out and were replaced by poorer groups from the periphery. Nevertheless, soon the newcomers blended with the local social fabric, and after a few decades they now form the majority of the old city community and rightly claim it as their own. The Nabulsi inhabitants of the old city, regardless of their backgrounds and origins, still form a dynamic and lively community.

The original residents and those from more modern and affluent parts of Nablus continue to visit and use the old city weekly, if not daily. The strong relation between Nabulsis and their historic city goes beyond the visits and the functional needs and is more an attachment to their roots, identity, and self.

Telling the story of al balad al qadema (the old city), one cannot ignore the sadness and grief suffered daily by the Nabulsis in and around the old city, especially in the last few years. The recent wilful destruction of many valuable historic houses and monuments as a result of indiscriminate shelling and bombing from land and air to the historic core, shocked not only the foundations of its urban fabric, but the hearts, feelings, and dreams of the inhabitants. The destruction still continues in varying degrees of fierceness.

Nevertheless, with true Nabulsi resilience and spirit, the crowds re-gather in the old streets and squares after every assault to reclaim their beloved and beautiful, but scarred, city.

The preservation of the historic buildings and cultural heritage of the old city of Nablus should go deeper than the conservation of the physical appearances and the use of stone and mortar. The protection and restoration of this valuable historic envelope should be matched with social and economic revitalization, the revival of traditions, and the celebration of a special way of life.

The planner, the architect, the conserver, and the politician should join their efforts first to understand how the old city works and what economic role it plays in the life of Nablus as a whole-its social structure, housing conditions, and unique characteristics and needs.

The restoration and rehabilitation of the historic buildings, housing as well as monuments and public spaces, should only be the tool to protect the heritage but, most important, it should aim to effect a change and improvement in not only the physical fabric but also the living conditions of residents and to create an environment that will attract investors and visitors without ignoring or marginalizing the inhabitants. The planner will observe who is using the city and whom it attracts. Above all, professionals should listen to the community (residents inside and outside the old city) to learn about their perceptions of the old city and their dreams, while studying its potential for visitors and shoppers outside Nablus’ borders.

To plan to protect al balad al qadema is to plan to weave back the broken threads and mend the holes in this exquisite rug. To plan to revitalize is to put back the pattern, the texture, the colour, and the spirit into the original creation.

Dr. Shadia Touqan is an architect/urban planner and the Director of the Welfare Association’s Old City of Jerusalem Revitalisation Programme.

Based on the philosophy outlined above, the Welfare Association, in coordination and consultation with the Nablus Municipality and the Local Committee, approached the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development to support the preparation of a comprehensive revitalization plan for the old city of Nablus based on extensive research, sectoral studies, and surveys. The preparation of the Plan will take over two years and will involve the participation of local experts from all fields of development.


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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