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The Historic Buildings of Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

October 2005

By Baha’ Ju’beh

Riwaq is getting ready to celebrate the publication of Riwaq’s Registry of Historic Buildings in Palestine, 1994-2004. The Registry, which will come out in two volumes towards the end of 2005, is the result of the strenuous and determined efforts of Riwaq’s team. It is ready for publication after about ten years of field and office work that involved collecting data, maps and pictures, entering them into a computerized system, and checking them for accuracy and details. The project was extremely important because it sought to record and preserve a major aspect of cultural heritage in Palestine. It also dealt with the most vulnerable part of that heritage, the one that is constantly threatened with destruction by bulldozers marching through our villages and towns, uprooting all that remains of our historic buildings. Aware of that threat, Riwaq launched its project to create a registry of historic buildings in Palestine in 1994. This was the first such registry of a vital component of Palestinian cultural heritage, recording all historic buildings in the towns and villages of the West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Although a number of surveys of Palestinian historic sites existed, conducted by the British, Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians, there was not one single, comprehensive listing or registry of historic buildings, most of which date from the late Ottoman through the British Mandate periods (1700-1948).

These structures do not currently fall under any laws that protect historic sites, because they are not recognized as such under the laws currently in force in Palestine. This is what makes this registry so important. It is the first step in a long march to preserve cultural heritage. The Registry contains descriptive, encyclopaedic architectural data on more than fifty thousand historic buildings (50,320, to be exact), in 422 population centres, including 16 main towns and 406 villages, in 11 districts in the West Bank and five districts in the Gaza Strip. It also includes an archive of over 400 computerized maps, which were digitized from imprecise hard copy maps using the Geographic Information System (GIS). There is also an archive of over 45,000 photos of historic buildings, making the Registry a landmark document that combines data, mapping, and pictures.

We estimate that the bulk of the work (over 90%) of Riwaq’s registry of historic buildings in the West Bank and Gaza is now complete. The remaining 10% is mostly small areas, which are either small ruins or modern neighbourhoods where we do not expect to find many historical buildings. Our projections, based on population numbers in residential areas, indicate that an additional 4,000-5,000 historic buildings, at best, will be added to the database.

It is safe to say that this project reveals some major conclusions concerning the architectural and cultural properties in Palestine. These include:

1. Palestine still contains a wealth of architectural legacy. We recorded 50,320 old buildings, indicating that Palestine (in this context, the West Bank, including Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) possesses a huge repository of historical buildings. This becomes more significant if we consider the total area and population size under discussion here.

2. Results of the Registry indicate that historical buildings in major towns, where the larger portion is located, are in much better conditions that those in villages, because of the intensive use of buildings in urban areas. The only exception is the old city of Hebron, because of the current political conditions (apart from the major restoration achievements of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, whose work covered 500 apartments, in addition to infrastructure and roads). Urban structures may have also been preserved because of the critical need for them, and because of existing municipal regulations concerning permits for construction and demolition. There are 16 major historical towns which contain 14,347 historical buildings comprising 28.51% of the total number of buildings in Palestine.

3. The Registry indicates that about 50% of the total number of historic buildings is either in a very bad condition or abandoned. Many of these can be renovated and transformed into modern residences. This will serve more than one goal: protection of cultural heritage, protection and development of the Palestinian countryside, solving housing problems, and reducing the pressure on lands.

Riwaq is now in the process of publishing the results of this major project, which is the organization’s most important and longest-running effort. Riwaq considers this Registry to be the property of the entire Palestinian community. Any person has the right to utilize it.

Baha’ Ju’beh is the Technical Manager of “Riwaq’s Registry of Historic Buildings in Palestine” project.

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