Today the Old City of Nablus presents a rich mix of architectural heritage of Ottoman, Mamluk, Roman, and Byzantine architecture. Within the labyrinth of its streets and alleyways the traditional suqs (markets), mosques, soap factories, public baths, historic buildings, and monuments give the Old City its special flavour which, in many ways, is quite similar to other historic regional centres such as Damascus and Aleppo. The residential quarters in Nablus are a tight net of individual houses, complexes (ahwash), and palaces juxtaposed together as rich and poor lived together for many centuries.
In spite of years of neglect as well as natural and manmade disasters that destroyed part of the historic urban fabric in Nablus, the charm and magic are still visible, and their commercial and cultural role in the life of the Nabulsi community remains very strong. The aggressive Israeli campaign from 2002-2009, against Nablus in general and the Old City in particular, the successive incursions, and the long siege isolated Nablus for many years from its hinterland and from the rest of Palestinian cities and villages. This had a serious impact on its economy and prospects for investment.
Recognising the value of the architectural heritage of the Old City of Nablus, the Welfare Association built on the rich and diverse experience in cultural heritage preservation of its comprehensive Old City of Jerusalem Revitalization Programme (OCJRP), and in 2007, its qualified and experienced conservation staff decided to expand the activities of the OCJRP to the Old City of Nablus.
The original OCJRP, which started in 1995, has four main components: 1) restoration and rehabilitation of historic buildings and monuments, which includes housing renewal and adaptive reuse of historic buildings and monuments for the use of institutions that provide social, educational, and cultural services to Old City residents; 2) training and capacity building for architects, engineers, and practitioners in the field of conservation; 3) documentation of historic buildings, properties, and publications; and 4) a community outreach programme to encourage the participation of the community in the restoration process. The work in all components is implemented by a multi-disciplinary, skilled, and well-trained team according to international standards and conventions. The OCJRP team approach in the Old City of Jerusalem is based on looking at the Old City as a living city with the characteristics and developmental needs of a modern city and its neighbourhoods.
As Nablus is considered a major historic centre in Palestine, the Welfare Association recognised the need for significant intervention in the Old City and for providing technical and financial assistance to protect its architectural heritage, improve the residents’ living conditions, and regenerate its economic and social sectors. The deterioration in the historic buildings and monuments in Nablus was aggravated by the damage and destruction caused by the Israeli bombardment of parts of the Old City which required urgent and comprehensive intervention. Consequently, the Welfare Association approached, and successfully obtained, the support of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development for the initiative to safeguard the architectural heritage in the Old City of Nablus and revive its economic and social conditions. This initiative was coordinated with Nablus Municipality, Nablus Local Committee, and other local institutions.
Replicating the successful model of the Jerusalem programme, the Nablus programme was designed to include surveys and studies and the establishment of a database to prepare a complete revitalisation plan based on a needs assessment of the Old City. The preparation of the plan was conducted parallel to the restoration and rehabilitation of the historic buildings and monuments. The intervention in historic buildings also included a new element - the reconstruction of war-damaged historic buildings severely or partially destroyed during the Israeli incursions in the Old City.
A specialised, highly qualified team of experts was formed to carry out the needs assessment, analysis, and recommendations for all developmental sectors - including housing, social, and economic conditions, infrastructure, transport, legal issues, and a framework for intervention in an historic environment - the historical and architectural development of the city as well as its urban development. A comprehensive survey of all buildings in the Old City was carried out by specialised experts assisted by archaeologists, historians from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, as well as highly qualified and recognised consolidation engineers
The plan preparation was coordinated and regularly discussed with the municipality’s relevant departments and the team met frequently to review the findings and progress. The concept and vision adopted by the team was focussed on dealing with the city in a dynamic and realistic way in order to produce a plan for a living, vibrant city that provides modern as well as traditional services to the residents and visitors. The team therefore had to find the balance between the need to improve the economic and social conditions, upgrade and rehabilitate housing and services while safeguarding the historic character of the Old City.
Restoration and Rehabilitation Projects
- The Technical Office began with the adaptive reuse of a two-story abandoned old house that was used as a technical conservation unit for the municipality. The project aimed to improve the physical and structural condition of the various components of the building, restoring the internal spaces while preserving the original traditional tiles, sijjadeh, as well as restoring the wooden elements within the building, including the original wooden mashrabiyyahs and the internal screens and partitions. Upon the completion of the restoration project, the municipality moved its technical team working on the conservation in the Old City to the first floor of the building, while the Local Committee of Nablus Governorate moved to the second floor.
- The reconstruction of the severely damaged Al-Shoubi Residential Complex was one of the most challenging projects undertaken by the OCJRP team. The complex (hosh) in Al Qaryoun neighbourhood used to house 18 families and was completely destroyed during the Israeli bombardment of the Old City in 2002.The project’s comprehensive reconstruction by the OCJRP team was implemented in three phases, starting with careful removal of the debris and rubble of the destroyed houses. With no available documented survey of the complex, the team had to arrange for a number of meetings with the families to determine the size and shape of each unit. This “virtual” survey conducted by the team had to be changed and revised after review by the residents. A 3-D model was also built to enable better review by the residents.
After consolidation of the foundation and lower floors, comprehensive new infrastructure networks were installed. Original and improved courtyards were recreated, and all housing units had their own bathrooms, kitchens, and private entrances.
While many of the original residents returned to the complex upon its completion, some had already settled in different houses after eight years since they were made homeless. After resolving the complex legal issues, the municipality is trying to offer the remaining units to needy families.
- The Darwazeh Residential Complex (Hosh Darwazeh) is yet another complex that suffered from severe damage in 2002. The five families who resided in this complex were forced to leave as it became unfit and dangerous to adjacent buildings.
Considered an emergency intervention, the team and contractor started with careful removal of the debris and rubble and consulted local and international experts to help with the consolidation and design of the new structural elements. Extensive meetings and interviews were conducted with the original residents to determine the exact layout of the complex. The original cross and barrel vaults were reconstructed using traditional construction methods. The original five families returned to the complex upon its completion.
- The Rehabilitation of al-Jitan Square, a semi-public square in the heart of the Old City, is yet another project. The square is the entrance to a number of housing units surrounded by commercial shops and outlets. The square was in a dilapidated condition full of dirt and debris, and it obstructed access to the houses and shops. The project included the rehabilitation and upgrade of the infrastructure, including provision of house connections. Coloured stone was used for tiling, with provision of timber and iron seats around the square to create a pleasant environment for the use of the residents and community.
- The project to Rehabilitate the Habaleh Public Space, in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the Old City of Nablus, also addressed the consequences of the bombardment and siege. The site was selected to provide the community with an attractive landscaped environment. The debris and rubbish were removed in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Coloured tiles, plants, lighting, and fencing were provided to create a safe and attractive environment in the heart of the Old City.
- The Adaptive Re-use of Al-Nabulsi Building and Courtyard Rehabilitation is a project that included the rehabilitation and restoration of Al-Nabulsi building - a large, dilapidated three-story building with a courtyard that was acquired by the municipality for public use. The project included upgrading service networks, solving the humidity and water-leakage problems, and rehabilitating and landscaping the courtyard. The restored building will now be used by an NGO that provides social and cultural services to the community.
- Neighbourhood Renewal (Hosh Obaid). After a few years of implementing restoration and rehabilitation projects for housing and institutional use, the OCJRP team decided to work more comprehensively on housing renewal projects. In agreement with the municipality, the team started to plan for intervention in larger residential areas, combining renewal and rehabilitation of residential complexes and upgrading of external infrastructure as well as internal service networks. The neighbourhood selected is located in al-Qisariyyeh neighbourhood (harah), in the Old City of Nablus, considered to be one of the city’s most impoverished areas. The renewal project comprises 22 housing units in 6 residential complexes, which were in a dilapidated condition. The project also included landscaping and seating areas for the residents, with modest playground facilities for the children. By the end of 2011, 20 units will be completed and residents will return to their much-improved homes.
Participation of the residents in decision making was also strengthened by the fact that a number of the residents worked with contractors during the implementation process.
The Welfare Association’s revitalisation programmes in the old cities of Jerusalem and Nablus provide an example of cooperation among a number of partners and associates. The collaboration and participation of local, formal, and informal institutions, as well as residents, visitors, academics, and donors, ensures the success and sustainability of the programmes.