|part one- jerusalem architectural history Jerusalem|
|With special thanks to www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org|
in the British Mandate Period
Jerusalem: Architecture in the Late Ottoman Period
Jerusalem Architecture Since 1948
Jerusalem: Christian Architecture through the Ages
Jerusalem: Architecture in the British Mandate Period
by Lili Eylon
In December 1917, when General Allenby entered the Old City of Jerusalem on foot, through Jaffa Gate, British rule over Palestine began. The British, who governed first by military government, later (until Israel’s independence in 1948) by Mandatory administration, set up their administrative center for the country in Jerusalem.
During these years, Jerusalem began its transformation from the provincial town of Ottoman times to a modern administrative, political, religious and cultural center. Building activity began almost immediately and Jerusalem expanded to the north, south and west. The British determined municipal zones, commercial areas, density of construction, use of materials and height of buildings. Perhaps their most influential contribution to the character of architecture in Jerusalem was a municipal ordinance – which remains in effect to this day – requiring all new buildings to be faced with stone, giving a certain romantic quality to the buildings.
While much of the public building in Jerusalem was initiated and financed by Jewish organizations, the British constructed Government House (the residence of the High Commissioner), St. Andrew’s Church, the Central Post Office and the Government Printing House. Private building did not lag behind; not so much in the Old City, but outside the walls new neighborhoods were built to accommodate the growing population, each with its own character.
Begun in 1922, the Rehavia neighborhood served as a "garden suburb" for Jewish families who sought to escape the crowded conditions elsewhere in the city. The land used for building was bought by the Palestine Land Development Corporation from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate – which had acquired much land in the city during the 19th century and now found itself in financial straits.
Designed by architect Richard Kaufmann, who planned many of Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, the plan provided for a central avenue – Ramban – crisscrossed by streets and Keren Kayemet, a curving street with many small shops.
According to Kaufmann’s plan, each family was to have an individual house and garden, and many of the houses were built in a modified Bauhaus style. Features included unadorned facades; small roofs over doors and windows – for shade in the country’s subtropical climate; rounded balconies; entrances on the sides of buildings; decorative metal railings on staircases; outdoor iron gates; and art deco details. Two workers’ housing cooperatives – me’onot ovdim – featured common inner courtyards, separate entrances to apartments, abundant greenery and metal balcony railings.
The Rehavia Gymnasium, the country’s second modern high school – the first being the Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv – was built in 1928 on Keren Kayemet Street. Among its early teachers were Yitzhak Ben Zvi, who was to become the second president of Israel, and Rachel Yanait, who became his wife.
In the 30s, because of the influx of Jews from Germany to the quarter, Rehavia was nicknamed "a Prussian island in an Oriental sea." These newcomers brought with them the concept of afternoon coffee (prompting the emergence of coffee houses) as well as the Schlafstunde – the afternoon siesta. The veteran local population gladly adopted both. A tennis court, today a municipal park, is nestled among the homes. A number of family hotels, founded by refugees from Central Europe, catered to people living in coastal towns who came to spend a few summer weeks in cooler, drier Jerusalem. Rehavia even had its own private bus service to the center of town.
A three-winged structure with a large open courtyard, designed by Yochanan Rattner, housed the Jewish Agency. Before the establishment of the State in 1948, the affairs of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, were conducted in this building. In March 1948 a powerful bomb killed and wounded many persons and devastated the Keren Hayesod section of the building. It was later rebuilt with an additional story. The Jewish Agency (which is concerned with the immigration and integration of immigrants); Keren Hayesod (which handles financial support from world Jewry); and the Jewish National Fund (which deals with land development and afforestation) are still housed here.
Almost all of Rehavia’s streets were named for poets and sages who had lived in Spain in the Golden Age (8th to 12th centuries). Eliezer Park on Ramban Street is named for Jerusalem architect Eliezer Yellin, who gave the neighborhood the name of the grandson of Moses (1 Chronicles 23:17). Yellin’s home on Ramban street was the very first house in the quarter.
Rehavia was home to many of Israel’s early leaders, among them Arthur Ruppin, known as the "father of Zionist settlement"; Menachem Ussishkin, head of the Jewish National Fund; and Dov Joseph, a minister in several of Israel’s Governments. Here also was the residence of Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister; Daniel Auster, first Jewish mayor of Jerusalem, and philosophers Hugo Bergmann and Gershon Scholem.
The Bauhaus building at No. 3 Balfour was designed by Richard Kaufmann for the wealthy Aghion family from Egypt. In 1939-40 the Aghions let the house to exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. Today it is the official residence of Israel’s prime ministers.
Balfour Street also housed the Guatemalan, Swiss and Turkish consulates. At No. 6 Balfour lived internationally renowned architect Eric Mendelsohn, who designed the Schocken Library; and the home of Zalman Schocken, founder and owner of the Ha’aretz newspaper, was at nearby No. 7 Smolenskin Street (today part of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance). The home of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister, was at No.19 Balfour Street, a house designed by Hungarian architect Zoltan Hermet, while Zalman Shazar, prior to assuming office as Israel’s third president, lived at No. 20 Balfour Street.
An archeological curiosity in this residential area is Jason’s Tomb. A burial tomb from Hasmonean times (2nd century BCE) uncovered in 1956, its Greek and Aramaic inscription includes an epitaph to the unknown Jason.
Today a bastion of the well-to-do, Rehavia is still a quiet neighborhood full of greenery – a pleasant surprise very close to the bustling city center.
Literally "House of the Vineyard" (from Jeremiah 6:1), Beit Hakerem was the next garden suburb of Jerusalem. Designed by Richard Kaufmann and planned to the last detail before construction, it was built on land acquired from the Greek Patriarchate as well as from private owners.
Beit Hakerem was built outside the municipal jurisdiction, its inhabitants paid no taxes, and a neighborhood va’ad (committee) was elected to take care of the quarter’s water and electricity supplies, transportation and other needs. The va’ad stipulated that Beit Hakerem include a marketplace, a sports field, a synagogue, a park, an electric power station, a school and a cooperative grocery. It was also decided that whoever bought a house had to live in it, and could lease it only with prior permission from the va’ad.
The price of a plot in Beit Hakerem was about one tenth of that in Rehavia and soon writers, teachers and white collar workers moved in. The first 60 houses, many of them designed by architect Yehuda Salant, were ready in 1924.
Modeled after European cities, the quarter consists of parallel streets connected by smaller lanes and a central avenue designed as a pedestrian promenade; today it bustles with motor traffic. In the center of its commercial area is Denmark Square, commemorating the Danish people’s rescue of Jews during World War II.
Very green and well-maintained, Beit Hakerem is today a desirable residential neighborhood.
Talbiya, Katamon, Abu Tor and Bak’a, built in the 1920s and 1930s, were affluent neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Christian Arabs. The houses boasted large gardens with citrus, fig, palm and cypress trees. Eclectic architectural elements graced the homes, including Renaissance, Moorish and Arab motifs and Armenian ceramic decorations.
Talbiya (its Hebrew name is Komemiut, but it is still commonly referred to by its older name), a prestigious neighborhood, was built between 1924-37. Constantine Salameh, a Christian Arab merchant and building contractor, purchased the land from the Greek Patriarchate, sold part and built on the other part.
Salameh built a luxurious villa with a large garden for his family, planned by French architect M. Favier (who also planned the French consulate). A symmetrical facade and straight lines characterize this imposing building, which has been the residence of the Belgian consul since 1949. The interior is no less impressive than the exterior: an octagonal fountain graces the central hall and some of the rooms have wooden ceilings and floors of white and gray Carrera marble.
The villa faces a flowering square – actually a circle – originally named Salameh Square. Today it is called Wingate Square – in commemoration of Orde Wingate, the British officer who, in the late 30s, trained members of the Haganah, the Jewish self-defense underground organization.
Marcus Street is another street noted for its beautiful houses built during mandatory times. It is named for Col. David (Mickey) Marcus, an officer in the U.S. army who volunteered to be a military advisor in Israel’s War of Independence.
The Italian architect Antonio Berluzzi planned this monumental structure (1924-27) which at first served as a community center for Catholic youth, and later, with the opening of the YMCA, became a vocational high school. Situated on Keren Hayesod Street, this symmetrical building with its horizontal lines between stories, combines Italian Renaissance and neo-baroque elements. Prince Umberto, later King of Italy, came to Jerusalem in 1928 to dedicate the statue poised on the roof – the haloed Madonina, patron saint of Milano.
When the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus became inaccessible in 1948, the university rented part of the Terra Sancta building from the Franciscan custodians of the Latin Holy Places and set up a number of its departments in it. It was not until 1997 that the last university department, Climatology, left Terra Sancta. In 1999 the building still remains home to the Friends of the Hebrew University but it is scheduled to revert completely to its owners.
The Hebrew University on Mount Scopus
In 1897, at the first Zionist Congress, the idea of a Jewish university in Palestine was discussed. The establishment of such an institution, at a time when many young Jews were denied access to university study in European countries, such as Russia, would be "a response to a deep-seated need of the homeless young Jewish intellectuals," in the words of Prof. Chaim Weizmann, later first president of the State of Israel.
With funds provided by Russian, English and American Zionists, land was acquired on Mount Scopus and the cornerstone was laid in 1918. In a 1921 master plan for Jerusalem, Scottish town planner and architect Patrick Geddes designated the entire ridge of Mount Scopus for a university.
On April 1, 1925 the festive opening of the university took place in the presence of Professor Chaim Weizmann, the British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel and the architect of the Balfour Declaration, Lord Arthur Balfour, who at age 77, had come from England for the occasion. At this point, only one building existed – the Chaim Weizmann School of Chemistry and Institute of Microbiology. In that first year, the new university boasted 164 students and a collection of 82,500 books.
In his speech at the inauguration, Prof. Weizmann stated, "It seems at first sight paradoxical that in a land with so sparse a population, in a land where everything still remains to be done, in a land crying out for such simple things as ploughs, roads and harbors, we should be creating a center of spiritual and intellectual development. But it is no paradox for those who know the soul of the Jew. It is true that great social and political problems still face us and will demand their solution. We Jews know that when the mind is given fullest play, when we have a center for the development of Jewish consciousness, then coincidentally, we shall attain the fulfillment of our material needs."
Construction continued on the university campus: the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, 1928; the Wolffsohn Building housing the Jewish National and University Library, 1930; the Einstein Institute of Physics, 1930; and the Rosenbloom Institute of Jewish Studies, 1938. These buildings were designed by Prof. Patrick Geddes, his son-in-law John Mears and the supervising architect, English-born Bernard Chaikin. The same team also rebuilt the Chemistry-Microbiology building after it had been damaged in the 1927 earthquake. The year 1933 saw the completion of the amphitheater planned by architect Fritz Kornberg. Further faculties and buildings were added and by 1948, 15 buildings made up the campus while the student body was composed of several hundred persons.
During the 1948 War of Independence, when Jordan captured the eastern part of Jerusalem, the university campus was cut off, becoming a demilitarized zone in Jordanian territory. At first the university departments were scattered throughout the city; later, in 1958, they were unified once more on the Givat Ram Campus.
After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, many of the faculties returned to the Mt. Scopus campus and many new buildings were added.
The Palace Hotel
The Palace Hotel was built in 1928-29 on the initiative of the Supreme Muslim Council, during the term of Raghib Nashashibi as the British-appointed mayor of Jerusalem. Designed by Turkish architect Nahas Bey and built by one Arab and two Jewish contractors employing some 500 workers, the four-story building was completed in the record time of eleven months (the contract stipulated a deadline of 13 months, with a 1000 pound fine for each day of delay).
A mixture of Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque, neo-Moorish and Mamluk elements was combined in this eclectic structure, which became one of the most luxurious buildings in Jerusalem. Located a short walk from the Old City, at the bottom of Agron Street (previously Mamilla Road), the building was meant to be a showpiece of Arab architecture in Jerusalem, both in appearance and in the comfort it afforded. Of the 145 rooms, 45 had private bathrooms – unheard of in the country at the time – and there were three elevators and central heating – another rare luxury. The facade was adorned with engraved verses from the Koran and the entrance lobby, topped by an octagonal skylight, reached to the entire height of the building. Decorative columns with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capitals grace the entrance, and the lighting fixtures throughout the building were done in the art deco style.
The financial load of the hotel’s upkeep proved too much for the Supreme Muslim Council, and it leased the hotel to hotelier George Barsky, who, in turn, found that he could not compete with the nearby King David Hotel, once it opened in 1931. Shortly thereafter the Palace Hotel ended its career as a hotel; it was turned into administrative and military offices of the mandatory government. In 1937, the Royal Peel Commission, which investigated the ongoing Arab riots and recommended the partition of Palestine, convened in the hotel. Since the establishment of the State in 1948, the building has housed the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Hidden among pines and cypresses on a 16-acre hilltop in a southern corner of the city (known as the Hill of Evil Counsel) is Government House. Opened in 1930 by Sir Arthur Wauchope, the High Commissioner for Palestine, it served as the residence of a number of British high commissioners. The structure, built in an octagonal shape of locally quarried stone, was designed by architects A. Harrison and C. Holliday. The unusual shape seems to have been a favorite of the architects; it is evident in the private apartment of the high commissioner as well as in the fountain – similar to those found in North African palaces – in the formal garden. Other distinguishing features of the building are its domes, interior arches, crossed vaults and a monumental four-meter high ceramic fireplace of Armenian tiles created by David Ohanessian. Today the building serves as the UN headquarters in Jerusalem.
The King David Hotel
The Palestine Hotel Company – a company of which the Mosseri family, Egyptian Jewish bankers, were part owners – purchased a 4.5-acre tract from the Greek Patriarchate for $150,000 in order to build a luxury hotel in Jerusalem. The rectangular two-story building, constructed of locally quarried pink sandstone and boasting 200 rooms and 60 bathrooms, was opened in 1931 on Julian’s Way – today King David Street.
Swiss interior decorator Hofschmidt, asked to draw on the "ancient Semitic style," attempted to create an atmosphere evocative of the glorious time of King David, with a high-ceilinged, marble-floored lobby, muted green and beige colors, and Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician and Greek motifs in public areas. Motifs depicting biblical plants such as pomegranates and vines and stars of David decorate the rooms. The spacious terrace offers a wide-angle view of the Old City.
Until a proper kitchen was organized, food for the dining room came by train from Cairo, and was served, with pomp and circumstance, by waiters decked out in long white robes with broad red sashes, fezzes and white gloves. But shortly after the festive opening, the hotel was forced to close down for two years, due to a worldwide economic depression and Arab riots, neither of which were conducive to tourism.
When the hotel opened again in 1933, it hosted such royalty as the dowager empress of Persia, queen mother Nazli of Egypt and King Abdullah I of Jordan, who arrived with a retinue on horses and camels. The hotel afforded asylum to three royal heads of state who had to flee their countries: King Alfonso VIII of Spain, forced to abdicate in 1931; Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, driven out by the Italians in 1936; and King George II of Greece, who set up his government in exile at the hotel after the Nazi occupation of his country in 1942.
During the Arab riots in 1936-39, the British army leased the top floor of the hotel as its emergency headquarters. Later the entire southern wing became the administrative and military center of British rule in Palestine.
In July 1946, a bomb placed in the restaurant kitchen by a Jewish underground movement, the Etzel (Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi), killed 91 people and destroyed the southern wing. The hotel became a British fortress until May 4, 1948, when the British flag was lowered, and the building became a Jewish stronghold.
At the end of the War of Independence, the hotel found itself overlooking no-man’s land, on the borderline which divided Jerusalem into Israeli and Jordanian territory.
In 1967, when Jerusalem was reunited, the hotel, under new management, added two floors; the builders used the same type of sandstone, from a Hebron quarry, which had been used in the original construction in 1930.
In the course of the years, many heads of state have stayed at the King David Hotel, among them U.S. Presidents Nixon, Carter, Bush and Clinton, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt during his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major of Great Britain, President Francois Mitterand of France, President Richard Weizsaecker of Germany, President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR, and entertainment stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Danny Kaye.
What do the Empire State Building in New York City and the YMCA building in Jerusalem have in common? Each was the tallest structure in its city at the time it was built, and both were designed by the same architect, Arthur Louis Harmon.
In 1920, the American Association of the YMCA sent Director Archibald Harte to Jerusalem. He promptly fell in love with the city and wanted to build a center in which the three monotheistic religions would find expression. In 1924, contributions from philanthropist James Jarvie of New Jersey, the American and British YMCAs and the Jewish community of Manchester enabled the purchase of land from the Greek Patriarchate for this purpose.
Three years later, British High Commissioner Lord Plumer laid the cornerstone of the building and on April 18, 1933 the Jerusalem YMCA, directly opposite the King David Hotel, was opened by Field Marshall Lord Allenby.
At the entrance to the building the following words, spoken by Lord Allenby on that occasion, are inscribed in Hebrew, English and Arabic: "Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity fostered and developed."
The building is a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and neo-Moorish architecture. It is, above all, a symbolic building, meant to be reminiscent of early architectural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Thus, the foundation contains stones from quarries believed to have been used in the construction of the Second Temple. The Christian aspect is evident in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, exemplified, inter alia, by the vaulted ceilings in the main lounge, while a large dome and painted arabesques in the entrance hall are typically Islamic elements. On the floor of the lobby is an excellent mosaic replica of the famed map of Madaba. A painted wooden 17th century ceiling was purchased in Damascus, dismantled and transported to Jerusalem where it now graces the YMCA’s main entrance hall. Continuing the symbolism, 40 columns in the forecourt arcade represent the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert and the 40 days of temptation of Jesus. The twelve windows in the auditorium and twelve cypress trees in the garden are meant to signify the twelve tribes, the twelve disciples of Jesus and the twelve followers of Mohammed.
The building is divided into three units: the main section, with its education and hotel facilities, a 600-seat auditorium with a 2,519-pipe organ, a gift of the Juilliard Music Foundation, and a wing with sports facilities. Here was the city’s first swimming pool.
From the top of the 50-meter tower one has a panoramic view of Jerusalem and surroundings. High on the tower is a relief figure of the six-winged seraph of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:2-3). The capitals of two columns at the entrance, of polished red stone, depict the Woman of Samaria with a jug on her head, mentioned in the New Testament, and a lamb representing the sacrifice of Jesus.
On special occasions, the YMCA’s 35 carillon bells – the largest of which weighs one and a half tons – are activated. The carillon chamber also contains carvings of instruments mentioned in the bible: lyre, horn and harp.
A library of 50,000 volumes in five languages contains books on the Holy Land – its history, travel, geography and archeology. A unique feature of the education department is a Jewish-Arab kindergarten where some 150 youngsters annually learn to live and play together.
The Jerusalem YMCA, with its 3000 members (78% Jews, 12% Moslems and 10% Christians) is today an important center of cultural, social and athletic life in the city. Its activities are multifaceted – karate classes, a children’s day camp, art workshops and senior citizens’ clubs. One of the capital’s Rotary clubs has been meeting there since 1935, working to promote interfaith and interracial understanding.
The Rockefeller Museum
Intensified archeological activity in the Holy Land in the first decades of the 20th century prompted the need for a dignified venue to store and exhibit the finds. American philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, donated two million $US for building, equipping and maintaining a museum, and the British mandatory government also provided a subsidy. Rockefeller stipulated that the museum bearing his name be an archeological, not a natural science museum, and that the museum’s exhibits should shed light on the part played by the peoples of the Holy Land in world history. The building was to be located opposite the northeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
The planning of the museum was entrusted to Austen St. Barbe Harrison who served as chief architect of the public works department of the mandatory government and who also planned Government House, the central post office in Jerusalem and a district court in Haifa. Harrison traveled to Europe to inspect museums; his idea was to combine European and Mediterranean elements.
While the structure was inspired by Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings, it is the eastern features that are particularly striking: the inner arches, the doors made of Turkish walnut wood, the profusion of Armenian tiles and the inner courtyard reminiscent of the 14th century Alhambra Palace in Spain. This beautiful inner courtyard is graced with stone engravings by the noted British artist Eric Gill, depicting peoples who lived in the country throughout the centuries: Canaanites, Jews, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottoman Turks. This courtyard, incidentally, inspired the planners of the Supreme Court, built in the 1990s, when they designed its inner courtyard, with a similar long, narrow pool of water.
Construction of the stone and reinforced-concrete building – designed, at Rockefeller’s insistence, to provide protection against earthquakes – was slow, partly because the remains of an ancient cemetery from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras were uncovered when the foundations were dug.
Harrison, with many buildings to his credit, considered the Rockefeller Museum the jewel in his crown. But when the museum finally opened in 1938, neither the donor nor the architect were present and neither saw the museum completed.
The Rockefeller Museum houses finds ranging from the prehistoric eras to the 1700s. Among its treasures are the as yet undeciphered Dead Sea Scrolls. After 1948, when the area came under Jordanian rule, the museum was administered briefly by an international council, but, recognizing its tremendous value, the Jordanian government soon nationalized it. Since 1968, the Rockefeller Museum is an integral part of the Israel Museum.
The Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus
The Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus opened its doors in 1938. Located on a hill 830 meters above sea level, it was designed by German-born architect Eric Mendelsohn, who had acquired a worldwide reputation in pre-Hitler Germany. In "Five Architects from Five Centuries," a 1976 exhibition in Berlin, he was chosen to represent the twentieth century.
The hospital was the idea of Hadassah, Zionist women’s organization in the United States which was founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold. The American Jewish Physicians Committee, formed by Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann and the 82,000 members of Hadassah, raised funds for the project. The 200-bed hospital was completed in 1938 at a cost of one million $US.
In Palestine in the late 1930s, one of every 225 Jews was a doctor, many of them having fled from Europe. Professor Ludwig Halberstaedter of the University of Berlin brought with him a tiny amount of radium and opened the first radium and X-ray institute in the Middle East. Working together with cytologist Dr. Leonid Doljansky, he was able to provide the first treatment for cancer in the country. At the same time, Professor Bernhard Zondek, another new immigrant, helped develop the first reliable pregnancy test, the A-Z test, while Berlin-born Professor Hanoch Milwidsky carried out the first heart operation in the Middle East.
The Hadassah Hospital complex has low buildings blending into the landscape and three concrete domes, a gesture to the oriental style and nearby Arab villages. Circular forms are one of Mendelsohn’s trademarks; in the Hadassah Hospital they appear in the round balconies of the nursing school, and the many round windows and light fixtures in the building. "I want to create monumental austerity," Mendelsohn said.
At one stage during the building, when the quarries were closed because of Arab riots, the builders used artificial stones. This was, in fact welcomed by Mendelsohn, who believed in man-made materials. On rainy days, one can still see the difference between the natural stone and the artificial variety.
Patients from many lands, including neighboring countries, were treated in the hospital when it opened in 1938 and during World War II, Allied soldiers were treated here. On April 13, 1948, an armed group of Arabs ambushed a convoy of doctors and nurses on their way to the hospital, killing 78 of them. The hospital stopped functioning. At the end of the War of Independence, it was in no-man’s land, cut off from the city. An alternate site was chosen in Ein Karem, at the other end of the city, and Jerusalem’s second Hadassah hospital was built there.
In 1978, the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus reopened, with renovated buildings and numerous new wings. On its extensive lawn stands the last work of noted sculptor Jacques Lipshitz. Depicting the biblical figures of Noah, Abraham and Isaac, an angel holding the burning bush, Moses bearing the Tablets of the Law and a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the sculpture is called the "Tree of Life."
Stirring Up Beauty
Written by Kerry Abbott
Tucked away off the main thoroughfare that links El-Bireh with Jerusalem, some 20 minutes' drive to the south, stands an elegant house built of ochre stone, with an outside staircase that winds up to a riwaq, or portico. There, a generously shaded floor of colored tiles leads into the offices of the Palestinian organization that has taken on the job of protecting local vernacular architecture from the fast-paced commercial development characteristic of Palestine today. The organization is named Riwaq.
Co-director and historical archeologist Nazmi Al-Jubeh explains that the riwaq is one of the most distinctive features of the urban Palestinian dwelling built before World War II. "Most traditional houses have a type of riwaq,'" he says. "We wanted the name of our society to reflect an architectural aspect of the entrance, so that when people hear our name the first thing they think of is a traditional building."
This is a time of rapid change in the Palestinian landscape. Since 1993, in El-Bireh as in neighboring Ramallah and in towns throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, long-vacant lots have sprouted multistory offices and apartment buildings. A boom in speculative construction has made the preservation of those buildings that define the Palestinian architectural heritage into a critical task.
Riwaq was conceived by architect Suad Amiry who, with archeologist Ali Ziadeh and graphic artist Tayseer Masriyeh, taught at Palestine's Birzeit University, not far from El-Bireh. In 1990, they observed that, while some aspects of Palestinian material culture such as embroidery and handicrafts had become subjects of well-organized cultural preservation efforts, traditional architecture was largely neglected and, as a result, was rapidly disappearing. Yet unlike handicrafts, architectural conservation cannot be supported by a network of retail sales outlets, and preserving it demands work on a larger and inevitably more costly scale. At the very least, the three reasoned, Palestinian architecture should be documented in a publicly available historical register. According to Al-Jubeh, some 300 West Bank cities, towns and villages have "valuable historic centers," many of which have seriously deteriorated.
Beyond financial obstacles, Riwaq's founders foresaw cultural ones. Modern residents often prefer new houses, where such materials as factory-cut tile floors are easily available and quickly prove easier to keep clean than traditional rough-hewn stone. Additionally, renovating an old building often costs more than starting anew, and with the passing years it has become harder and harder to even find builders whose skills include traditional building techniques.
In 1991, Riwaq opened its doors as the first Palestinian organization for the preservation of architectural heritage. At first, it was funded modestly by the founders themselves. Later, they rented the house where they are today, choosing it because it included several key features of Palestinian design: the red tile roof, the floor of decorative tiles, the balcony with a balustrade and, of course, the arched portico —the riwaq.
Their first project was to compile a catalogue of traditional floor-tile designs. Produced mostly in the Ramallah and Nablus regions from the 19th century to before World War II, these tiles, intricately ornamented with variously colored geometric shapes such as stars and rosettes, now are treasures found—often in damaged and discolored condition— in houses of the late Ottoman period. They are produced today by only a few craftsmen, among them members of the Wazwaz family, which owns a tile factory in the nearby village of Al-Ram. There, traditional tiles can be made to order at a cost competitive with quality stone flooring. The family finds buyers among high-end homebuilders, and the tiles are a prominent feature in a new housing development at Tel Safa, on the edge of Ramallah, where a new neighborhood is being recreated in traditional style.
Since 1993 Ramallah has been a West Bank administrative center for the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and rapid commercial and residential development has altered the face of the modest town, whose cool, gentle hills and graceful stone houses were once popular among visitors from the Arabian Peninsula seeking relief from summer's heat.
"Ramallah has not only changed its face," says Al-Jubeh. "It has also changed its character, its function and its demography." In the 1950's, he explains, what was built was "poor buildings to accommodate middle-class refugees." Since 1993, most construction has been funded by what Palestinians call "the returnees": Palestinians who lived abroad until 1993, many of whom returned—often with considerable wealth— to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their capital, Al-Jubeh says, made it possible for landowners to convert their holdings into profitable investments. Indeed, across the road from Riwaq's building, in the midst of an otherwise residential area, stands a new, eight-story office tower.
To develop their documentation methods, Al-Jubeh recalls, Riwaq secured a grant in 1994 to conduct a pilot study of old buildings in Ramallah. When the project came in under budget, Riwaq was encouraged to use the rest of the money to document neighboring El-Bireh.
The work was urgent. The rush to set up the PNA's West Bank operations often meant that builders' bulldozers worked faster than Riwaq's pens, cameras and database software. Besides a few documents by Christian missionaries and archeologists, whose concerns were limited to structures of possible biblical significance, the only previous architectural documentation of the city consisted of the late 19th-century British Survey of Eastern Palestine. Following the local success of the Ramallah survey, Riwaq expanded its documentation effort and recruited 60 students from Birzeit and Al-Najah universities to help over several summers.
In the legal arena, Riwaq has built a constituency for passage of a comprehensive historic-preservation law by the Palestinian legislature. At present, the only law protecting historical sites is a British Mandate law, still technically in force, that requires preservation of sites that pre-date the 16th century. "Most of our heritage is later than that," says Al-Jubeh, and thus unprotected. More recent is a scattering of local laws that have been promulgated as parts of the master plans of several West Bank cities. While working to pass its proposal through the legislature, Riwaq successfully encouraged the PNA's Minister of Local Government to issue a decree—which lacks the full force of law—banning the destruction of old buildings in cities or villages. More recently, the Palestinian Ministries of Culture and Tourism have joined Riwaq in these efforts, as have a number of legal professionals who have become members of the "Friends of Riwaq."
On the ground, Riwaq teamed up with the Palestinian Youth Union in 1997 to organize a work camp in the historic village of Mazare' al-Nobani, north of Ramallah. Over four months, an Ottoman-era village diwan, or reception room, was renovated and adapted for use as a youth center. Later, Riwaq's fundraising expertise, technical help and design assistance helped give such centers to more than half a dozen other villages.
In the course of this and other early projects, the architects often found previous restoration work that had been improperly done. Some stone houses, for example, had been patched with Portland cement, a material whose weight and changes in moisture content actually weaken the structure. In response, in 1998 Riwaq offered its first nine-week course in restoration techniques to some 40 architects working in the public and private sectors. It was so successful that five more courses have been given so far introducing more than 100 Palestinian architects to the problems of conservation and teaching them "how not to make major mistakes," says Al-Jubeh. Now, some of those graduates work with the Rehabilitation Committee in Hebron.
"Conservation is a philosophy, not just a technique," says Al-Jubeh, who adds that one of the most common conflicts is whether to stop with stabilization and renovation of a building, or go on to actually rebuild it, to make it more attractive while maintaining the stylistic integrity of the original. "If a facade is not straight, even if the structure is stable, the people will maybe not trust it," Al-Jubeh warns."If you want people to have confidence and respect for the building, you have to rebuild it to make it look stable."
The range of homes Riwaq has helped to renovate extends from simple dwellings in the Old City of Jerusalem all the way to the elaborate Sakakini villa in Ramallah. Its eponym, Khalil Sakakini (1878-1953), was one of the godfathers of Palestinian national identity. "If you wish to awaken a nation," he wrote, "stir up and develop its sense of beauty.... For if you stimulate this sense, [it] will regard virtue as beauty and not veer toward vice."
Sakakini's family home is now the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, founded in 1996 after Riwaq-led renovations in that year and again in 1998. Operated by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, the center sponsors artistic, musical and cultural events. Inside, sunlight filtering through the original stained-glass windows superimposes additional patterns on the traditional floor tiles, some of which Riwaq salvaged from a dump. Director Adila Laidi shows off the villa with pride. "Whenever we have problems with fund-raising and things I think, 'Thank God I'm working in a beautiful building.' It's such a pleasure to come to work each day and see these beautiful tiles and windows."
Riwaq has also worked successfully in Bethlehem: In 1996, its design for the renovation of one of the town's main streets won an international competition sponsored jointly by the United Nations Development Program, the Swedish International Development Agency and the municipality. Today, Bethlehem has its own renovation plan for the city center under the auspices of the Palestinian ministries of culture and tourism.
In Hebron, Riwaq has a helping role, assisting the local Rehabilitation Committee with the support of international donors that include Arab groups and Spanish government agencies. Al-Jubeh and co-director Suad Amiry, along with architects Saher Ghazal and Firas Rahhal, serve largely as consultants, and as more local organizations form their own reconstruction teams, this is a role Riwaq plays increasingly. With Riwaq's help in preparing their entry, the Hebron project in 1998 won a triennial Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Emad Hamdan, administrative manager for the Rehabilitation Committee, says that some 160 homes have been renovated and reoccupied in Hebron so far—about half the total the group aims to renew, with an emphasis on the largely abandoned buildings bordering the old market. As these dwellings range from one to six bedrooms, post-renovation residents are selected according to family size, financial need and level of education. They pay no rent for the first five years, and there is a ceiling on utilities charges. These financial incentives are designed to help assure the area is populated by people most likely to take best advantage of the buildings.
Amiry points to these incentives as one way to make the costs of conservation realistic, especially among people who live with political instability, economic uncertainty and high land costs. Under these circumstances, he points out, Palestinian historic towns and buildings "are bound to be under threat."
Riwaq today consists of the conservation unit, headed by Amiry, which deals with preservation and restoration; a second team that plans land-use and community revitalization strategies; and the national registry unit, headed by Al-Jubeh. Using photography and technical drawings, the registry unit has catalogued all the major towns presently under Palestinian administration in the West Bank, as well as some 80 villages. Together with PNA surveys now under way, the process of documenting the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip could be complete in a few years, Amiry believes.
One fact that appears to be emerging from Riwaq's survey data is that by protecting an area of only 10 to 20 dunams (9000-18,000 sq m, 2 ¼–4 ½ acres) in each town, some 90 percent of the stock of Palestinian architecture worth preserving could be protected. By working with the municipality of Ramallah, 40 dunams (3.6 ha, 9 acres) in the old town has been set aside for restoration as a historic district. A plan has been drafted for the renovation work and funding is currently being sought.
Current projects also include publishing, which will disseminate the wealth of knowledge Riwaq has gathered. Books under production include one on floor tiles, another on the social history of Ramallah, viewed through its buildings, and The Houses of Palestine by architect Diala Nasser, which uses typologies of housing to illustrate Palestinian social, economic, and political history.
According to Al-Jubeh, Riwaq's success comes in large part because its members work in fluid, complementary teams. The organization has also resisted the pressure to expand, he says, that inevitably comes during the flush phases of the cycles of expansion and contraction that are common to grant-funded, non-profit organizations. And as the Palestinian Ministry of Culture has grown, Riwaq has transferred oversight of some projects to the ministry, with some of Riwaq's core staff continuing to work on the projects under ministry auspices. This, Al-Jubeh maintains, demonstrates the extent to which Riwaq has become part of the emerging national fabric of Palestine. As more local preservation groups are founded to expand on the principles first championed by Riwaq not even a decade ago, they form links throughout the nascent country, pillars supporting yet another arch that shelters a fragile heritage.
Kerry Abott is a free-lance writer and development consultant based in Virginia.
David H. Wells is a free-lance photographer affiliated with the Matrix agency of New York. He has several times taught the art of the photo essay at the Maine Photographic Workshops and, in 1999, taught in India as a Fulbright scholar.
This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the November/December 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
The culture of Israel, also called "Israeli culture", is inseparable from
long history of Judaism and Jewish history which preceded it (i.e. dated
earlier than the Israeli Declaration of Independence, on May 14, 1948)
and from the local (Palestine/Land of Israel) traditions. However, this
article concerns only the cultural aspects of the modern Israeli state.
With a population drawn from more than one hundred countries on six continents, Israeli society is rich in cultural diversity and artistic creativity. The arts are actively encouraged and supported by the government. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs throughout the country and frequently tours abroad. The Jerusalem Symphony, an orchestra associated with the Israel Broadcasting Authority, also tours frequently as do other musical ensembles. Almost every municipality has a chamber orchestra or ensemble, many boasting the talents of gifted performers arrived in the 1990s from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Folk dancing, which draws upon the cultural heritage of many immigrant groups, is very popular. Israel also has several professional ballet and modern dance companies. There is great public interest in the theatre; the repertoire covers the entire range of classical and contemporary drama in translation, as well as plays by Israeli authors.
Of the three major repertory companies, the most famous, Habimah, was founded in 1917.
Arts and media
Although artist colonies in Safed, Jaffa, and Ein Hod have faded in numbers and importance since the 1960s, Israeli painters and sculptors continue to exhibit and sell their works worldwide.
Tel Aviv, Herzliyyah, and Jerusalem have excellent art museums, and many towns and kibbutzim have smaller high-quality museums. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem houses the Dead Sea Scrolls along with an extensive collection of Jewish religious and folk art. The Museum of the Diaspora is located on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
Israelis are avid newspaper readers. Israeli papers have an average daily circulation of 600,000 copies. Major daily papers are in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian. Others come in French, Polish, Yiddish, Russian, Hungarian, and German.
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