“Umm Talal is more attached to the fig tree than I am. Cutting it down must have been necessary at a particular moment that I do not recognize because I was there and she was here. It is that simple. Perhaps if it was I who had carried on living here I would have knocked down or built, or planted or cut down trees with my own hands. Who knows? They lived their time here and I lived my time there. Can the two times be patched together?”
Murid Barghouti, I saw Ramallah, 2000, 85
Located twenty-five kilometers northwest of Ramallah, Deir Ghassana, along with the town of Beit Reema, comprise the municipal area of Bani Zaid al Gharbiyya, the home of approximately 8,000 inhabitants. The name of the village is derived from the Ghasasina Arab tribes who resided in Palestine during and before the Byzantium era. The village is known for its numerous archaeological ruins and historic shrines and mausoleums, such as al Khawwas.
Being one of the twenty-four feudal villages (Throne Villages) of the Ottoman era in Palestine, Deir Ghassana is characterized by numerous fabulous palaces, namely of the Barghouti family, the sheiks of the Bani Zaid district.
Deir Ghassana is home to well-known modern political leaders, writers, and activists in Palestine. It has a very active civil society and quite a number of institutions, including a kindergarten, a clinic, and a women’s association, all of which are located in the village’s historic center.
Although the balance of wealth and power significantly changed after the nineteenth century with the decline of decentralized rural powers in favor of a more centralized Ottoman rule, class differences and social hierarchy can still be seen in the existing spatial configurations and in the relationships between residents and their built environment. Most families drawing lineage to the Barghouti family left the village for urban centers in and outside of Palestine years ago, while other families stayed and developed a more concrete relationship with the village over time. This relationship is exemplified by the construction of new homes, adaptation of historic buildings for new uses, and the establishment of a new family guesthouse (Diwan) to host family activities.
Deir Ghassana’s historic center is well preserved, which makes it one of the 50 villages identified by RIWAQ as architectonically and historically significant. The historic fabric is relatively intact and the historic neighborhoods are still clearly distinct and carry historic names and divisions. According to RIWAQ’s Protection Plan for Deir Ghassana’s Cultural Heritage (2005), there are 279 historic buildings in the village, half of which are deserted. New additions and new buildings have been constructed next to the historic ones to satisfy needed services for families residing in and around the historic center.
During Ottomon rule, the historic center of Deir Ghassana was divided into three zones, each corresponding to different social classes and families. The Barghouti family, who resided on top of the hill in al Harah al Foqa (the upper neighborhood), built grandeur introverted palaces, which reflected their political power and status as tax collectors and the sheikhs of the Bani Zaid district. The Shu’aibi family, who lived further down the hill to the east, built traditional extended family peasant houses with a gesture of social status manifested in rich decorative and architectural elements; other families, like al Rabi, built their peasant homes more to the south and west of the Barghouti complex, and their homes showed a stronger and more extroverted relationship with the surrounding landscape and neighbors (known as the lower neighborhood).
In her unpublished doctorate thesis “Space, Kinship and Gender: The Social Dimension of Peasant Architecture in Palestine” (1982), Suad Amiry explains how “the living quarters (harat) of Deir Ghassana’s historic center gathered around the village main plaza (saha) which constituted the very center of the village. The plaza contained the village communal guesthouse and the mosque, hence not only physically gathering the different parts of the village around it but also lending it social and symbolic meanings.”
The historic center, specifically the plaza and the Saleh Barghouti palace were used as film sets for Wedding in Galilee (1986); and many alternative tourism trails list Deir Ghassana as a destination for both local and international tourists. In recent times, the saha has been used for social and cultural events such as al Kamandjati concerts, the first RIWAQ biennale, and as a passage to the old mosque and cemetery that are still in use.
From building scale to villagescape
The rehabilitation project in Deir Ghassana shows that historic and architectural richness are not the only ingredients to regenerate a village’s cultural and architectural heritage. Rather, active civil society and institutions, the inhabitants and users of the historic center, as well as political will—represented by the municipal council—are the actual owners and protectors of the village’s heritage and are quite capable of situating it on the “cultural map.”
Thanks to a number of local civic societies, Deir Ghassana’s historic center is vibrant and central to the community. The local women’s association cooks and sells its meals to the village schools; the clinic receives a large number of patients on a daily basis; the kindergarten has more kids than it can possibly handle; the al Kamandjati Association holds music classes twice a week; and people pray at the new mosque five times a day, all passing through the plaza of the historic center. Weddings, cultural events, and funerals make use of the plaza as well.
In our general assessment however, Deir Ghassana presented a challenge for RIWAQ and its attempts to regenerate historic centers across rural Palestine; in short, one of the most intact historic centers in the central West Bank was still not attracting the proper attention—as if it were a private hidden garden. Many trips are organized to the village for both local and foreign audiences. As much as visitors would appreciate the architecture, with no shade from the sun, limited seating, and no signage system or information plaques, the village plazas were not inviting to visitors or residents. Before renovating the main plaza, the public space was barren and surrounding palaces were always locked. No information was provided to visitors about the village, and no one thought of walking through the alleyways that provide trails and connections to other neighborhoods.
Moving forward, with much left to uncover and so many stories to tell, RIWAQ, together with local associations in the village, outlined the following vision:
- To create visual and functional linkages between the different neighborhoods;
- To create spaces for lingering in the historic center;
- To enhance the legibility and accessibility of the spaces; and
- To provide a safe and attractive environment for local businesses and housing.
While RIWAQ’s interventions in Deir Ghassana’s historic center introduced new elements (e.g. tiling, seating, and shading), we did so through a contemporaneous, human scale, and green approach. To this end, the architectural design process was used as a medium to rethink space and local materials, and to accommodate communal needs without compromising social practices, traditions, and authentic settings. As we currently compile our progress to date on Deir Ghassana for the public, our work there continues to be an ongoing project.
The protection plan for Deir Ghassana was RIWAQ’s pilot study for developing sixteen protection plans for the most significant historic areas in Palestine between 2005 and 2007. The protection plan for Deir Ghassana’s heritage however, was the only example incorporating a protection plan for both the cultural and natural heritage of the village. The project was a cooperative effort with the municipality of Bani Zaid al Gharbiyya.
Prior to the regeneration project which started in 2012, RIWAQ worked on the restoration of two historic buildings in Deir Ghassana: One of them was the rehabilitation of an historic building that became a community center affiliated with the Medical Relief Committee in 2005. A few years later, the community center was turned into a music center run by al Kamandjati Music Association, which was based in Ramallah and active in refugee camps and the villages of rural Palestine. The project provided the first actual contact between RIWAQ and the community.
The intention of the first RIWAQ biennale was to be an on-the-ground display of our approach and philosophy, as well as an attempt to mobilize the different sectors of the local and international community. This was implemented in close cooperation with local communities, in particular with the municipality of Bani Zaid al Gharbiyya, and the village councils of an-Nabi Salih and Mazra’a al Qibliya. The visit to these three sites, including the historic center of Deir Ghassana illustrated RIWAQ’s approach embodied in its Job Creation through Conservation program, which uses conservation as an important vehicle for economic and social development.
In 2011, RIWAQ hosted a lab in the historic center for a group of students from the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAAP) at Columbia University in New York City. The GSAAP lab resulted in eight projects that designed solutions to health and environmental issues pertaining to Deir Ghassana and the West Bank in general. The project showed huge potential for Deir Ghassana to be part of a larger cultural cluster that uses architecture, heritage, and the environment as a driving force for development. One design treated the negative space (the unbuilt) as one of possibility and intervention, allowing for the creation of contemporary dormitory and studio spaces. Another proposed a roof-scape as a vertical garden to grow organic herbs and vegetables for a local culinary school, while making use of contemporary metallic screens to collect morning dew for a water irrigation system. These proposals, while not yet implemented, have provided valuable input to the community, its heritage, and its future.
The rehabilitation of the plaza was our first intervention in the public space of Deir Ghassana. It was aimed at enhancing its physical appearance and providing a space for communal activities. This work allowed for deeper community interaction with renovated spaces and generated a positive dialogue about the changes made to traditional open spaces. The location of the plaza on the main alley between the eastern (al Shu’aibi), southern (al Rabi), and western neighborhoods (where the new mosque and cemetery are located) contributed to the community’s interest in the project. Because of the large number of users of the clinic and the school—both of which were hosted in historic buildings around the plaza—the sense of communal ownership over the project loomed high. The provision of contemporary stone patterns and the installation of stone benches and a steel tree-like sculpture gave the plaza new life, and opened it up to a multitude of possibilities.
Two public space projects were carried out to overcome the fragmentation of the village into distinct entities. In cooperation with the municipality and the local community, the two projects started from the main plaza and continued towards al Shu’aibi courtyard. These included refinement of street boundaries, street tiling, creating benches and shading elements, carving green patches into walkways, as well as façade consolidation and beautification.
This allowed for creating a visual and physical stitching of the main plaza and the Shu’aibi neighborhood. Today, at the entrance to the plaza, a new barbershop opened, and residents— mainly youth— hang out at the plaza and the newly paved niches.
In the Shu’aibi neighborhood, we worked with the local women’s association and neighboring families. The abandoned historic building of Nada al Shu’aibi was transformed into workspace for the association. The building was adapted to house a new kitchen, an herb garden, space for training women (in the areas of illiteracy, computer skills, embroidery, and sewing) as well as more space to receive visitors.
Pavements and patterns, planting, benches, and pergolas were designed to make the spaces more user-friendly and accessible. The Nada al Shu’aibi courtyard adaptation into a women’s facility also tested green initiatives such as water recycling and the reuse of grey water. The kitchen was designed to allow for grey water to be refined by special plants and gravel and to water the garden. The houses surrounding the building were also refurbished from outside and their entrances were upgraded. Families now safely enjoy outdoor spaces for their daily activities with the necessary privacy.
During their weekly art classes, sixth grade students from Qasem al Rimawi Elementary Girls School spent time drawing giraffes, and modelling them from recycled plastic and buckets to learn about the negative effects of plastic. The reused plastic bottles were used to build a giraffe-like structure at the entrance of the saha as part of a three-month awareness and training program on environmental issues. The young girls’ contribution to the historic public spaces in Deir Ghassana was a guiding example of how to strengthen the younger generation’s sense of belonging to such a milieu.
By mid-2014, the fourth phase of the rehabilitation that targets the al Shu’aibi neighborhood as a whole began. This phase was designed to enhance the visibility of historic structures while providing the community with sound infrastructure and attractive communal spaces. The reorganization of the public space takes into consideration and builds on the original arrangement of the public space as documented by Amiry (1982). The project also addresses the needs of the local women’s association and its neighbors. While the association has been planning to expand its activities by investing in mushroom cultivation in one of the vaults, RIWAQ is introducing design elements in the neighborhood that provide information to visitors and places for local community members to gather and socialize. Based on responses to previous interventions, RIWAQ’s work on buildings for current residents of Deir Ghassana’s historic center is following the ‘oneh concept used so aptly in the village of Hajjeh to help the community restore their homes and space (by sharing labor and material costs).