Giving Palestine’s palaces back to the people

12 November 2012

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Interior of al-Qasem Palace, Nablus region.

(Daryl Meador / The Electronic Intifada)

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what is now the West Bank was divided up and ruled by 27 wealthy sheikhs (elders or leaders) who collected taxes from the surrounding peasant villages on behalf of the Ottoman government.

The sheikhs accumulated a huge power base and with this they built remarkable palaces that reflected their lifestyles. Their urban style houses towered over peasant lands, unique in their spaciousness and extravagance. These villages, many of which have now been abandoned, are known as the “throne villages” or qura karasi in Arabic.

The Palestinian organization Riwaq has begun a process of restoring the historic buildings for modern cultural use.

Riwaq, a Ramallah-based organization founded in 1991 by 15 architects, seeks to regenerate the fabrics of Palestinian history through architectural restoration and renewed activity in historical sites.

Since around 2000, Riwaq has recognized the palaces of the qura karasi as invaluable and unique pieces of architectural history in Palestine, in danger of ruin by the forces of history, nature and the Israeli occupation. Of the original 27 palaces, only 15 remain; some were destroyed in wars.

The qura karasi are significant for both their architecture and the transitional period they were set in. “They are landmarks of [a] period in Palestine’s history that had a distinct architectural style and setting,” explained Riwaq’s executive director Fida Touma. “These are urban buildings in rural settings,” she said.

Most of the buildings are comprised of a residential mansion surrounded by an administrative compound. Today, after renovation and restoration, their roomy courtyards and private rooms are good venues for conferences and cultural activities in Palestine.

Besides their architectural significance, their restoration brings to attention an important time in Palestinian history when much of the power in the land lay in the hands of the Palestinian sheikhs themselves. The seventeenth century saw a weakening of the centrality of Ottoman power, and resulted in the dispersion of power provincially to the sheikhs in Palestine. The phenomenon of their governance allowed for a degree of Palestinian self-rule in their land, a unique and significant event in Palestinian history.

Extravagant

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Exterior view of al-Qasem Palace.

(Daryl Meador / The Electronic Intifada)

Al-Qasem Palace lies in Beit Wazan, a northwestern suburb of Nablus. Built in 1820 as the seat of the al-Qasem family sheikdom, the palace was abandoned after the fall of Ottoman rule in 1917. Damage from a 1927 earthquake caused the building to begin to deteriorate at a rapid pace. It remained abandoned until 2003, when Riwaq began a process of renovating the palace using funds from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

The site is an exceptional example of the extravagance of throne village architecture and its capabilities for modern-day use after restoration. The large, main doors open into an indoor courtyard that fits over 50 people, but can be viewed from the terraces of the four-story building that wind around the courtyard.

Surrounding the courtyard are small and large indoor rooms, filled with natural light and fit for meetings and performances. Also renovated are large patios that overlook the hills and villages northeast of Nablus.

Typical of Riwaq’s style of renovation, today the palace is a hybrid of historical and modern architecture. Juxtaposed with the building’s original carved stone, pointed arches and winding passages are steel support beams and staircases. The two styles of design are opposite yet complementary; the stone is white, the steel is black.

The stone is aged and weathered, while the steel is sharp and geometric. Reflective glass in the steel window frames produces an endless view of the opposite buildings, further integrating the two architectures. The result not only represents a renewal but a celebration of the historical architecture through elegant and modern design standards.

Riwaq’s restoration of the throne villages seeks not only to highlight the historical significance of the buildings, but to “use them as functioning parts of the community again,” explained Touma. “Many of them that have been restored are community centers, some are women’s centers, apartments, university research centers.”

The palace was used as the site of the 2010 Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), hosting hundreds of locals and visitors packed into the palace. Today it is under a long term lease with an-Najah University in Nablus, and is used as the site for their Center for Urban and Regional Planning.

More restorations to come

So far, Riwaq has restored eight of the remaining throne villages all over the West Bank which are now used as offices for development and social work, women’s unions, conferences and various cultural events. Three have been restored through other programs and only a few of the 15 now remain, which Riwaq hopes to restore in the future.

Two of the restored sites, in the villages of Ibwein and Jammain, will be used as venues in the regular Palestinian exhibition “Art and Life in Palestine,” partly organized by Riwaq through the Qalandiya International coalition. The two-week show — now underway — seeks to highlight Palestinian cultural endeavors on a global stage, and is often set within important historic architectural sites in Palestine.

Further information on cultural activities in restored palaces can be found on www.riwaq.org.

Daryl Meador is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who is currently living and volunteering in Nablus.