“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.