During the Ottomon Empire, Abwein was a ruling seat (Throne Village) for twenty-four surrounding villages. It was also the center from which Sheikh Suhweil, who ruled the area of Bani Zaid al Sharqiyya, collected taxes for the Ottoman central government.
Famous for walnut and fig production, farmers in ‘Abwein sold their crops at the vegetable market in Nablus through the better half of the 20th century. A number of factors forced a shift upon the local economy however, as ‘Abweini’s living abroad began sending money home to their families, and the emergence of other non-agricultural sources of income caused the decline of agriculture in 'Abwein.
Today, the younger generation of 'Abweinis are either seeking higher education to attain employment in the governmental or private sector, or joining the construction industry that has been flourishing in the governorate of Ramallah and al Bireh. Many laborers and professionals have also found jobs in Rawabi City, which is partially built on the land of 'Abwein.
Invariably, ‘Abwein’s agricultural decline resulted in the depopulation of its historic center. The emergence of wage labor after 1967 further encouraged residents to build new concrete houses up the hill on the main road that connects the village to surrounding villages and towns. Today, there is a clear distinction between the new upper-hill town "ad Dhaher" and the old lower-hill town "al Qu'ur."
Beautifully located on a remote hill surrounded with olive and almond terraces and water springs, today the historic center of 'Abwein is home to just 45 families. Many of these families, who could not afford to relocate to the newer part of the town, are still farming their fields and raising animals. The village is still famous for hand-made traditional bread.
The historic center, comprised of 230 historic buildings, has many archeologically and architecturally significant sites, one of which is the Suhweil Castle. This urban castle— in both scale and style— is a typical Throne Village castle with an almost square plan, standing two stories high, with vaults surrounding the main courtyard.
When RIWAQ approached ‘Abwein in 2011, many of the town’s abandoned buildings were in complete ruin and the boundaries between structure and landscape had become blurred. There were only three families living in the abandoned area of Old Town. At that time, the concept of "bringing back life" to the deteriorated abandoned fabric seemed unachievable. Despite these circumstances however, there remained three things that kept 'Abweinis connected to the village’s historic center: the water springs where residents visit for picnics and leisure, the historic Old Town Mosque, especially for Friday prayers, and the cemetery where 'Abweinis are buried.
In 'Abwein, the ruins of houses, the doorsteps, the surrounding courtyards, the plaza, the alleys, the olive groves, and the springs, were all incubators of a peasant culture that was once highly collective and productive. During RIWAQ’s restorative work over three years, this abundance of open space around historic buildings was used as a medium for bringing back life to the historic center, upgrading the living conditions of current residents, saving the abandoned historic section from further deterioration, and creating a legible link between the Old Town and the newer more developed area of town.
RIWAQ began working on the realization of an “archeological park” in order to stabilize the deteriorated fabric of the historic center. Ruins would be transformed into a network of small open spaces connected to surrounding courtyards, plazas and alleys, and would open to the landscape that ‘residents could visit for picnics and family activities. This way, historic open spaces would become a destination for families, and would have a key role in the revitalization of the surrounding historic buildings. With a pronounced sense of community—through festivities and outdoor social activities in historic 'Abwein—rehabilitated outdoor spaces would be the common thread to connect historic and abandoned “al Qu'ur” to its respective residential upper-hill town of “ad Dhaher.”
The idea was to convert ruins into porous spaces, allowing multi- functions, meanings, and borders. The relationship between public and private space would merge, as well as the relationship between indoor and outdoor space.
In partnership with 'Abwein’s municipality, a protection plan for the historic center was prepared. This included identifying all of 'Abwein's historic buildings and archeological sites, delineating the boundaries of the historic center, and proposing a set of planning by-laws to guarantee the protection of the village’s cultural heritage properties.
RIWAQ implemented preventive conservation measures to the Suhweil Castle, which had serious structural and physical problems.
The ‘Abwein project started with several voluntary events as a way to get to know the community, and to engage village youth in the rehabilitation of their historic center. Twelve unemployed ‘Abweinis volunteered to clean up abandoned courtyards. This was followed by another volunteer cleanup day by 50 students from 'Abwein Girls School and Ramallah Friends School. Students were stationed across the historic center, cleaning alleys and courtyards and promoting the rehabilitation project to its residents.
The cleanup days were the starting point of RIWAQ’s first physical implementation in the village, where the abandoned historic center was addressed and ruins were uncovered.
Parallel to the work onsite, fifteen owners of historic buildings in the targeted area for conservation were invited to discuss the rehabilitation project in 'Abwein, and to explore the possibility of renovating their houses with RIWAQ's assistance.
While ruins were being uncovered, other works were carried out in the residential neighborhoods of the historic center. This phase started with a workshop on dry-stone walling where a small handful of young men were trained to be employed for the project.
In this phase, street edges, stone walls, family gardens, outdoor seating, and women's favorite outdoor cooking spots were upgraded as a way to benefit residents.
Similar works were also carried out to upgrade al 'Ain road, the vibrant artery running through the historic center, which is speckled with historic buildings, gardens, and shops, and leads to the heart of ‘Abwein’s Old Town neighborhood of Wast al Balad and the Old Town Mosque.
In an effort to promote a deeper understanding of the history of 'Abwein and its fading social and cultural practices, three senior women took RIWAQ's team on a tour through the historic center, narrating the life, traditions, and celebrations that used to take place in its abandoned buildings and courtyards.
During this period, historic buildings located in two abandoned neighborhoods (Wast al Balad and al Hara at-Tahta) were consolidated and stabilized. Stone walls were rebuilt and roofs were repaired, along with pointing and plastering of stone facades. The crumbling houses of al Hara at-Tahta were also restored and turned into a natural maze of structures that opened up to surrounding orchards.
Right after the end of the preventive conservation works, a travelling children’s festival was piloted in 'Abwein and continued in other historic centers across the West Bank. In partnership with the Palestinian Writing Workshop and the three local schools in 'Abwein, RIWAQ held the Cave of Imagination program in the newly renovated areas, which included a workbook created by illustrators and writers, as well as reading, writing, and creative arts activities. The program also included professional interactive storytelling activities centered on the area’s heritage and history. This was the first time in decades for the old town to host a crowd of people. Kids were running between spaces, climbing walls, and gathering on the rooftops of the restored old buildings.
The restored ruins in the formerly abandoned neighborhood of al Hara at-Tahta were developed into a park-like atmosphere, with vegetation and stabilized walls designed to house seating, park paths, and a planned playground. The intention was to create an inviting gathering space for outdoor activities that connected the Old Town Mosque to the central plaza and the village’s main routes.
The work on one of the two arterial paths of the village’s Old Town was a historically significant processional route that connected the Old Town Mosque and Suhweil Castle with the old cemetery where children continue to gather and play football today. Along this path, RIWAQ also restored the historic town plaza called "Sahat al Balad," reviving its historical role as the primary site for 'Abwein's weddings, Friday prayers, and funerals. Several months later, in April 2013, playscape structures were installed in the archeological park, attracting children from both the historic center and upper town.
It was an inspiration to organize a public arts event with ‘Abwein’s municipality as part of RIWAQ’s 4th Biennial event. ‘Abwein’s newly rehabilitated public spaces were used as outdoor exhibition areas for the artworks of five local and international artists. The program hosted 70 visitors who toured the historic center of 'Abwein and enjoyed artworks and activities in the renovated spaces.
In an audio tour entitled "Specters in Stones," the artist Uriel Orlow invited residents and visitors to walk through the village’s ruins and listen on headphones about the 1948 massacre of the village of Deir Yassin; in 1951 a mental hospital, treating Holocaust survivors was erected on the site of the tragedy. Meanwhile, artist Marie Zolamian asked five children from ‘Abwein’s Old Town to narrate a public tour through the Suhweil Castle telling the story of "the Giants" who built the castle.
The strong presence of women maintaining ‘Abwein’s gardens, alleys, and orchards showcased the endless possibilities in which we could work with ‘Abweini women. RIWAQ subsequently initiated a series of meetings with the municipality and the 'Abwein Women’s Charitable Society to encourage them to move to the newly restored area of Wast al Balad; they agreed. In addition to the women involved in this expansion project, the larger community will benefit from the ‘Abwein Women’s Charitable Society in its new space and its range of income generating projects and trainings.
It is important to note that RIWAQ has cultivated a strong relationship between Deir Ghassana Women’s Society and ‘Abwein Women’s Society. The Deir Ghassana “Yalla Ala ‘Abwein” (Let’s Go to ‘Abwein) trip facilitated a lasting exchange between RIWAQ’s various partners in both communities, which are eighteen kilometers apart. Both organizations have shared their experiences and visited the archeological park with the newly installed playgrounds.
During the last phases of RIWAQ’s work in ‘Abwein when the community began to experience the impact of conservation works, we began collaborating with homeowners to upgrade the interiors of their homes, thereby enhancing their quality of living and creating additional living spaces.
This resulted in the opening of a new coffee shop frequented primarily by the elderly community of al Hara at-Tahta. During this phase, RIWAQ also upgraded the Abu Rashid Falafel Shop on al 'Ain road where families continue to buy what is commonly referred to as “the best falafel in town.”
The two renovated shops have encouraged us to take a step further; in December 2013, RIWAQ met with homeowners again to announce new housing incentives. This time ten families applied, resulting in the upgrade of several historic houses in the residential part of ‘Abwein’s Old Town. In this last phase of the project, owners will provide labor, and RIWAQ will provide the necessary materials and technical assistance for homeowners to lead their respective house renovation projects on their own.