Cultural Heritage of Palestine

For geopolitical, cultural, and religious reasons, Palestine's role in history far exceeded its small size. By virtue of its location at the crossroads of world civilizations, Palestine underwent many cultural transformations. Its interaction with all that came from the Arabian Peninsula, from Mesopotamia, from across the Mediterranean, and from Syria and further north, resulted in a rich and varied cultural treasure as it borrowed from and contributed to world civilization. Because it links Asia with Africa, Palestine became an important commercial route. Indeed, throughout history, commercial caravans coming from Arabia carrying various commodities from India, Africa, and the Arabian Gulf would make many stop in Palestine before moving on either to the Gaza seaport on route to the west or the north along the Mediterranean coastline, or continuing on land further to the north along the Palestinian coastal plains, through the mountains or the Jordan Valley. This is why, all along these commercial and transportation roads, we find all kinds of structures, such as caravansaries (khans), citadels, and potable water facilities. 

The religious status of Palestine, both before and after the coming of the heavenly religions, gave the country a special holiness. Holy places have been spreading across the land of Palestine ever since man first started to worship natural phenomena, another human being, or the God of the monotheistic religions; many of the worship sites in Palestine continue to maintain their sanctity, as they have for over five thousand years. And many holy stories are still being told about and around the many shrines and tombs, the oak and the terebinth trees, the caves and the water springs.

Archeologically, the history of Palestine is composed of a number of layers of past civilizations, sometimes totaling more than 20 strata that have left their relics in mounds (tall) and sites of ruins (khirbeh). According to some surveys, the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories alone have more than 10,000 archeological sites and features. These sites carry the imprints of the surrounding or the invading civilizations, as well as those civilizations that thrived in Palestine itself, such as the Canaanite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Palestinian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Frank, and Turkish. This archeological diversity makes Palestine an incomparable microcosm of world civilizations.

This diversity also stems from the topographical diversity in a relatively narrow geographic area, wherein several cultures thrived, among them the coastal plains, the mountains, the Jordan Valley, and the desert cultures. Although most Palestinian regions had experienced the same historic events, each was distinct because of the way man interacted with his environment.

In addition to its many major religious and historic sites, like Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of Nativity, and the Ibrahimi Mosque, Palestine also has many archeologically and historically significant sites, like Roman amphitheaters and Byzantine churches, which are spread across all regions of Palestine, as well as Umayyad-era palaces (e.g., Hisham Palace in Jericho, Dar al-Imara in Jerusalem), Ayyubied and Mamluk schools, zawiyas, and a rich heritage left behind by the Ottoman period.

In addition to its various archaeological sites, Palestine has many historic centers such as the old towns of Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Gaza. Many Palestinian villages with their beautiful rural sittings and architecture significantly add to the diversity and richness of the heritage. The desert monasteries located on the eastern slopes as well as the holy shrines (maqamat) scattered all across the rural areas are other types of architecture in Palestine. The feudal past of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Palestine is seen in the architecture of the palaces in so-called "Throne Villages". The khans are scattered along the historic commercial roads. And the organic formation of the beautiful watch towers (manateer), which are built from undressed field stone dot the  terraced Palestinian hillsides.

This diversity can also be tracked through the different building techniques and materials available in the region itself. These materials fit the prevailing environmental conditions and include various kinds of stone, brick, and marble and granite (imported from remote areas).

The architecture styles of historic buildings in Palestine are the fruit of centuries of experience in construction. Whether the skills were developed and mastered locally, or were introduced at certain points in history, and integrated into the local experience, this experience remains a witness to the advanced art of construction.  Traditionally constructed buildings scattered throughout historic towns and villages are first-rate national treasures. Some of old towns (Jerusalem, Nablus, Gaza, and Hebron) still tell the history of an entire people and are among the few surviving examples of oriental towns. Similarly, many villages to a large extent maintain their architectural style, adding to the cultural richness of Palestine.

Palestine – the people, land, culture, and the history – was the victim of a catastrophe in 1948. And while the human, social, and political dimensions of this catastrophe have been subjects of extensive research, not much attention has been given to the cultural impact of this catastrophe.[1]In the first years of the Israeli occupation in 1948, occupation bulldozers destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, towns, and cities, erasing any traces of the Palestinian cultural, religious, or historic heritage these localities had been preserving for centuries. Even cemeteries were not spared the desecration. It is impossible to estimate the value of the lost cultural heritage, because little documentation is available from those days and because it is often impossible to put a price on cultural heritage, which is linked to a people’s collective and individual memories. Recreating on paper the erased towns and villages has become a long and arduous project that relies on the fading memory of those who once lived there; they are few in number and are scattered across the world. By any measure, the loss is a disaster for civilization; by our estimate, some 70,000 historic buildings have been forever erased from the annals of heritage.

Some Palestinian towns and villages inside the 1948 occupied territory escaped total destruction but have not been  documented (e.g., Haifa, Shafa Amer, Ramleh, Jaffa, Nazareth, Acre, Tiberias, Arrabat Al-Battouf, Sekhneen). A Palestinian initiative is required to document them by tapping into the Palestinians’ collective memory. This initiative can be taken up by Palestinians in those areas, either alone or in collaboration with us. The passage of time and desertion and neglect has taken their toll on what remains of Palestinian cultural heritage inside the 1948 occupied territory. Most Palestinian houses in Jaffa whose inhabitants were displaced are still empty and are near collapse. The same applies to Tiberias, Haifa, and other towns.  In Safad and in parts of old Jaffa, some buildings were badly renovated; others were improperly used. In Acre, Palestinian residents are targeted for displacement; a process is underway to replace them with others in an attempt to rewrite history in a way that simultaneously favors those who have no connection to the land and erases evidence of its original residents. In the rest of the areas with Palestinian communities, with the exception of Nazareth, neither the technical and financial capabilities nor the awareness of the importance of the cultural heritage are enough to protect what has remained.

The situation in the territories occupied in 1967 is almost identical, although for different reasons. It is shameful that most of the damage to the cultural and architectural heritage in the territories occupied in 1967 was the result of random Palestinian urban expansion between 1995 and 2000, which accounted for an unprecedented high rate of construction. (Some 50% of buildings in some Palestinian towns and villages were built during that period). The unorganized and random development of towns and villages demonstrates a lack of vision for the future and fails to put the public interest ahead of the private interests (which seek quick profits). The results have been a widespread destruction of cultural and natural assets, most of which is irreversible. A combination of factors—limited land controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (areas A and B), an increase in the population, the inflow of private capital, and people’s lack of awareness of the importance of cultural heritage—many historic buildings, sites, and monuments have been destroyed. The tendency has been, quite overwhelmingly and sweepingly, to replace them with new high-rise concrete buildings.

Every year we lose many of the 50,000 historic buildings scattered in the Palestinian territories. The estimated annual loss is between a few dozens to a few hundred buildings. In some cases we see bulldozing of an entire historic center, or one or several buildings in the same location. How many historic buildings and sites will we have left at this rate?

The main law that deals with the protection of heritage is the Law of Antiquities (the Law of Antiquities of 1929, applicable to the Gaza Strip, and the Law of Antiquities of 1966, applicable to the West Bank). This law covers only the archeological sites, especially those that predate 1700 AD and human and animal remnants that predate 600 AD. These laws make no provisions to protect the remaining components of cultural heritage and therefore should be replaced by a more comprehensive law.

Many countries are aware of the importance of preserving their cultural heritage, not only because this reflects on their national identity, bears witness to the historic eras through which they passed, and preserves a civilizational product of great moral and aesthetic value, but also because this is considered a national treasure that can be used as a vehicle for development, especially in countries to whom civilization owes so much.

In Palestine, where natural resources are limited and developing the national economy is impeded by several obstacles as a result of the extraordinary conditions which the country is passing through, efforts are rightly directed at investment in the cultural heritage, with all its elements (historic buildings, antiquities, movable objects, popular folkloric heritage, the artistic and handicraft production, etc.). Some call Palestine’s cultural heritage the "white oil," hinting at the unlimited potential as a first-rate tool for economic and social development.

The tourism sector already plays a central role in the Palestinian national economy, since it is its most important source of income. Religious and archeological sites as well as historic old town-centers in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, are huge tourist attractions.

Tourist areas include the town centers of Nablus, Gaza, and Jenin and the centers of “Throne Villages” (e.g., Kur, Arraba, Deir Istya), as well as natural areas like Solomon's Pools, the Jordan Valley, and the forests in the Jenin region (e.g., Umm Al-Rihan). The expansion and diversification of these areas will lead to an economic and social prosperity.


The tourism sector provides excellent work opportunities, because these works are of a labor-intensive nature. For example, 8 restoration projects undertaken by Riwaq generated some 22,000 workdays in 2003.

As indicated, the development of tourism should be linked to developing social and cultural life in general. Such development can play an important role in solving the housing problems, especially for those of limited income in the town-centers and villages, where there are a huge number of deserted historic buildings – a great many of which could be used for housing, or for other purposes, like schools, cultural centers, community centers, women or youth centers, and as offices for municipalities and village councils.


1 The demolished towns and villages were documented in the important book, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, which was written by a group of researchers and edited by Walid Al-Khalidi.  However, this was an elementary project that was supposed to attract research. With the exception of the elaborate studies of Birzeit University, which included 25 villages, and the work of some individual researchers who documented a number of other villages, the majority of the demolished Palestinian villages remained documented in an elementary manner. These are important studies, but they are not sufficient.