Kafr ‘Aqab is a Palestinian village in the center of the West Bank, located 8 km north of Jerusalem. The town of Kafr Aqab was mentioned in Crusader documents by its current name Kefreachab. Ottoman tax records and the records of the Sharia courthouse in Jerusalem indicates that Kafr ‘Aqab village was inhabited before the Crusader period.
The total area of Kafr ‘Aqab is 5472 dunums, of which 440 dunums are built. It is inhabited by 48291 people in 2017, and it is surrounded by a number of neighboring towns, villages and refugee camps, such as: Al-Bireh, Burqa, Al-Ram, Da’hiyat Al Barid, Qalandiya village, Kalandiya refugee camp, Qalandiya airport (closed since 2000), Rafat, Ramallah, Khirbet ‘Atara and Khirbet Kafr Tas.
The historic centre of the town overlooks Wadi Al-Natuf, which starts from the northern end of the old town and descends towards its southeastern edge, where it expands to reach the water spring (Ein Al-Balad). Historically, the water spring in Kafr Aqab has been the main source of water supply and was one of the most important factors in attracting human settlement. Most of the existing buildings in the historic centre can be dated back to the Ottoman period (beginning of the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century AD) with evidence of earlier historical strata: traces of Mamluk, Crusader and Byzantine remains were found in terms of fortification walls, church ruins, the oil press, and several in-situ and re-used construction material. During the Ottoman period, many buildings were constructed using the materials available on site. Several buildings, with some modifications, were reused as residential units.
The inventory carried out by the Riwaq Registry of Historic Buildings in Palestine in 2000 showed that the historic centre of Kafr Aqab had 52 buildings in the village core and its surroundings. Of these, 38% were in poor physical and structural condition while 40% were mostly intact and in good condition. Riwaq updated the Registry data in 2017 after the implementation of the first phase of preventive conservation (the removal of silt and debris, and the consolidation of the walls and vaults). The updated inventory shows about 29 remaining historic buildings in the historic core of the village, all of which were deserted. In addition, there were a number of individual historic buildings scattered in the vicinity of the core, most of which were in good condition and yet were mostly abandoned.
The Kafr Aqab historic centre consists of a continuous urban fabric that appears as a single unit divided into a number of courtyards by family, such as hosh Dar Barakat and hosh Abu Sharif. In addition, there are a number of individual buildings such as Dar Rashid, Dar Shaker, Dar Dawood, Dar Muhammad ‘Awad and Dar Abu Foul. The eastern side of the village, which overlooks the water spring or Ein Al-Balad, has been cut off from the historic centre by the widening of the street ten years ago. This side has several courtyards and structures that are in critical structural integrity and mostly in ruins. Most of the historic buildings in Kafr Aqab are typical Palestinian peasant houses consisting of two levels with cross-vaulted rooms built adjacent to each other to form courtyards and narrow alleys. There are a number of single buildings outside the historic core such as Dar Abu Sharif, Dar Al-Awad, Dar ‘Habbas and madafet Dar ‘Awad.
An olive press and a mill were found beneath one of the house floors in Kafr Aqab historic centre. The olive press consisted of two cross-vaulted rooms. The mill has a circular limestone of a 170 cm diameter with a square-shaped hole in the middle where a wooden stud would be placed for turning.
Segments of a mosaic floor were found on the eastern side of the historic centre. The remains of the mosaic have two layers, indicating that the floor had been restored and the building had been reused for a long and continuous period of time. Oral history sessions indicated that the inhabitants cultivated vegetables such as tomatoes and onions within the historic centre, and grew wheat on the surrounding slopes.
Maqam Abu Yassin
The Abu Yassin Shrine is located in the middle of the historic centre, on which the old mosque was built. The door to the mosque is on the western façade that opens to a courtyard where the remains of stone paving (sultani) were found. Parts of the shrine's western façade walls are made of massive reused Roman or Byzantine stones.
Maqam Al Sheikh ‘Abdullah
An important landmark in the vicinity of the historic centre is the shrine of Sheikh ‘Abdullah (Mughara / Mughira Al Sheikh), located on a hilltop in the southeastern side of the village with only a few remnant stones. However, the location is clearly marked by a perennial oak tree. Elders of Kafr Aqab still recall the rituals of blessings and supplication at the shrine, where the person used to enter the cave, light the lamp, then leave the shrine backwards to show respect and appreciation.
The vision for the rehabilitation of the Kafr Aqab historic centre is to transform the space into a cultural and social hub by building strong partnerships with effective institutions that hold a participatory societal vision. One of the most important factors for ensuring the project's success as a communal active space is to employ a collaborative approach and collective planning with Kafr Aqab municipality, the local community and partnering institutions. The restored buildings could form the base for centres and institutions, while the public spaces and courtyards would bind these institutions together to form common open spaces. The public spaces would be utilized as places for community activities. The cultivated terraces (‘hawakir) that once existed would be regenerated into a community garden run by a local committee. A public playground has been designed in a collaborative workshop with architecture students.
Riwaq started the rehabilitation and conservation of the historic centre of Kafr Aqab in 2017. The project was initiated with a preventive conservation phase that consisted of cleaning and removal of dirt and fill, reconstructing deteriorated structures and buildings, and redefining the courtyards. The second phase in 2018 continued with preventive conservation while expanding the area of work to include the eastern side of the village. A building was completely renovated as an activities centre for the municipality: its rooftop mural was painted in collaboration with artists and volunteers. The ‘hawakir area was reorganized to become a community garden. The third phase will focus on active collaboration with institutions such as Dalia Association and Seraj Library Project to activate the historic buildings and the spaces in-between.
In parallel to the restoration works, a series of site studies took place. These ranged from visits with archaeologists to architectural documentation through surveys, maps and aerial photographs, sketching tours, oral history sessions and documentation, meetings, and brainstorming sessions with the local community and the municipality. These studies formed the base for formulating the project’s vision, which started to take shape from the early site visits to Kafr Aqab’s historic centre. The huge contradiction between the historical site and Kafr Aqab ‘city’ with its randomly constructed high-rise buildings and narrow labyrinth streets was palpable and compelling. The small historic centre, albeit completely abandoned and deserted, and despite being divided into two parts as a result of the widening of the street, represented the antithesis of the disappearing landscape and horizon. The historic village of Kafr Aqab houses and courtyards is shaped by the landscape, extending into the valley where it connects with the water spring and the olive trees. RIWAQ aims to revitalize the old village of Kafr Aqab by providing the infrastructure for cultural institutions and public spaces for the community, while highlighting the organic natural setting of the village. In addition, the Riwaq project aims to redefine the village’s borders as a single entity by reconnecting its two separate parts, physically or visually. By the end of the rehabilitation project, Riwaq seeks to turn the abandoned historic centre in Kafr Aqab into an open, participatory, cultural hub that serves as an outlet for local people.
To attain a deeper understanding of life in the old village of Kafr Aqab, long-term research through oral history was conducted to uncover daily habits, ceremonies, stories, and identify families and properties. The research was initiated in collaboration with the storyteller Fida ‘Ataya in 2017. The research resulted in a narrative storytelling performance about Maqam Al Sheikh ‘Abdullah and the ancient oak tree. The research culminated in a video installation and an “Adam and Eve: the storytellers” exhibition, which explores the different roles of male and female storytellers, their narratives, social and political impact through highlighting excerpts of collected oral history narratives.