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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2005, pages 24-25

Special Report

Old City of Jerusalem Revitalization Program Honored With Architectural Award

By Elaine Pasquini

pasquini 1The restored Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiyya (All photos P. Pasquini).THE OTTOMAN-BUILT walls of Jerusalem’s Old City enclose a unique square kilometer of winding cobblestone alleyways, colorful bazaars, churches, mosques, synagogues and shrines. The historic enclave—designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1981—is also home to more than 30,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Due to age, neglect, war and occupation, many of the ancient structures have deteriorated, and the Old City is in danger of losing some of its priceless heritage. The Old City of Jerusalem Revitalization Program (OCJRP), established in 1994 by the Welfare Association (WA), is tackling this problem by restoring, preserving, and protecting the architectural legacy of the Old City. At the same time, OCJRP’s team of architects, urban planners, engineers and archaeologists consider the daily needs and quality of life of the city’s diverse inhabitants. The Geneva-based WA, a private, nonprofit foundation, was founded in 1983 to provide Palestinians sustainable development. The organization works closely with the Department of Islamic Waqf, which administers many buildings in the Old City, as well as the Haram al-Sharif, an area of some 35 acres—one-sixth of the Old City—and the site of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque.

Through primary funding from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the OCJRP has restored several buildings in the Old City. For its efforts, it was named one of seven recipients of the 2004 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

In June, this reporter and her photographer husband toured several restored structures, and others not yet completed, with OCJRP architects Dima Abu al-Saud and Bashar Husseini.

pasquini 2With the help of a young apprentice, workers restore the Old City’s Islamic Museum.Husseini explained the process involved in restoring the buildings, beginning with historical research and followed by detailed physical surveys to establish the priorities of the projects. Finally, implementation of the plan begins, adhering to international laws of restoration, Husseini stressed. Only old materials, such as lime, for example, instead of more cheaply priced plaster, are used for restoration, the architect said, in order to simulate the original building components. New materials, he explained, could damage the buildings.

The largest and most spectacular of the OCJPR’s award-winning projects was the restoration of the 600-year-old Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiyya. The former Mamluk palace and pilgrim hostel, which also bears early Ottoman period additions, now houses an academic school, vocational workshops, dormitory and offices. The four-year, $3.5 million project of restoring the building’s portals, arches, vaults, stone decorations and pink-striped facades, along with infrastructure and technical upgrading and modernization, was completed last year.

Another award-winning project was the restoration and modernization of four housing units, a mosque and surrounding courtyard and open spaces in the Rabat al-Din al-Basir neighborhood located near the Haram al-Sharif. The historic Mamluk complex has been home to the Palestinian African community since the late Ottoman era, and was selected for restoration because of its historic significance as one of the oldest pilgrims’ hostels in Jerusalem and the need to upgrade the substandard living conditions of the families.

pasquini 3The Old City’s Suq al-Qattanin (cotton market).All of the restored sites are not only part of Jerusalem’s rich architectural history, but continue to be a part of present day life in the Old City. The Ottoman era Suq al-Qattanin (Cotton Market) is today—as it has been for hundreds of years—a bustling bazaar. The two-phased restoration project, scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, included dismantling and repair of the arched tiled roof and renovation of two shopping stalls. Restoring the stalls, Husseini explained, is difficult in that shopkeepers earn a living from their shops and cannot afford extensive down time for restoration.

A short walk from the Suq al-Qattanin is the Al Buraq Restaurant, a former stable spectacularly remodeled into a split-level eatery, with café seating at the street level and the main dining room and kitchen facilities located on the lower level. The stone walls and domed ceiling were cleaned and repaired with lime mortar.

In 2001 restoration work began on al-Madrassa al-Ashrafiyya, a library and center for restoration of Islamic manuscripts situated in a stunning location on the Haram al-Sharif. Italian-trained Palestinian technicians labored in restoring the delicate original Mamluk roof tiles to their true beauty. Working with UNESCO, OCJRP acquired specialized equipment necessary for the manuscript restoration laboratory, which will house the priceless manuscripts of al-Aqsa library.

In addition, the Islamic Museum located on the compound’s southwestern corner is undergoing a complete restoration and may be completed next year. For more information visit the Web site: <>.

Elaine Pasquini is a free-lance photojournalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.