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West Bank town renovates ancient palaces belonging to prominent family

The municipality of the town of Arraba in the northern West Bank has been restoring the palaces of the Abd al-Hadi family, one of Palestine’s once most powerful and feudal families.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On an area of 270 dunams (67 acres) in the center of the old town of Arraba in the northern West Bank, there are colossal palaces that tell part of the history of the Abd al-Hadi family, which played a significant political and economic role in northern Palestine during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Abd al-Hadi family began the construction of their palaces in the town of Arraba at the end of the 17th century. The 13 imposing edifices reflect the family’s feudal, economic and political power, which made it one of the largest land-owning families in Palestine.

In fact, at the time, the Abd al-Hadi family owned some 500,000 dunams (123,550 acres) of land in 80 different locations in central Palestine, which buffed up their economic and social influence, according to a 2006 research study published in the journal of An-Najah University for Research.

The family benefited from the strategic location of Arraba town, which was seen as one of the main Ottoman cities, jammed between Egypt and the Levant on the old trade route. A vast plain of agricultural land with an area of 40,000 dunams (9,884 acres) surrounded the town, where farmers used to work for the Abd al-Hadis.

The family relied on two strategies to strengthen its influence, and preserve and grow its properties under the Ottoman Empire and later under the Egyptian rule. First, the children were sent to study at universities and institutes in Turkey. Second, the family cemented good relations with the ruling powers and their allies, starting with the Ottoman Empire and then with Egypt under Ibrahim Muhammad Ali Pasha.

Sheikh Hussein Abd al-Hadi became one of Ibrahim Pasha’s close associates. The family also collected taxes for the Ottomans and imposed security, rendering it one of the large feudal families in Palestine.

The year 1859 was a turning point for the future of the Abd al-Hadi family. This was when the Ottoman Empire wanted to impose a centralized government, and therefore the town of Arraba was besieged by the Ottoman forces and razed to the ground with artillery fire.

The Abd al-Hadi family remained steadfast in the face of the Ottoman attacks thanks to its strong fortifications and former alliance with Ibrahim Pasha, which allowed some of the family’s prominent members to flee to other Palestinian cities or head abroad.

At present, there are only three households left from the Abd al-Hadi family, living in the town of Arraba. The rest of the family had migrated to different Palestinian cities or abroad.

In 2000, the Arraba municipality launched a project to restore the family’s palaces and their surrounding market in the Old City, to serve the local community.

Ahmad al-Arida, the head of the municipality, told Al-Monitor the restoration works were launched in 2004, with seven palaces already restored so far.

The palaces of Sheikh Hussein Abd al-Hadi and Abdel-Qader Abd al-Hadi were the first palaces to be rehabilitated in 2004, at a cost of $800,000 through funding by the United Nations Development Program.

The first palace was converted into a women’s center, with a catering kitchen, and a space for private and public events, and the second into a public library and a youth center dedicated for seminars, lectures and educational courses.

The old road of about 200 meters (656 feet), known by the name of Kasbah, linking the palaces to the Old City, had its share of reconstruction works, too, and was paved with stones matching the architecture of the town. The rundown buildings on both sides of the road were given a facelift as well, rendering them inhabitable, which contributed to the revival of the area.

The restoration works were carried out in such a way to preserve the palaces’ facades and exterior that resemble fortified military fortresses. This type of grandeur architecture and strong building was common at the time, mainly to protect the family from the attacks of rival families such as al-Jarrar and al-Toukan, but also for vanity and prestige.

The success of the first renovation experience prompted the municipality and citizens to keep going. The municipality secured funding of $500,000 from the Kuwaiti Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, which allowed the restoration of the Rushdi Abd al-Hadi Palace and a historical study of the town.

Later, the town’s citizens raised some $500,000 in private donations for the renovation of the Seven Gates Palace, one of the largest and prominent palaces in the town. Brothers Samir and Omar Abd al-Hadi, who live abroad, also contributed to the palace’s renovation. 

Additional funding worth $500,000 was obtained through the Belgian Development Agency and allocated to the renovation and operation of the Turkish bath in one of the restored palaces, the construction of a recreational park for children, the opening of shops in the Old City, which previously served as the area’s main market, as well as the restoration of residential areas.

Arida said that the municipality is working on completing the renovation works of the remaining palaces and the Old City as soon as the necessary funding was available, in a bid to turn the area into an integrated tourist attraction. The town of Arraba, which is home to dozens of ancient archaeological sites, has been included in several tourist and heritage trails, most notably the Ibrahim al-Khalil trail.

Osama Hamran, a public relations officer at the Arraba municipality, told Al-Monitor that the restored palaces were put in the service of the local community, and aimed to stimulate domestic tourism, since some parts of the palaces were turned into guest houses or hotel rooms to receive visitors. Some shops surrounding the palaces were also given a facelift and converted into restaurants and cafes, he said.

Hamran noted the restoration of the palaces contributed to including Arraba on the famous Ibrahim al-Khalil trail, which is a hiking tour that starts from Tel Dothan — also known as Tel al-Hafireh, the Cave of Prophet Yusuf — all the way through the historical palaces of Arraba, and the Ubu Ubaid Saraya, which are all archaeological sites in the town.

Hamran said the town’s facelift has not only preserved its historical aspect and cultural heritage but led to increased income for its citizens working in the tourism sector that has been revitalized. This also contributed to creating more entertaining and educational space for both children and the youth.

“The municipality began operating the Turkish bath and the restored gardens and encouraged citizens to live in the rehabilitated residential areas. This is not to mention the reopening of old shops, offering job opportunities and strengthening the steadfastness of the towns’ people. All this contributes in preserving the area and preventing it from slipping into oblivion,” Hamran concluded.

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