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Archaeologists revive old, abandoned houses in Gaza

A team of archaeologists are restoring ancient abandoned houses in the old area of ​​Gaza and turning some of them into cultural cafes that serve the community.
A Palestinian woman stands at a new museum in the ancient Basha Palace, Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Jan. 27, 2010.

A team of archaeologists from the Iwan Center for Cultural Heritage at the Islamic University's Faculty of Engineering launched an initiative in July to restore ancient abandoned houses in Old Gaza in the eastern Gaza Strip, and transform some of them into cultural centers that serve the community. The initiative mainly aims to preserve these houses that date back to the Ottoman era, from demolition and decay.

The Iwan Center for Cultural Heritage that specializes in protecting antiquities is one of the few local entities that has recently launched several campaigns to preserve abandoned archaeological sites in Gaza.

A team of engineers, technicians and workers specialized in the field of documentation within the Iwan Center have been exerting concerted efforts to preserve cultural heritage in the Gaza Strip by leveraging their knowledge of the basics of restoration of old buildings.

The center's interest in searching for and restoring ancient houses stems from its keenness to preserve the historical memory of Gaza and highlight its urban character, amid a declining interest by the concerned authorities in the value of ancient houses.

The initiative aims to bring back these houses to the forefront of the cultural scene in the coastal enclave, after many years of neglect.

Dozens of houses and archaeological buildings constructed during and before the Ottoman era still stand today in Old Gaza, but they suffer from marginalization in light of the shrinking external funding for their restoration due to the omnipresent political and social crises.

The most prominent archaeological landmarks in this area include ancient houses that have been abandoned for many years and owned by families who once lived in Gaza. These abandoned houses ended up as waste dumps, but the center restored them and turned them into cultural centers.

After months of hard work, the team of experts and engineers at the Iwan Center inaugurated July 17 three ancient houses inside Old Gaza after restoration works were completed, namely the houses of al-Saqa, al-Wahidi and al-Ghussein. These houses were officially transformed into cultural centers that host authors and intellectuals and organizes cultural events and concerts that shed light on the Palestinian heritage. 

The restoration works were done with great caution for fear of a collapse of parts of these houses that were built using stones stacked on top of each other without iron bars or concrete, which led to cracks in several parts.

Muhannad Hijazi, expert in the restoration of antiquities, told Al-Monitor that the process of restoring archaeological buildings in Gaza is not as easy as some believe. “A team of engineers inspect the site first and draw a map that explains the correct and safe restoration method to be used to avoid any risk of collapse,” he said.

He noted, “Restoration takes six months and sometimes up to a year. All of the houses being restored were built at a very high financial cost by their owners. They include many rare beautifully decorated arches and columns that require acumen and craftsmanship to be restored. If these elements collapse, it could be difficult to replace them.” 

He also pointed to great technical difficulties facing the restoration team during the works. “The team is short on modern tools and rely on rather primitive methods such as manual excavation,” he said. “Also, the raw materials used in the restoration are locally made-up mixtures that alter the nature of the building blocks of these houses.” 

Mahmoud al-Balawi, engineer and project manager at the Iwan Center, told Al-Monitor that the initiative contributed to preserving the historical value of many old Ottoman houses in Gaza. “Thanks to the great care and craftsmanship of the restoration team, the restoration works prevented the collapse of some of these houses. The initiative helped turn them into prestigious cultural community centers.” 

He said, “Before starting the restoration process, the center finalizes the necessary legal procedures as most of these houses are part of an estate and have legal heirs. An agreement is concluded to allow the restoration process and turn these houses into public attraction sites. Another agreement is also concluded with civil society institutions concerned with cultural issues to allow turning these houses into cultural centers.”

Balawi noted that the restoration experts at the center were able to completely restore three houses out of 145 houses dating back to the Ottoman and Mamluk eras. Some of these houses, which were turned into cultural beacons, date back more than 700 years, he added.

“The restoration of another series of houses is in the pipeline after completing the legal procedures and conducting technical and construction studies,” Balawi concluded.