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Tourism Development in the Old City of Hebron

By Emad Hamdan

Tourism is directly associated with a significant component of cultural heritage because its distinctive historical, architectural, artistic, or symbolic values are important features that attract tourism. When we utilize and invest in cultural heritage and its resources while heeding the requirements of tourism development, cultural tourism can be an effective tool for economic development. Considering architecture as an essential resource to activate tourism, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) adopted the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) in 2012 to invest in the historical monuments and landmarks of Hebron’s old city, which abounds with ancient cultural heritage. Uniquely woven into the city’s fabric, these monuments and landmarks form a set of traditional treasures represented by courtyards, markets, alleyways, vaults, mosques, zawiyas (Sufi places of worship and teaching), shrines, hospices (takiyas), and khans, and, above all, the Ibrahimi Mosque. These sites underscore the city’s religious, historical, and civilizational status.

Renovation and maintenance works at Ibrahimi Mosque. Photo by Jack Persekian.

The CDP focuses on interventions that rehabilitate heritage buildings as tourist attractions. To allow visitors to fully appreciate these architectural gems, the HRC created Al Emar Tourism Route in 2018 and published brochures that explain the old city’s tourist attractions and include a map that outlines the tourism route. Visitors are guided along a main route that starts from the entrance to the old city and leads to the Ibrahimi Mosque, highlighting where restoration and rehabilitation of the distinctive historical landmarks have taken place. The Ibrahimi Mosque is of special significance and has been maintained by the HRC for nearly 25 years, being continuously restored and preserved until this day. Aside from the rehabilitation and renovation of mosques, zawiyas, maqams (shrines), takiyas (hospices), olive presses, sesame presses, traditional hammams (baths), works have taken care to integrate these sites with the rehabilitation of all buildings within the old city’s traditional urban fabric. This by itself is a cultural heritage site, illustrating Palestinian civilization, and therefore is admired by and attractive to visitors. At the same time, the plan devotes special attention to the rehabilitation of the old city’s infrastructure with its lanes, roads, and alleyways, and the creation of public gardens and rest spots for visitors. In addition, it has rehabilitated the old city souqs and commercial shops and afforded them with the services required by visitors and shoppers.

Tourism development helps reveal the area’s cultural and civilizational heritage, on the one hand, and contributes to improving the economic conditions of the area’s residents, on the other.

Restoration of commercial shops in the Kasbah market.

To complete the heritage image for visitors, the tourism development plan has not limited itself to preserving and rehabilitating the tangible heritage but has also focused on the equally important intangible aspects of this heritage. The two aspects will complement each other and be integrated once the work is completed. In this context, HRC has sought to sustain traditional crafts, aiming to prevent their extinction by conserving them and resuming the glass and pottery industries in the old city, where a traditional glass factory and other pottery and glass workshops operate. The plan furthermore supports other traditional crafts such as embroidery, leather tanning, weaving, and the food industry by providing shops and commercial galleries for their owners, enabling them to display and market their products. These efforts are enhanced by the organization of seasonal festivals that include multiple activities to highlight the cultural heritage and attract both local and international tourists and visitors.

The Natsheh Press.

On the other hand, HRC engages to provide the necessary tourist services and facilities by offering hotels, parking lots, public health units, a visitor center, information centers, directional panels, and tourist maps.

HRC believes in the importance of local community participation in tourism development and encourages the local community to play an active role in efforts to achieve sustainable development. Therefore, HRC makes sure to provide educational programs for local shop owners and street vendors in order to raise the level of awareness regarding the value of culture and teach best practices in how to deal with tourists. It also organizes training programs for tour guides. HRC’s efforts in activating the role of the community and enhancing its involvement in tourism and economic development have made a significant impact and encouraged many residents to create tourism projects using their heritage treasures. Residents have transformed parts of their homes into inns or guesthouses that host visitors and provide rest spots. Many housewives have begun to market their heritage products, whether embroidery, foodstuffs, or other products that can be displayed for tourists, which has helped to provide job opportunities, generate income, and support families in the old city. Likewise, the rehabilitation of the local market and the restoration of shops have attracted many private investors who have opened branches of their companies in the old city. They provide goods at lower prices to encourage the old city’s local tourism and to market Palestinian commercial products to foreign tourists.

Sufi zawiyas.

The tour that circles Hebron’s historical and architectural landmarks starts at the Natsheh Press, a remarkable historical building that tells the history of the oil production industry in Hebron. All architectural and archaeological elements have been preserved through restoration.

From the Natsheh Press, the route leads to two of the most significant Sufi zawiyas in Hebron, the zawiya of Sheikh Shibli and the zawiya of Al-Zahid, each of which reflects the period of scientific prosperity that Hebron witnessed during the Mamluk period. These spaces held gatherings of religious scholars, sheikhs, and education seekers. In 2013, HRC implemented an extensive restoration of these two zawiyas and the distinctive pattern of their religious architecture.

From the Sufi zawiyas visitors are guided to another kind of press that processes either olives or sesame seeds to create tahini, illustrating a unique combination of equipment and applied techniques that in some places are still used in this traditional industry. This press is also an archaeological masterpiece that must be preserved and shown to present and future generations. HRC has made great strides in its restoration efforts, preserving all of its components and opening it to visitors and tourists.

The tourist route thereafter leads to one of the oldest traditional crafts in Hebron, ceramics. These products used to support the livelihood of many families in Hebron. Their production has been continuous and is considered even today an important source of support for the city’s economy. After the ceramic craft shops, the tour continues with the historic Hebron souq, also known as Al-Kasbah neighborhood, which has long been famous for its specialized shops and multiple goods. A unique fragrance pervades the souq’s atmosphere – a mixture of perfumes, spices, sweets, incense, coffee, and more, memorable to every visitor. This crowded souq is also home to the historic Badran coffee shop. It is located in a well-known square that for centuries has served as an informal center where Hebron’s male elders gather to discuss various issues that range from social and economic to political concerns. In addition, it is a place for entertainment, storytelling, and folk tales. Its delicious coffee and unique traditional atmosphere invite visitors to take a short rest.

Part of the Iqnaibi Press.

The next stop along the route is the Iqnaibi Press, another type of traditional sesame press that displays its products as well as antiques, traditional tools, and Palestinian folk costumes, thus constituting a small folk museum. The building was used as an olive press during the Ottoman period and transformed into a sesame press during the British Mandate era.

Shajarat al-Durr Olive Press.

The tour then leads to one of the oldest baths in Palestine, Hammam Ibrahim al-Khalil, taking visitors back to the Mamluk period and its distinctive architectural patterns and elements. In 2015, HRC carried out a comprehensive restoration of the building that preserved its architectural and aesthetic components and transformed it into a visitor center with a small museum that displays the antiquities that were collected on the site and in its surroundings.

Parts of Ibrahim al-Khalil Hammam and its small museum.

Moving on from Hammam al-Khalil, the route leads to Souk al-Laban Square and the traditional Ard Kanaan (Land of Canaan) Center with its numerous shops and glass factories, one of Hebron’s most famous industries. In order to preserve the history of this traditional industry that is a significant element of the cultural heritage of Hebron, and to familiarize tourists and visitors with this craft, the HRC renovated one of the abandoned halls and rehabilitated it as a glass factory in 2017. Visitors can now not only observe professional artisans who manufacture a wide range of glass pieces but also learn about traditional glass-manufacturing techniques, as artifacts are formed and created right before their eyes.

Al Emar Tourism Route then heads to Hadiqat Al-Sadaqa (Friendship Garden) before it ends at Hebron’s holiest landmark, the Ibrahimi Mosque.

During the course of these rehabilitation efforts, HRC created the Old Hebron Museum. It shows the city’s civilization and cultural heritage and is intended to serve as a platform to inform present and future generations of the rich cultural heritage that distinguishes this town and the surrounding areas. The museum aims to raise awareness among the local community and increase knowledge of the old city’s heritage, history, civilizational development, and political conditions, as well as the efforts that have been exerted to protect and preserve this heritage. This interpretive museum also plays a dominant role in encouraging tourism to the old city, targeting all categories of the local and international community. Housed in a unique piece of architecture with traditional elements, architectural patterns, and decorative ornaments, the Old City Museum consists of five main spaces, each of which deals with a specific aspect of the city. Visitors move through these spaces that display the information following a clear timeline and educational concept. The first space presents a historical review of Hebron, presenting in detail relevant information regarding each of its historical eras, illustrating the exhibits with photos and antiquities of the era. Next, the visitor moves to a special room that is linked to the Ibrahimi Mosque and that provides detailed information about the history of this sacred landmark. Besides an architectural description, the displays explain the techniques that were used in the mosque’s restoration and preservation, and outlines the challenges that were encountered in the process of its restoration. The third space covers Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, delineating its establishment, goals, comprehensive master plan, and achievements in preserving and revitalizing the old city. The fourth space presents the political situation in the city of Hebron and documents the violations committed against its residents and urban heritage alike. The fifth and final room comprehensively presents the main traditional crafts that are a significant aspect of the cultural heritage of Hebron’s old city, such as pottery, glass, ceramics, weaving, and embroidery, displaying samples of each craft. The museum also includes a multipurpose hall for meetings and seminars; it is equipped with a display screen on which special films are presented.

Parts of Ibrahim al-Khalil Hammam and its small museum.

The restoration and rehabilitation of the aforementioned tourist attractions reflect HRC’s efforts to enhance tourism development in the old city and enable visitors to appreciate its components and value as a world heritage site. By transforming cultural heritage into tourism attractions, HRC has helped preserve the cultural heritage of the old city that reflects an outstanding civilization as it contains unique civilizational and architectural details that deserve to be preserved and revived for present and future generations.

Old Hebron Museum is open to local and foreign tourists.

  • Minister Emad Hamdan is the general director of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC). Holding a master’s degree in sustainable development, Hamdan is a cultural heritage preservation activist, lecturer, and trainer in several local universities and institutions. He serves as head of Hebron Housing Society and is a board member at several NGOs.

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