In the late 1990’s Riwaq, unique among Palestinian organizations in its focus on rural areas where 90% of the population lives, conducted an extensive survey of historic buildings throughout the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. 50 villages where surviving historic structures could be preserved were identified and Birzeit was selected for Riwaq’s first comprehensive historic center conservation project which included restoring buildings, upgrading infrastructure, and creating public spaces.
Birzeit enjoyed competitive advantages. Its foremost asset is its people, known to be educated, progressive and hospitable. Christians and Muslims live side by side here in harmony and have done so for centuries. Its Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches and its mosques are committed to the community’s revitalization. The village has a well-organized diaspora, a progressive mayoral administration dedicated to the town’s development, and close ties to Birzeit University. The historic center was relatively intact, decayed but not destroyed. Its proximity to Ramallah was an additional asset.
Riwaq’s architects, engineers and staff drew up the final plans, contributed expertise and funding, and supervised the project’s years-long implementation. Other organizations, local and international, provided different pieces of the plans. Birzeit University and the Municipality conducted numerous studies of diverse elements such as social-mapping, open spaces within the historic fabric, potential usage of restored buildings, and connection between the historic center and the surrounding environment. Competitions between groups of students in England and the West Bank were held. Training workshops were conducted for architects from the area and landscape designers from Arizona. Riwaq recruited and trained local residents in traditional techniques and the materials of restoration, creating a direct economic benefit and a ready supply of experienced labor for future projects. Traditional crafts such as mosaic were revitalized by the project and plans are underway to create a space in the Old City for training young people in traditional fabric dyeing and weaving techniques to produce “majdalawi”, an ancient textile that can be used in a wide variety of fashions and designs.