Sufis, the mystics who came from the east and brought Islam to the Palestinian highlands in the 9th century, began their lives as ascetics, living a contemplative life in the hills around Jerusalem, apart from people. By the 12th century many of these solitary men had moved into villages where they built lodges and guest houses, and provided the local population with social services in addition to spiritual leadership.
When the Sufis died, their graves often became shrines, places where pilgrims would pray, perhaps for rain, a cure for an illness, or for women, for fertility. Eventually these pilgrimages were organized into folk festivals, combining prayer with music, dancing and feasting. The shrine, thus, became a center for communal life in the village.
One thousand years later, the shrines have fallen into disrepair. They are empty, no longer places for gatherings. Yet the tradition for communal use and their locations – at the edge of a village, or beside a natural spring, often with breathtaking views – make them ideal sites for re-use to benefit the village. Rozana is developing plans to convert the lands surrounding shrines into children’s playgrounds, while restoring the shrine itself and its historic status in Palestinian history. A millennium ago “Sufism moved from the margins to the heart of Islamic culture” (Sufi Trails). Now Rozana hopes to make the physical remains of Sufism – the shrines — a central part of village life. The beautifully restored al-Qatrawani Shrine at Atara, with its adjacent and much-enjoyed playground, has shown the communal importance and practical value of such re-use.