Frozen-in-time village Lifta added to list of endangered heritage sites
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Frozen-in-time village Lifta added to list of endangered heritage sites

Abandoned in 1948, Jerusalem-area Arab village among 25 locations on biennial spotlight meant to draw attention to cultural sites at risk around world

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A picture taken from inside an old house in Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, shows the bridge for a new train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)
A picture taken from inside an old house in Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, shows the bridge for a new train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Lifta, a Jerusalem-area Arab village abandoned in 1948, has been named as one of 25 endangered sites on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list.

Sponsored by the World Monuments Fund, since 1996 the biennial list is made up of sites endangered by “human conflict and urbanization to natural disaster and climate change.” The list of sites — from ancient ruins to contemporary structures — is meant to be a call to action for conservation, community engagement, and sustainable development, according to WMF.

Lifta, located on hills just outside of Jerusalem, was chosen because the “ruins of a Palestinian village in Jerusalem are threatened by a redevelopment plan that has faced popular opposition,” according to the WMF website.

A picture shows the interior of an old house in the Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017.

In a recent feature on Lifta in The Times of Israel, it was described as a hillside hamlet that was completely emptied 70 years ago during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

According to the Israel Antiquity Authorities, during the 1948 war the village served as a base from which attacks were launched against the Jaffa-Jerusalem road and Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods. After reprisal raids carried out by the Lehi militia along the fringes of the village, Lifta was abandoned in February 1948.

The occupants were never permitted to return and Jews fleeing Arab countries around the Middle East were temporarily housed there until the mid-1960s. Since then, Lifta has remained virtually untouched aside from a few squatters who live there illegally until today.

A picture taken from inside an old house in Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, shows the bridge for a new train line on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Its unique status as a time capsule of pre-Independence Arab life has added to controversy over a massive redevelopment plan for luxury apartments on the site. In August 2006, Plan No. 6036 for the Development of Lifta (Mei Neftoah) was validated by the Israeli government. The plan allows for the construction of 268 dwelling units on an area of 456 dunams (112 acres), which will also include new roads and commercial and public development, according to the Israel Antiquity Authorities.

According to the IAA, the site of Lifta houses archaeological remains of the settlement Mei Neftoah, which dates to the First Temple period and is mentioned in the biblical Book of Joshua. The ancient Jewish village was destroyed during the Roman invasion led by Titus Flavius Vespasian during the Jewish Revolt in 66 CE.

In addition to its historical and archaeological significance, in a previous 1959 plan, Lifta was classified as a nature reserve. According to the IAA, the new Plan No. 6036 “is anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the village’s precipitous landscape.”

An old house is seen in the Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

At a IAA conference on “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region” last week, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design architect Shmuel Groag said “generations of Jerusalemites see Lifta as a magical place” due to the variety of people who visit the picturesque village’s ruins and its bathing pools. Groag, one of the original designers some 20 years ago of Plan 6036, is now a leading voice against its implementation.

In part, he said, he changed his position on the plan when he realized that the “plan would destroy the natural landscape.” But primarily, he said, after meeting the original Liftawis and their descendants he understood that “behind the partially destroyed buildings are people.”

The IAA began a large-scale survey in February 2017. According to Groag, there are 13 areas of conflict between the development plan and the IAA’s results. Among the major conclusions, he said, is the need to “preserve original parcellation and plots,” which he called the site’s “genetic code.”

An Orthodox Jew recites the Tashlich prayer in a building in in Lifta, at the entrance to Jerusalem, near the Liftsa Spring. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Additionally, any new road system must be based on historical roads, he said. “The designation of a modern road will require high retaining walls which can be seen from a distance,” said Groag, and thus change the historical landscape. Groag further noted the site’s “unique industrial system” of six historical olive presses, which he said must be preserved.

In short, it is simply “not possible to combine the results of the conservation survey with the plan,” said Groag.

Instead, with the help of awareness-raising foundations such as the World Monuments Fund, Groag said, there must be a new plan which centers on the long-term preservation of Lifta as “a space of shared heritage for future generations.” He suggests creating an open museum for cultural heritage while stabilizing the existing building without new construction.

People swim in a natural pool at the Palestinian village of Lifta which was abandoned during fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on October 20, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

According to Groag, this can only be done with the help of international awareness and pressure such as that brought by the World Monuments Watch list.

Among other sites on the 2018 Watch are areas affected by natural disaster in the Caribbean; Civil Rights Sites of Alabama, United States; a gutted marketplace, the Souk of Aleppo, Syria; and the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. Other sites endangered by neglect, climate or conflict fill out the list, which is sponsored by American Express.

Since its inception through the 2018 list, over 800 sites in more than 135 countries have been included. According to the WMF, since 1996 the organization has contributed to the named sites some $105 million, with another almost $300 million from other donors.

Israelis cooling off at Lifta spring outside Jerusalem on August 16, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

“By building an international coalition, the World Monuments Watch protects both the sites themselves and the shared history they embody,” said WMF CEO and president Joshua David.

“We may be best known for the excellence of our conservation practices, but the human impacts of our work ultimately mean the most. Sites like the 25 on the 2018 Watch are where we come together as citizens of the world and renew our commitments to justice, culture, peace, and understanding,” said David.

Dov Lieber contributed to this report.

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