In 2003 archaeologist Jon Seligman and architect Shahar Puni conducted a survey of selected antiquities sites for the Municipality of Jerusalem. The survey focused upon archaeological sites in the New City and was published as an appendix to the master plan (Report No. 4 in the Jerusalem Local Plan 2000).
The remains of Lifta village were included in the survey which states that these building remains are a very important example of traditional construction in the Ottoman period. The survey also notes that within the village precincts are the remains of a rectangular building (16.4 x 18.2 m) whose front is made of stones with drafted margins; the building was probably used as a farmhouse during the Crusader period and an ancient olive press was exposed in it. In addition, hewn burial caves, rock-hewn funerary installations in which ossuaries were found and remains of terraces in the river channel that date from the Iron Age onwards were surveyed.
The conclusions of the survey, which as previously mentioned were included in the master plan, recommend that the proposed development should incorporate the ancient remains in an appropriate manner. It was also noted that the overall environmental context of the site, which is located on the slopes of Nahal Soreq, should not be destroyed by paving roads or construction that is not in keeping with the character of the existing landscape.
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Plan No. 6036 for the Development of Lifta (Mei Niftoach) was validated in August 2006. Lifta was classified a nature reserve in previous plans from 1959. The new plan designates the land for the construction of 268 dwelling units on an area of 456 dunams that will incorporate commerce, public development, hoteliery, institutions and new access roads. This development, which is subject to the current transportation and safety requirements, is anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the village’s precipitous landscape.
The aim of this survey was to map the remains of the village and identify which urban and architectural values were preserved there and to create an up-to-date data base in order to formulate guidelines for the protection and development of the site.
The village of Lifta is situated in what is today the western entrance of Jerusalem, at an elevation of 650-730 meters above sea level. The village is located on a steep slope above Nahal Lifta, which is Nahal Mei Niftoach.
Archaeological remains of the settlement Mei Niftoach, which dates to the First Temple period, were found in Lifta. This settlement is mentioned in the Bible, in the Book of Joshua, as the northern border of the Tribe of Judah. The village was destroyed during the Roman invasion led by Titus Flavius Vespasian.
During the Byzantine period a settlement by the name of Nephtho was located there and in the Crusader period there was a village called Clepsta, from which an impressive building has survived near the village core. In the sixteenth century the village was inhabited by c. 400 occupants and its population increased gradually.
The first settlement in the village was near ‘Ain Lifta. This is a sealed perennial spring in which there is a 60 meter long tunnel that conveys the water to a large reservoir. The spring water flowed from there to two pools and irrigation channels extended from the lower pool out into the fields. Although from a climatic standpoint it is advantageous to settle on the southern and eastern bends of the ridge, the village developed along the western bend, from which there is a broad and convenient vantage point that looks out over the farmland.
The village reached its zenith toward the end of the nineteenth century and it is described in articles of the period as the largest Arab village in the region. Its land extended as far as the neighborhood of Mea She’arim, Schneller, Sharei Hesed, Sheikh Jarrah and Ein Karem. The construction of the new Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in its vicinity entailed the purchase of land from the village.
The population of the village grew during the British Mandate. The modernization processes led to changes in the villagers’ lifestyle. These were manifested, among other things, in the construction of houses on farmland, which were scattered and lacking uniformity. One can thus recognize changes in the structure of the traditional village – changes in the shape of the houses, the technology and in the construction details. In 1948 approximately 2,700 people lived in the village of Lifta.
During the 1948 war the village served as a base from which attacks were launched against the Jaffa-Jerusalem road and the Jewish neighborhoods. Lifta was abandoned in February 1948 after the Lehi carried out reprisal raids in the Romema quarter and along the fringes of the village.
Since the creation of the State of Israel various development plans have been proposed that were meant to safeguard the character of the place. It has been suggested that a residential neighborhood that would draw inspiration from the traditional village fabric be established there, together with a small industry zone, education campus and even a national center for nature, landscape and the heritage of man in Israel.
Due to the high development costs, the sensitivity of the landscape there and the complexity of the treatment of the ruinous stone buildings, none of these plans were implemented and over the years the village remains have turned into a refuge for squatters and the homeless. Even so, the village’s location at the bottom of the slope, the difficulty in getting there via modern transportation and the absence of development have all contributed to preserving the original characteristics of the abandoned village.
Today the remains of the village are surrounded by a network of urban roads:
Lifta village first began to develop as a settlement in caves on a precipitous slope, 300 meters north of the spring and along the same contour line. The available living area was enlarged by constructing crude fieldstones and mortar walls with very small openings incorporated in them. As the family got larger other stone buildings were erected that formed a defensive block around an inner courtyard. This block, which reflects the family values at the time, provided basic protection against external dangers.
Gradually the village expanded and a crowded core of five blocks took shape in it, a block for each extended family that resided in the village. The small houses, which developed in an organic fashion, were built next to each other. The blocks developed inward – within the precincts of the block. The residents would meet in the center of the village, in a protected open space located in the middle of the residential blocks. It should be noted that olive presses and small flour mills for personal consumption operated in the village, which reflect the village’s economic independence.
The increase in the level of security and the standard of living, and the industrial and agricultural progress from the middle of the nineteenth century are evidenced in the growth of the village core and the construction of larger houses, next to each other, most of which have two stories. The upper stories are characterized by wide openings and elements such as a fireplace in each room and ceiling decorations.
In the 1870’s the village began to spread out on the path that led toward the spring and further along the path that exits the village to the north. The defensive component in these houses still determined their fortified shape. It is true they were built as a single two story house on a separate plot of land, but a stone wall was constructed around the and the ground floor was characterized by small closings and openings.
A main road crossed the village from south to north. Alleys, which branched-off up or down from the main road, led to the private spaces of the residential blocks. Thus a gradual transition was created in the area between the public and private domains and vice versa. A mosque was built along the main road, on the edge of the village core, and a guest house was established next to it.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the increase in the standard of living and a sense of personal security, the village continued to expand beyond the western bank of Nahal Lifta and farmhouses were built in which the influences of urban construction are evident.
Architectural and Technological Description
The typical aforementioned residential buildings have been preserved until now in Lifta.
The traditional rural house. This is the basic unit that makes up the residential blocks which was widespread in the villages of the hill-country until the end of the nineteenth century. This is a single room, without partitions, and is divided into levels in accordance with the various functions that were carried out in the house:
“Fortified” Houses. These houses were built outside the village core and were characterized by two stories: a raised ground floor that had tiny openings which was used for raising animals and storage, and a separate residential floor in which there were large openings and balconies. South of each building there is an expansive courtyard with a small structure in it that was used for storage and a tabun was sometimes located inside it.
Farmhouses. The first use of modern building technology is evident in the farmhouses. Iron beams were used in their construction and the roofs were made of concrete and roof tiles. These structures have balconies with a view and wide doorways.
Modern Houses from the Time of the British Mandate. A strong urban influence is apparent in this construction which is characterized by the use of concrete, flat roofs, regular rectangular doorways and painted floor tiles.
The pressure of development in the country’s Arab villages and the use of modern building technology led to the destruction of the traditional homes such as those that were preserved in the core of Lifta village. This building tradition, which characterized hundreds of years of traditional rural construction, is therefore in danger of disappearing.
The Urban Value
The village of Lifta has been preserved as a traditional fabric that reflects the political, social and economic changes which have shaped the region during the past four hundred years.
The urban characteristics that were preserved in Lifta are:
Architectural and Technological Values
In Lifta five types of buildings were identified that were
preserved and reflect the spirit of the period and the evolution of the village. In all of them traditional architectural characteristics were preserved that reflect a period and culture. As stated previously, these are in danger of disappearing. The concentration of these very characteristics in Lifta makes the village remains unique compared with all the other villages in the country thanks to the absence of development within its precincts.
Architectural Characteristics that have been Preserved:
. The central courtyard, which was a transitional region from the alley to the house and a meeting area for the clan, was preserved in different variants. Generally speaking we are able to identify a courtyard belonging to an extended family which is shared by a number of houses and connected to an alley in a variety of ways. Likewise, it is also possible to identify private courtyards which belong to nuclear household units. The shape of the courtyard and its function were modified with the changes that occurred in the village. It only served the private house and later appeared as an entrance balcony that controlled the surroundings. In some of the courtyards it is possible to discern traditional elements such as the stone wall and gate that link the courtyard with the alley, as well as the tabun and cistern that were used by the entire family, and raised surfaces for sitting that are located for the most part on the natural bedrock.
The Roofs. The roof of the house served as an open area for the use of the residents. The roofs were used for sleeping during the hot summer nights and raising pigeons and bees. Dovecotes that were incorporated in the upper courses of stonework can be discerned in some of the residential blocks.
The roof was reached by means of a ladder that reached a number of steps which led to the roof. Over the years the use of the roof was made more accessible by the addition of cantilever steps, stone steps and prefabricated concrete steps that were built next to the building’s façade.
The early houses were built as barrel vaults; later they were built as cross vaults which were prevalent throughout the village. The vaults were covered with leveled layers of soil and lime and formed the surface of the roof. In the later houses one can even discern flat roofs and tiled roofs.
The building envelope changed with the development of the village, from a closed jumbled facade in which there are small functional openings to facades that were influenced by the urban Arab house in which there are several groups of decorated openings, different forms of stone dressing and an exit to cantilevered balconies.
Openings. In most of the doorways in the entrance to the buildings one notices a massive lintel beam with a relieving arch above it. These exist in many variations.
The windows evolved gradually from a small opening that was the width of the building stones and the height of the stone courses to wide windows such as the double window that was prevalent in Arab construction or the triple arched window (trifor) that characterized the central hall house in the cities.
The floor of the house was mostly built of tamped soil which was replaced over time with a ‘meda’, that is, lime-based mortar and soil, and later with flagstones and decorated tiles. Sometimes all of the different kinds of pavement exist in a single structure.
The Interior of the House. In most of the houses traditional components were preserved inside the house such as a hearth, chimney and niches that were used for storing the contents of the home. The niches for the bedding were all built the same width which probably stemmed from the width of the mattresses. In the later and larger houses a hearth was built in each of the rooms and to heat the very large rooms they sometimes built two fireplaces. In two of the buildings the remains of large clay silos used to store agricultural produce were preserved; these were built as a partition in the middle of the hall. Plaster floral decorations are still visible on some of the buildings’ walls and their ceilings.
Evaluation of the Physical Condition
The destruction caused by the war in 1948 and thereafter in the 1950’s damaged the urban fabric of the village and the uniqueness of the village core. The intentional destruction of the roofs of the buildings and prolonged neglect of the place led to the decline in the physical condition of the houses in the village.
The early phase of settlement around the caves was severely damaged due to the poor quality of the construction that characterizes it. Only a few walls remained standing and a number of original houses remained in situ.
There is a considerable amount of destruction in the village core; nevertheless, it is still possible to identify the urban fabric comprising the alleys and the buildings. In many instances the empty space was interrupted and severed by collapse and parts of buildings. The blocks that are located south of the main square are in a better state of preservation than the blocks to the north of it. There are buildings among the structures that are part of the expansion of the village core; these survived in a relatively good state of preservation thanks to the quality of the original construction. Entire blocks of buildings were preserved there, including courtyards and alleys. All of these bear witness to the development of the village, and the different construction phases can be identified in them.
The buildings from the phase when the village first expanded toward the north were completely destroyed and the urban fabric was eradicated. The buildings and their courtyards to the south, on the way to the spring, are partly preserved intact; however, one can still experience walking along the main road alongside the village wall.
Some of the walls of the buildings were preserved in the farms on the western bank of the Nahal Lifta but the roads that led to each farm, which have not been used for years, have long since disappeared.
Summary and Conclusions
The remains of Lifta village at the western entrance of Jerusalem are a last piece of history of the lifestyle and of the traditional building culture. This village, whose origins were mentioned already in the Biblical period as the boundary of the territory of the Tribe of Judah, is a living memento of the ancient landscape and the indigenous building that was prevalent throughout the country for hundreds of years – traditional construction that is integrated in the environment: in the features of the bedrock, nature and topography.
Lifta is a preserve of popular architecture (by and large vernacular) and of rural construction that developed in an organic manner. The preservation of the village’s buildings stems from its years of isolation since the establishment of the State at which time it was abandoned. The development process, which froze in Lifta, distinguishes it from villages where the habitation continuity and modern construction technology have obscured the core structure of the village and its phases of expansion.
Development that is oblivious to the value of the place and the conversion of the village core into modern residences are liable to severely harm the delicate urban fabric, the connection of the village to its environment and the traditional construction that has been preserved there.
An examination of similar test cases in Jordan and Mexico where abandoned historic villages were adapted for modern use shows that the success of the rehabilitation of the village depends on leveraging the original values of the place and on minimal modern intervention in the environment. In both instances the region was developed as a focal point for experiential tourism, a use that does not necessitate intensive development.
As previously mentioned, three main development phases can be discerned in the village:
Among the village buildings one can identify structures that are of special value such as the religious buildings, olive presses, the remains of a Crusader building and different variants of the central hall building made using traditional rural construction.
The survey recommendations were formulated with the intention of preserving the urban and architectural values of the place. The principal recommendations are as follows:
List of References
This report and photos published through Israel's Antiquities Authority - Conservation Department. Orderer: Emeq Ayalon Company. Duration: July 2008. Implemented by: Arch. Avi Mashiah
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