By Aziza Nofal
Translator Pascale Menassa
February 4, 2016
In 1901, to commemorate the 25th year of
enthronement of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the Ottoman Empire, the sultan gifted
30 clock towers to the regions under the Ottoman state’s control. Palestine
received seven of these, including the clock tower at the entrance to the Old
City in Nablus, north of the West Bank.
Summary⎙ Print In the historical
Old City of Nablus in the West Bank, buildings from the
days of the Ottoman Empire stand tall.
The clock tower stands today as one of the
most important touristic and historical sites in the city. It still functions,
and it represents the central landmark of Nablus.
The sultan’s gift was considered the city’s
guiding light and time reference for a long time. Even now, citizens set their
watches according to the clock tower. The tower has stood its ground, like the
others in Jaffa, Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and Safed. The seventh, which was
erected in Jerusalem, was destroyed in 1922 during the days of the British
Clock towers — like some other historical
Ottoman landmarks in Palestine such as schools, mosques and prisons — preserve
the Ottoman architectural character. The Nablus clock tower is the only one of
its kind in the West Bank, but it isn’t the only Ottoman building in the city.
The Old City is a small geographic area,
with no new buildings or structures. Nablus' urbanization has only affected the
Old City’s surroundings, in the north and east.
Naseer Arafat, an engineer and member of
the Reconstruction Committee of the Old City of Nablus, said all the buildings
are Ottoman except for two shrines that date back to the Mamluk period
He further explained that there are
underground constructions in the Old City, such as water and oil wells and
water tunnels. He said, “These buildings were not affected by earthquakes, and
some of them are still intact.”
The Old City suffered several earthquakes
throughout history, the last of which struck in 1927. Most buildings that were
erected before the Ottoman rule, during the Mamluk and Byzantine periods, were
destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt under the Ottoman rule.
Arafat distinguished between Ottoman
governmental buildings that were built with purely Ottoman planning, funding
and engineering and are still used for their original purposes, and buildings
that the local citizens built at their own expense and used for civilian
purposes during the Ottoman era. All of the civilian buildings were
residential, and most remain such today, aside from 91 historical sites visited
However, Arafat told Al-Monitor, “The
[remaining] governmental buildings that were completely financed by the Ottoman
government at the time included only two schools and the clock tower. One of the
schools was destroyed by an earthquake that hit in 1927, while the Rashidiya
School and the clock tower remain.”
Khaldoun Bechara, head of the Riwaq Centre
for Architectural Conservation, said, “The Ottoman buildings in the Old City —
which was a central city during the Ottoman era, just like Jerusalem — are part
of the Ottoman buildings erected in historical Palestine." Bechara was
speaking of the Palestine that was under Ottoman rule and is now considered the
1948 territories: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The Ottoman buildings in
Nablus’ Old City constitute more than 95% of the Palestinian historical
construction, he said.
Bechara said that Ottoman architecture is
the traditional architecture in historical Palestine. This style of
architecture started emerging in the 16th century and continued until the
beginning of the British occupation in 1917. The architecture is characterized
by the use of stones, thick walls, arches in doors and windows, and Crusader
arches and domes in which the ceiling’s main column has the cross sign.
Bechara added, “Although this architecture
has an Ottoman character, it still has a local aspect. For instance, clock
towers in Palestine were different from those in Istanbul and the Balkans; they
differed between cities depending on the influence of the local surroundings.”
Moreover, Ottoman governmental buildings
that were built under the supervision and planning of Turkish engineers were
different from the civil buildings that were overseen by local engineers.
According to Bechara, the Ottoman
construction was modern and influenced by the West, but some oriental touches
of local construction remained.
Ottoman architecture influenced Palestine
more than any other occupational eras for two reasons. First, the Ottoman
Empire ruled in Palestine for 400 years (1516-1915), and Palestine and Istanbul
had a strong relationship. Some religious cities in Palestine, such as
Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre and Nablus, were administratively subordinated to the
leadership in Istanbul, given its religious and geographical importance, as
well as its central location between the eastern and western worlds.
Second, the cultural exchange between
Palestine and Turkey was huge back then, and it could be seen in citizens’
taste in architecture. According to Bechara, 300 Palestinian students studied
in Istanbul at the time.
According to Riwaq, 50,320 historical
buildings were identified in 1994 in Palestine. Bechara said that only a few of
those were built before the Ottoman era. This is because Palestine was rebuilt
in the last 500 years according to Ottoman architecture based on the existing
infrastructure from previous eras. For instance, the architecture in the Old
City of Nablus was mostly Byzantine, but the buildings were destroyed due to
the 1927 earthquake and rebuilt with an Ottoman character.
Bechara believes it is very important to
preserve these buildings and restore them, as they constitute a historical
reflection of civilizations that left their mark on Palestine. The Ottoman era
was perhaps the most influential era regarding architecture.
According to Rami Sab Laban, deputy
coordinator of Turkey's development aid program, the Turkish Cooperation and
Development Agency (TIKA), funded by the Turkish government in Palestine is
conducting restoration activities to preserve the Ottoman heritage in
Palestine, especially the historical public buildings. The Nablus clock tower
was renovated in December 2012 with funding from TIKA, as well as the Rashidiya
School in May 2015, which was reopened thanks to the Turkish government’s
In addition to restoration activities, the
agency supports student and cultural exchange between Turkey and Palestine and
builds health- and education-related facilities in the West Bank and Gaza
Sab Laban told Al-Monitor that his agency
accepts restoration applications for all historical buildings that have public
use. However, more attention is given to historical Ottoman buildings
specifically, and 10 have been restored so far in the West Bank.
According to Sab Laban, municipalities in
the West Bank submit restoration applications to TIKA, which studies the
application, then accepts or rejects them. Most restoration activities are
executed by these municipalities through foreign funding, as the Palestinian
government can't finance them.
In addition to the clock tower and the
Rashidiya School in Nablus, Sab Laban said, the restoration activities include
the Educational Directorate in Qalqilya; the Wall of Jerusalem near the Chain
Gate or Bab al-Silsila; Sabil al-Sultan Abdul Hamid in Gaza, which is built on a
water source that passers-by drink from for free; and the historical Ottoman
building in Salfit that is currently used as a women’s centre. The Bab
al-Silsila minaret in Al-Aqsa Mosque was also restored, as well as Prophet
Moses’ building in Jericho.
Perhaps this interest in restoring Turkish
buildings in Palestine reflects the Ottoman era’s influence on Palestinians,
not only in terms of construction, but in all aspects of life. The Turkish
influence spans to food, habits and words that entered their language and are
still spoken today.
Aziza Nofal is a journalist from Nablus. She lives and works in Ramallah
as a freelance reporter for Arab and regional websites.