Artists lead efforts to restore, preserve Gaza's old houses

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - The large, 500-year-old brick walls of the al-Kamalaia school slowly emerged from years of garbage as grassroots protectors began the long process of restoring their former glory.
The Mamluk-era building is located in the heart of Gaza City's old town and is one of a shrinking number of historic buildings that are threatened with demolition.
“It was in a very difficult, pathetic condition. It was a dump, ”said Abdullah al-Ruzzi, artist and lead volunteer.
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Al-Ruzzi and other artists created the Mobaderoon or Initiators program to rescue abandoned houses and buildings from two periods in Gaza's history: the Mamluk Sultanate and the subsequent Ottoman Empire.
According to tourist officials, there are less than 200 houses from these eras in the old town of the Palestinian enclave, either partially or entirely. They are threatened by neglect, decay or even demolition from new urban development.
"Lack of public awareness and the owners' economic considerations are the greatest threats to these buildings," said Ahmed al-Astal, director of Iwan, the Institute of History and Heritage at the Islamic University in Gaza. "These houses are our identity, but ignorance leads to their destruction."
Since the Gaza Strip is small and 2 million people live in just 300 square kilometers, the experts and volunteers fear that structures from bygone centuries will disappear, such as those from much older civilizations.
Population growth, the conflict with Israel and mismanagement by Hamas, the militant group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, have helped clear away many of the signs of the five millennia-old history of the Gaza Strip. The area was enriched by its prime location along the route between ancient Egypt, the Levant and Mesopotamia. For example, Hamas bulldozers destroyed large parts of a rare 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement to make way for a housing project.
Mobaderoon is one of the few organizations that want to preserve ancient sites in Gaza City. However, their efforts are usually limited and there is a lack of systematic plans.
It took the team two weeks to clear the trash from the al-Kamalaia school, which is named after a Mamluk sultan. Every day young men and women gather there, sweep the dusty floor, brush the bricks and prop up the windows with wooden frames.
Once the renovations are complete, al-Ruzzi says the building will be converted into a place for cultural and artistic activities, as there are few such facilities in Gaza.
“This is the only school that has retained its architectural status. She still has classrooms. It is clear that until recently this school was used for Quran education and memorization because it is located in the old city, ”said Jamal Abu Rida, director of the archaeological department at the Gaza Ministry of Tourism.
Gaza residents are grappling with financial troubles, grappling with a 13-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade and battling a raging coronavirus outbreak that has overwhelmed the healthcare system. Campaigns to protect cultural heritage and archaeological sites are not a top priority but are welcomed.
"The initiatives are very important because their aim is to preserve the cultural heritage," said al-Astal.
A few blocks from the school, another team is renovating a house, the Ghussein Palace, named after the family who have owned it for 200 years. The workers scratched the bricks to remove layers of dust that hid their features. Others took measurements for the door frames.
Work on this house began in August and is expected to be completed in January. "It has been abandoned for a long time and has many cracks and problems," said Nashwa Ramlawi, the architect who led the restoration. “The place has a great heritage and great cultural value. We will dedicate it to anything that serves the community. a cultural, service or social center that is open to everyone. "

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