Reclaiming Palestinian Heritage

When we think of heritage and culture, we usually think of old buildings and silly things we put on display in dusty museums that have no relevance to our daily lives. But in Palestine it’s really a hot topic- I mean the news that Israel declared the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and the Bilal mosque (Rachel’s tomb) in Bethlehem as ‘Jewish heritage sites’ actually sparked riots. This may be an extreme reaction but I do understand the Palestinian people’s apprehensions.

I remember when I met Daoud Hammoudi of Stop the Wall (I also happened to meet Mohammed Othman who was jailed for his work at the office which was later ransacked by Israeli soldiers), he said that in the Israeli-Palestine conflict everything was political. The roads, the signs, the walls- everything. Sadly, heritage and archaeology is included in that and I think it’s fair to say that both sides sometimes overstep the mark in the cultural grab-and-run.

Even so, it’s the Palestinians that are losing out and although some people state that heritage (like the environment) could be an area where the Israeli’s and Palestinians could find common ground, I am rather dubious about the whole concept. Last year I spoke to Raed al-Mickawi from Bustan, an environmental peacekeeping organisation which works with Bedouins in Beer Sheba, and he had this to say: “In terms of co-existence, it is problematic as there has to be two equal sides and at the moment they [Bedouins] are almost invisible and really discriminated against…”

I think that it works the same way with the issue of heritage. Palestinians see any small claim as a threat as Israel does has the power and ability to take it all- after the fact that these sites are both in the West Bank didn’t seem to faze Israel at all. So unless this changes I think its fair to say that there will be probably be a riot following any attempts by Israel to stake its claims over any site.

Anyway Here’s an piece I did on the two sites for IslamOnline which got me thinking about the whole issue. Enjoy

The Ibrahimi and Bilal Mosque

Reclaiming Palestinian Heritage

By  Arwa Aburawa

Freelance Journalist – UK

The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron (also known as Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi)

Last week, Israel provoked anger and indignation by listing two important Muslim Palestinian sites- the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron and the Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque in Bethlehem- as “Israeli archaeological sites.”

Not only are both of these holy sites within the Palestinian territories of the West Bank but they are also of significant religious and historic importance to Muslims.

Many commentators remarked that this decision was simply a means to dispossess Palestinians of their religious heritage whilst reinforcing Israeli claims to the sites. Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister is reported as saying: “Our existence here doesn’t just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength. It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy.” It seems clear, therefore, that this is nothing more than a cynical ploy to fortify Israeli claims to sites by dismissing their link to Muslim and Palestinian history.

More on Palestinian Heritage

Islamic Architecture in Jerusalem

What’s behind the Israeli Separation Wall?

Jerusalem: Capital of Arabic Culture 2009

Stories of Siege and Zatar

The Long Road to Bethlehem

Fourth Most Venerated Site in Islam

The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron (also known as Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi) is built on top of a cave believed to hold the tombs of Prophet Ibrahim and his family. The original structure was built by Herod the Great on the location of the cave towards the end of the first century BC, which consisted of huge Herodian stone walls. In 635-7 AD, a mosque was built on the site making it one of the oldest mosques built in Palestine and the entire Levant area. In fact, the Ibrahimi mosque is widely held to be the fourth most sacred site in Islam after Mekkah, Medina and al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem.

The cave is so scared that it has not been entered by Muslims and the mosque contains six cenotaphs- or empty tombs- to the Prophet Ibrahim and others. Before it was captured by the Crusaders in 1099 and turned into a church, several improvements were made to the Ibrahimi mosque by the Muslim Ummayad rulers including the construction of steps to enter and leave and a defined entrance.

Once Saladin al-Ayyub recaptured the city in 1187, it was reconverted into mosque although Christians retained the right to worship in the site for some years. Saladin al-Ayyub contributed a minaret to each corner of the mosque, although only two remain intact, as well as a beautiful Mimbar which originally graced the main mosque of Ascalon until 1191.

A Site of Beauty, Knowledge and Generosity

A Site of Beauty, Knowledge and Generosity

Under the Mamluk Muslim dynasty the upper part of the walls of the mosque were crenelated, two additional entrances were built as well as the six cenotaphs that stand to this day. The cenotaphs are dedicated to Ibrahim, Ya’qub, Ishaq (pbut) and their wives and are covered with green rich tapestries which carry Qur’anic inscriptions. The city became a center for learning under the Ayyubids and Mamluks, and was even home to several active Sufi orders.

So many pilgrims would visit the mosque that during the Ottoman period, a tradition developed in which a daily meal of lentils was delivered to all residents and pilgrims for free. The meal was known as ‘adas al-Khalil and was distributed in the name of Prophet Ibrahim’s legendary generosity and hospitality. It is believed that this meal was so reliable that houses built during this period had no kitchens.

Settlers, Clashes and Catastrophes

Hebron (or Al-Khalil) is the largest city in the West Bank with a high Palestinian population but with approximately 400-500 fanatical Israeli settlers living in the city’s Old Quarter. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw an increasing number of Jewish settlers move into the city and in 1997 the city was divided to create an Israeli security zone around the Old City for the settlers. The Israeli settlers are protected by around 4,000 Israeli soldiers and various checkpoints where Palestinians are routinely harassed and repressed for the sake of the settlers.

In 1994 during the month of Ramadan, an American Jewish Settler named Baruch Goldstein burst into the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire on Palestinians as they were praying. Twenty nine were killed, 200 were wounded and another 12 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the subsequent protests and demonstrations.

Today the mosque is partitioned with one part converted into a synagogue for Jews to pray in. As the mosque is within the Old City which an Israeli security zone, it is cut off from the Palestinian population by checkpoints and the intimidation of the settlers. The entire area is stifled by these tensions, Palestinians have closed their shops down, moved out and the place has the unshakeable air of conflict.

Bethlehem and Encroaching Israeli Control

The Bilal Ibn Rabah Mosque, which is known as Rachel’s Tomb to Jews, is located the northern borders of Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. As well as the site of a mosque commemorating Islam’s first Muedhdin (calls the Muslim faithful to pray five times a day), it is believed to be the site where Rachel died in childbirth en route to Hebron. A pyramid-shaped mausoleum was present on the site until the Islamic period and the current building originates from the Ottoman period.

In 1841, Anglo-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore financed the renovation of the dome as a gesture to the Muslims who were uneasy about the disruptive Jewish pilgrims. Even so the site remained accessible to all Muslims, Christians and Jews until 1977 when it was under the administration of the Department of Islamic Affairs (Waqf). In 1995 an Israeli camp was setup whilst the Apartheid wall and a watchtower were built to cut off the site from Bethlehem. The dome and entrance hall were later demolished by Israeli forces and the mosque is now completely inaccessible to Palestinians. Today, tourists and foreigners are allowed to enter the site but only under the permission of Israeli forces. Visitors must also grant the site exclusive Jewish importance by wearing a skullcap and honoring other Jewish traditions- as such Muslims are usually denied access.

Israeli actions to undermine Palestinian sites of important religious and historical significance are nothing new. Since the war of 1967, they have laid claim or completely demolished sites to make way for ‘Jewish heritage’ and have also threaten some of the most sacred sites in Islam under the guise of ‘archaeological digs’. Whilst these actions go against numerous international laws, ultimately, it is the Palestinians and Muslims who must fight back, not only with protests but by celebrating and remembering the significance of these places to the Muslim world.


Alternative Tourism Group, Palestine and Palestinians, September 2008, Ramallah.

Anita Vitullo, People Tied to Place: Strengthening Cultural Identity in Hebron’s Old City, Journal of Palestine Studies, Fall 2003, Vol. 33 (no.1): 68-83.

One response to “Reclaiming Palestinian Heritage

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming Palestinian Heritage - Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe (1948)

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