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The Architectural Nature Of The Old City

Available sources contain very limited descriptions of the city shape and how it was created. However, the information provided by western and Moslem travellers’ accounts over the centuries, although sparce, allow us to paint a more or less precise picture of how the city looked when it started to take shape near the Tombs of the Patriarchs (away from its first location in Tal Al Rumaida).

The city’s constitution and shape was clearly affected by three important factors. The first, of course, was its location near Abraham’s tomb, although Hebron did not grow into more than a large town with modest architecture. The other factor which had an impact on the city’s morphology is its location in the Hebron valley, which boasted a variety of fruit trees, vineyards, olive groves, etc. in addition to a multiplicity of water fountains. The valley runs through the city from the northeast to the southwest, dividing it into two parts. Buildings sprouted along the valley and around the Mosque. The valley itself was considered one of the major trade routes linking Hebron to Egypt and Le Crack des Chevaliers.

The third factor was Tal Al Rumaida, site of the original Canaanite city. It continued to be a sector of the city, remaining partly occupied until Crusader times. 

I. Construction and the city plan

It may be tentatively supposed that construction gradually shifted from Tal Al Rumaida to the current location, after the Roman and Byzantine eras. With the advent of Islam, the city expanded remarkably and continued to do so after it was conquered by Saladin in 1187 AD. Nevertheless it can safely be said to have reached the peak of its development during the Mamluk era. This leads us to believe that many of the Old City’s dwellings, at least their ground floors, date back to the end of that era, while the rest were built under the Ottomans.

The Ibrahimi Mosque was not the centre of the city plan, as is usually the case in Islamic cities where the mosque and the governor’s palace are in the centre of town. In Hebron, the mosque was at first located on the edge of town, then the city developed in all directions. All the Old City’s inner streets are believed to have been planned to serve as access to the mosque. The main road, which cuts through the city, starts at Ain Al Askar (soldiers’ fountain) in the west, cuts through the glassworkers’ quarter, then turns north at the “Khozk El Far” (mouse hole) pergola and continues all the way up to the Mosque, dividing the city into a northeastern and a southwestern part. The only main road to cross its path is the Souk Al Laban (dairy market) road, which turns right in the north towards the Mosque. In the south, this road ends at the Bani Al Dar quarter. This main road follows topographic features, with its path running parallel to the Hebron valley.

Auxiliary roads follow an Islamic city layout, with a grid of open streets but also dead-ends, most leading to a small square in the centre of the neighbourhood, from which alleys lead to small yards with arcades used for living and for shade. The roads all lead to the Mosque or to worship places and other public buildings. The houses form a continuous line, creating the city’s walls on all sides.

II. The Quarters 

Dividing cities into enclosed neighbourhoods or quarters is a very old organizational concept the origins of which are still debated. In many cases, quarters were created to house ethnically distinct groups which participated in building the city. This division expressed the wish of each group to gather within a clearly defined social cell. For security reasons, the division tended to become sharper and more comprehensive. Under Ottoman rule, cities became increasingly divided, due to the proliferation of different communities and the relative autonomy granted to each (the confessional system known as “Mullah”).

A. Inner quarters
1. Qazzazine Quarter
2. Al Sawakneh Quarter
3. Bani Al Dar Quarter
4. Al Aqaba Quarter
5. Al Qalaa (Fortress) Quarter
7. Al Mohtasibiya (Treasury) Quarter
8. Al Madrasa (School) Quarter
9. Al Akrad (Kurds) Quarter
10. Christians’ and Jews’ Quarters
11. Al Masharka (Eastern) Quarter

B. Quarters located outside the Old City
These are quarters located outside the traditional structural fabric, although they remain within the urban environment of the Old City of Hebron. We shall refer to them as ‘localities’ to differentiate them from the Old City’s quarters. However, they do not diverge, in their structural planning, from the concept of quarters or neighbourhoods. They are separated from the city due to their location, for historical reasons such as Shaikh Ali Baka and Qaytoun, or because they were recently built such as the Bab Al Zawia locality.
1. Qaytoun
2. Sheikh Ali Bakka (from the Arabic word Bakka’, meaning weeper
3. Bab Al Zawia

III. Negative factors affecting constructions in the Old City

Quarters and localities of the Old City have witnessed many events which have discouraged construction, leading to extensive damage and the destruction of buildings and whole neighbourhoods. The city was hit by many earthquakes, including two severe ones in 1837 and 1927, in addition to damage caused by time, storm and snow.

The military campaign launched by Ibrahim Pasha, son of Mohammad Ali the Great, between 1831 and 1840, also left a large number of buildings derelict. In 1834, the city was bombarded with artillery shells, which destroyed many dwellings and forced inhabitants to move to other neighbourhoods, either inside the Old City or towards Bab Al Zawia. The city also suffered from the effects of a civil war that erupted after the Egyptian army withdrew in 1840, between Abdurrahman Amre, a local leader on mount Hebron, and the city residents. Amre’s rebellion against the Ottoman central government forced the Ottoman artillery to bombard the Old City, causing even more damage. In 1965, the Jordanian Archaeology Department enlarged the piazza in front of the Mosque, removing houses and parts of the Qalaa and Madrasa quarters. The hospice to the east of the Mosque, built during the Fatimid era, was destroyed along with an ablution fountain behind it. This hospice used to be part of the Mansouri barracks (built in 1297 AD), which was located on the southwestern corner of the Mosque wall.

In 1968, occupation bulldozers destroyed the main entrance to the Mosque, and neighbours were forced to leave so that settlers could gain access from “Kiryat Arba”. These bulldozers carelessly demolished many historical and archaeologically significant buildings, just to create a park lining the Mosque’s southern and western sides. Many Islamic remains were consequently lost forever.

All these events contributed to the destruction of many buildings, forcing residents from their homes. The displaced population first started gathering in Bab Al Zawia locality as well as on the edges of town. They sometimes also chose to build new homes in piazzas and orchards, within the Old City’s traditional fabric.

IV. Public Services

The Old City enjoyed many public services such as water, electricity, sewerage and paved road networks. A large part of such works was undertaken in the early 20th Century. City streets used to be paved with real carved stone while other roads were unpaved.

In 2006, the Hebron municipality replaced the old sewage conduits, dating back to various periods including the Ottoman era, with new pipes. The sewage system inside the Old City had been built near the end of the Ottoman era, following the creation of the city’s first municipal council, between 1874 and 1882. In the 1950s the city was connected to the power grid. Recently, within the scope of the Old City Rehabilitation Project, the sewage system has been renewed and all houses are connected to water and electricity grids. Streets and alleys in the Old City have also been rehabilitated.