Paved Paradise? The Secrets of an Ancient Jerusalem-area Village Revealed

Ahead of plans to a luxury neighborhood, architects and archaeologists find a treasure of ancient remains in the onetime Palestinian village of Lifta on Jerusalem's outskirts.

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The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, December 8, 2016.
The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, December 8, 2016. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Antiquities Authority has just completed a first-of-its-kind survey in the abandoned village of Lifta, on the western approaches to Jerusalem, ahead of plans to build a neighborhood of private homes on the site.

The survey, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, includes an archaeological, historical and geographic study, including measurements and digital reconstruction of each of the village’s structures, and how the entire village looked in various periods. Israel has never reconstructed any former village in this manner.

The study led to new insights regarding Lifta’s history and development, its function and architecture. Artifacts from the Hellenistic period were discovered, as well as subterranean spaces never known about before.

All this may not help conserve the village in face of a plan to build an upscale neighborhood on the site.

The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, December 8, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Lifta, lying just north of the entrance road into Jerusalem, is an exception in Israel’s landscape. It is one of 400 villages abandoned by Palestinian inhabitants during the 1948 war, and has remained virtually untouched since that time. It's one of the only former Palestinian villages to be frozen in time as most of the rest were either demolished or repopulated by Jewish residents. UNESCO has placed Lifta on a list of candidates for world heritage sites.

For 20 years the Israel Lands Authority (ILA) and Jerusalem Municipality have promoted plans to build 115 private homes on the village's site. Stores, cafes and restaurants will also be built in the new neighborhood. The plan has been opposed by architects, preservation advocates and the village's refugees. Four years ago opponents won a great victory when the District Court ordered that the tender for selling plots be revoked, and ordered the state to conduct an archaeological survey.

Architects and archaeologists examined its surviving 75 houses. They documented stages of construction and created 3-D computer images of the village in different periods. They discovered that the oldest building dated back 2,000 years and reflected both Roman and Hellenistic styles.

In the Middle Ages a Crusader farmhouse was built over this structure, and became the village’s central focus. The village grew continuously during the Ottoman period. Six houses containing oil presses were found, constituting an industrial complex that provided olive oil to Jerusalem and neighboring villages. An old roofed street leading to these presses was also found. Some large caves were discovered below these houses, which provided living and storage space.

The researchers were assisted by descendants of Lifta's inhabitants living in East Jerusalem. Together they mapped the web of families who lived there, digitally recreating streets and squares, terraces and agricultural facilities.

The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, December 8, 2016. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“This is the biggest, most complex and important survey ever carried out by the Antiquities Authority. I hope it leads to the village’s conservation” says conservation architect Avi Mashiach who headed the team of surveyors, in a video prepared by the Authority. “The village needs to be preserved as is”

But the ILA says it has no intention of reconsidering its plan to build new houses at the site, though it agrees to take steps to try and preserve ancient remains. Opponents are furious that the housing plan has not been cancelled. They say the survey shows that new roads would destroy ancient remains, endanger the oldest building and that construction would likely damage trees, fences and other older buildings.

“A new plan needs to be drawn up. The previous one conserved only the margins, trying to cram in as many units as possible into the area. Rethinking is now in order,” says architect David Guggenheim who opposes the plan.

Attorney Sami Arshid, representing the refugees, also calls for cancelling the plan.

“The village needs to be preserved as is, fixing what is possible and leaving it open to everyone” says Nasr Abu Leil, from the refugees’ non-profit group. “Everyone sees Lifta from a different viewpoint – some see it as a monument, others as a memory, while others see it as a nature gem. Its look shouldn’t be changed, its houses should be reinforced and its roads maintained. We’ll do everything we can to block the plan.”

The abandoned Palestinian village of Lifta, December 8, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The plan as is would make the historic village into a modern residential and commercial area. An alternative being explored is the possibility of making the remains a tourist site, while building new homes at the village's margins. The ILA objects to that idea.

“From an archaeological and conservation perspective there is a need to proceed since there is constant degradation of buildings in winter weather. Some experts estimate that the village will disappear in 20-30 years” says Dr. Yuval Baruch, the head of the Antiquity Authority’s Jerusalem section. “We know that developers and new infrastructure is needed but the orientation should be towards tourists. The decision is not ours, however.”

The Authority is preparing conservation guidelines to attach to construction plans. Any developer will have to invest large sums in conservation.