The Treasures of the Ottoman Era-Haifa

In order to raise the students’ awareness of the relevance and importance of archaeology to the modern world in my course on Christian and Muslim archaeology, I pointed out to them, as I always do, the different quarters of Lower Haifa – the section of the city where much of the Israeli-Arab population resides. We strolled along the shabby Jaffa Street with its historical Ottoman (from the early 20th century) and Christian’s remains  until we reached its eastern reconstructed part with Jewish buildings from the 1930s.  I further showed them the eastern Muslim quarter to be soon abolished and replaced by high-rises, as well as a few selected reconstructed houses from the Ottoman period used as hotels  or office buildings.


Haifa Eastern Quarter-to be abolished

Haifa Bayclub Hotel-reconstructed






Before raising a few questions, I also drew attention to the annual multi-ethnic cultural events called “the Holiday of Holidays.  This symbolic action organized by the municipality and taking place in the densely populated and segregated Arab quarter in Lower Haifa has contributed in part to upgrading the city’s status and boosting its economy. Recently, the multi-ethnic demographic character of Haifa (90% Jews: 10% Arab), has also been mentioned in a letter sent to president Obama by the mayor of Haifa inviting him to visit the city and witness the “over 100 years of ongoing dialogue” between its Arab and Jewish citizens.

I, then, asked the students to express their opinions on the following questions:

1-Is the selective reconstruction by the municipality, which puts emphasis on the past of the dominant majority (Jews) and obliterates extensive parts of the past of the minority (Arabs), in the name of modernization and gentrification processes reasonable?

2 – Who should be the main beneficiary of the cultural events taking place in the segregated quarter inhabited solely by Arab citizens – the locals whose poor conditions of living should be ameliorated by the municipality, or the   dominant Jewish majority which resides in other parts of the city and appropriates the Palestinian heritage without acknowledging it?

Most of the students who participated in the debate that followed my questions were in favor of the gentrification processes and modernization of downtown Haifa.  They thus consented to the municipality’s partial preservation of the Palestinian past.  Only two students considered also the welfare of the Arab citizens who resided in Lower Haifa.

I was surprised by the student responses.  Not only does the majority of my class consist of students who belong to the minority community but from my acquaintance with other young Arabs I was expecting a different, more militant, reaction. I concluded that either the students felt uninterested to express their opinions in an Israeli academic institute with both Jews and Arabs participating in the class, or that I had failed to point out that both gentrification that neglected the urban infrastructure of parts of Lower Haifa and redevelopment efforts in other parts were selective and clearly differentiate between Arab and Jewish groups, in spite of some symbolic actions of the municipality toward the former.




Jaffa Street: The Neglect

For the Day of Archaeology 2012 and the end of my course on Christian and Moslem archeology (4th-20th centuries) in the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, we went on a field trip to downtown Haifa to see remnants from bygone times marking the contemporary landscape. Strolling along Jaffa Street we examined the houses built at the beginning of the 20th century, following the construction of Haifa harbor and the building of the Hejaz Railways, which connected Haifa to the holy Moslem cities.The houses represent various Ottoman (16th-20th) styles and traditions, and there are also a few cemeteries and religious institutions, both Moslem and Christian, along the street.

In spite of its beauty and historical importance, the street, inhabited nowadays by an impoverished Arab population, is neglected. Rumors say that the neglect of this area stems, not only from political grounds, but from a process of gentrification that attracts rich people into this neighborhood in the center of town and forces the poor population to leave. Standing in the shed of one of the old buildings, I referred to the idea that the structure of a neighborhood, such as that of Jaffa Street, was vital for the reproduction of social life of the community living there.

The obliteration of historical knowledge, on the other hand, by violent act of foundation of a new neighborhood can produce a tangible influence on people’s identities. The students, however, when asked to comment on the status of preservation of the contemporary landscape were reluctant to express their opinion. Their reluctance may be related to their technological background and lack of a humanistic one. It may also be the result of the composition of the course, attended mostly by Arab students who are unwilling to express their opinion regarding the contemporary landscape as a sort of a protest against the State because of their displacement and dispossession by the hegemonic culture.