Threatened industrial heritage: the case of traditional soap industry Nablus, Palestine

Publication date: 2006-01
Publisher: The international Committee for the conservation of Industrial Heritage; Italy


Abu-Jidi, Nurhan


endangered cultural heritage, industrial heritage, Cultural identity in war zone


Nablus is located 65 km north of Jerusalem; it is the biggest city in the West Bank. Its strategic location makes it a major focal linkage between a number of Palestinian cities and villages. The city is the trading centre for the region and the economic capital of Palestine Nablus and its environs have been inhabited for more than 5,000 years, as far back as Canaanite times. The existing structure of the historic centre of Nablus is a characteristic feature of the typical old Arabic Islamic city. This is clearly manifested in the structure and form of its streets, its network of alleys, its domes, vaulted houses, and souqs. Despite the numerous and substantial social and political changes through the ages, the pattern of the Roman city built in AD 72 can still be noted in some sections of the city and its buildings. Nablus is famous for its cultural heritage, embedded in the public buildings spreading over its six traditional quarters. For example, Nablus has nine hammam (Turkish baths), 60 sabaneh (traditional soap factories, 30 still in operation), nine mosques, two khans (caravanserais), four traditional hotels, five large palaces, and 63 hush (extended family houses or family compounds). The historic centre of Nablus has a substantial international historical and architectural significance. In 2004 UNESCO recommended that the Old Town Core of Nablus to be considered as a candidate for recognition as a Cultural Heritage site: UNESCO stated that the historic old city of Nablus was of “outstanding universal value according to Article 12 of the World Heritage Convention”. (UNOCHA 2004, 2). Its industrial importance has been well documented since the 16th century for producing traditional olive oil soap. At the end of the 19th century, Nablus Old Town had 30 traditional olive-oil soap factories (though now only seven are in function), by which time many of these factories had changed their function. Furthermore, due to the long Israeli occupation to the territory the industry itself is declining, threatening the disappearance of this important traditional and cultural heritage. In 2002 and during the Israeli military invasion of the city, two traditional soap factories (18th century Ottoman architecture) were totally destroyed by the F16 aircraft rockets (see photos). These buildings covered an area of 1000 m2 . Another two soap factories in the southern neighbourhood of Alqaryun were totally burned, while undocumented numbers of other soap factories were subject to different levels of destruction. The frequent Israeli military operations in the city didn’t stop since the major invasion of 2002, as with each military operation some historic building fall into ruins. The fact that under international law historic cities and cultural heritage artefacts are protected during armed conflict, in reality they are not. The deteriorating political situation, strict siege, sporadic curfews and frequent military operations made it difficult to the Palestinian department of antiquities and other national and international organizations to take the necessary measures to protect, and conserve the Palestinian cultural heritage (including the industrial heritage)