Thoughts on preservation in Abu Kabir

The historical area at the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, which has been referred to as ‘Abu Kabir’ since the 19th century, is a dystopian space, containing many layers and contradictions.

From the perspective of a preservation architect, it’s hard to understand and make plans for the place within just one narrative and so we must understand it as a non-coincidental collection of unrelated, unaffiliated compounds — both in relation to the city and in relation to one another. Therefore, I suggest reading the historical space of Abu Kabir as an archipelago of isolated and estranged islands. Each of these compounds is confined and hidden from the eye, as if they wish to be forgotten from memory. Each of these islands is associated with different people and multiple values that form a major part of the community and personal legacy of those invested in the place.

An awareness and understanding of this phenomenon emerges from the identification of the space as a “place of embarrassment’ in which the characteristics of embarrassment are expressed in both tangible and intangible ways.[1] Each of these isolated islands which makes up the whole archipelago is a ‘zone of embarrassment’ on its own. Every island, in self-preservation, is surrounded by improvised walls and fences which prevent entry and eyes from the outside peering in. This closed-ness creates a feeling of hostility toward anyone coming from outside.

With a broader look at the state of Israel, it is clear that the entire country is filled with places where trauma occurred and was then hidden and erased. This created a local infrastructure of embarrassment and concealment which connects to a network of post-traumatic zones of embarrassment. I believe that by recognizing this network, it becomes possible to seek an alternative approach to political, historical, anthropological, artistic, architectural, urban and psychoanalytic analysis of the map of the country.[2]

The multiplicity of embarrassing zones in Israel enables us to continue to conduct ourselves in the dark, in denial and with an acquired blindness to the spaces around us. This way we can continue to live our lives without troubling moral questions. Keep in mind, however, that erasure and denial are also an attack on thought and that it is an illusion to think that destruction, erasure and concealment can dispel the trauma of its victims.

Research and documentation of embarrassment[3] zones allow us to comprehend the complexity of the historical processes, most of which are associated with suffering, pain and injustice. By understanding the changes that have taken place in architecture and local construction, one can try to understand the traumas experienced by those who live in the place. These traumas are constantly denied as a result of the underlying concern around recognizing the Palestinian Nakba. Attempting to understand the places of embarrassment comes from the desire for awareness and correction through expanding consciousness and preserving the contextual cultural heritage.

As mentioned, the embarrassment zone in Abu Kabir is made up of isolated islands, alienated one from the other, with different, conflicting values and conflicting cultural significance. Each of these islands conducts itself as a closed bubble while constantly ignoring the environment and the adjacent islands that are run themselves just the same.

In order to comprehend the existing situation, one must know the historical background of the place: Jaffa of the 19th century was surrounded by walls with one gate (not including the port) — the “Jerusalem Gate” — to the East. The city, which was completely destroyed by Napoleon’s forces in 1799, was rebuilt by the local Ottoman government. The disconnect between the city and the open spaces around it was expressed by the wall, the moat and the gate that kept the port city closed, without development or new building in the vacant territories around it, while different populations flowed into the “Old City” in an ongoing process of overcrowding and chronic shortages of buildings and infrastructure. The campaign to conquer the land of Israel by Ibrahim Pasha (1831), the son of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, who rebelled against Ottoman imperial rule, changed the reality in Jaffa and began a new relationship between the city and its agricultural hinterlands.

The local agriculture around Jaffa was cultivated primarily for local consumption. A small part of the produce was sent from the Jaffa Port to neighboring countries. The breach of the walls by the Egyptian ruler and the development of citrus-based agriculture contributed to the city’s transformation into the economic capital of Palestine with its citrus orchards providing its primary export. The Egyptian occupation contributed greatly to the supply of skilled agricultural manpower and was accompanied by Egyptian forces in the crowded sakhnot (neighborhoods outside the city walls) around Jaffa.

The ancient method of irrigation by pumping, using the “Antillean” technology brought by the Egyptians, allowed for accelerated development and extensive planting throughout the region. Each well that was excavated was equipped with a pumping device consisting of an animal that moved a horizontal wheel which rotated a vertical wheel to which a chain with the pumping bucket was attached. The water that came up from the well was stored in a big irrigation pool, from which canals emerged, leading to the orchard. The well house and the orchard were surrounded by stone walls and prickly pear cactus for protection.

As orchard production expanded and the old city became crowded and unbearable on account of a lack of infrastructure, the orchard owners, Jaffa’s wealthy, moved from the city into the heart of their orchards. There, by the well and among the trees, luxurious palaces were built where the orchard owners lived, at first only during the summer months, but toward the end of the century, they moved there year round. The orchard owners conducted a feudal lifestyle, primarily with regard to the Egyptian and fallahim (local peasants). This further contributed to the isolation and seclusion of each of the well houses and orchards.

Meanwhile the historical road to Jerusalem, which crosses the Abu Kabir area, was in constant use by pilgrims. Over the years, monasteries and churches were built along the way. The existence of Christian institutions in the heart of the Muslim agricultural region required the Christians to protect themselves against their surroundings, by building their own complexes with high, impenetrable stone walls which remain in place to this day.

In the early formation of the rural hinterlands of Jaffa,[4] starting from the first half of the 19th century, isolated complexes of well houses and sakhnot for workers, as well as churches and monasteries, created isolated islands within the green sea of orchards. So the archipelago’s character was established upon its inception.

More significant changes in building began in the 1920s, with the expansion of South Tel Aviv neighborhoods and the eastward development of Jaffa. New construction trampled the orchards and again left the historic complexes as isolated islands, this time within the sea of new urban construction that increasingly besieged them. On account of their enclosed nature, and in light of the development processes around them, the surviving complexes fortified and withdrew into themselves all the more stubbornly, completely alienated from their surroundings.


It is worth listing a few islands of embarrassment which, together, make up Abu Kabir’s archipelago:

  • The remains of the “well houses” of Jaffa — (19th century) the initial nucleus of those who left the city’s walls for agricultural settlement combined with the palaces of Jaffa’s wealthy. Today, these places remain without wells, without water and without orchards, owned by absentee landlords and invaders.
  • The remains of the sakhnot — remains of villages and houses built by the fallahim/Egyptian peasants in Muhammad Ali’s campaign (during the 1830s) and which after the Nakba were inhabited by Jewish refugee families.
  • The historic road to Jerusalem — the ancient pilgrimage route to Jerusalem which lost its cultural significance.[5]
  • The citrus orchards — until the 1940s, these constituted the primary feature of the area throughout the surroundings east of Jaffa, which completely disappeared from the landscape and collective memory.
  • The Russian Church — a historical site on the Christian pilgrimage route from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Surrounded by walls, it is a closed island of a different culture.
  • The Institute for Forensic Medicine — or, as it is commonly called, the “Pathological Institute” which was left behind as the academic institute which later became Tel Aviv University moved to a different space of embarrassment in the north of the city (on the ruins of the Sheikh Munis village). The island remains detached and steeped in local trauma.
  • The detention center — constructed on top of a British police station at the main junction. The decision to locate the Abu Kabir detention center here reflects the signs of a post-traumatic zone of embarrassment and creates a fortified island which transmits violence and powerlessness.
  • The School of Nature, Environment and Society — the reuse of the university buildings creates a selective, urban school that produces an elitist island, detached from its surroundings.
  • The Botanical Garden — a semi-scientific space used today for creativity and leisure in the heart of denial.
  • HaHorshot Park — an unsuccessful if well-intentioned attempt to deal with the physical open area and historical remains.

The existence of so many different enclosures, side by side in a historical area, can be seen as evidence of the forces of forcible control which manifest in destruction, erasure, covering over and concealment. All of these ultimately create a space without orientation.

Among the historical events that the area and its locals have been through, it is worth mentioning that the Egyptian immigrants didn’t integrate with the local Palestinian population and were forced to make do with crowded, primitive housing outside of the urban area. These relations situated the Egyptians at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy, even as they served their wealthy orchard masters.

The First World War, during which time the locals reached the brink of starvation, ended with the British occupation and increased waves of Jewish immigration which settled in Jaffa and its new neighborhoods. It was a period of development and construction which had a financial affect on the local residents. The violent events of 1921 and 1929 foreshadowed the events of 1936-1939 known as the “Great Palestinian Revolt.” Abu Kabir became a front in the growing national struggle and claimed casualties.

The 1948 war, known as the “War of Independence” — the Palestinian “Nakba” — forced most Palestinian residents to abandon their homes and properties and become homeless refugees. At the same time, the city of Tel Aviv was joining Jaffa and Abu Kabir land into its purview. The young state moved immigrants and Jews who had come in the big waves of immigration right after the country’s establishment into the abandoned Palestinian houses. They populated the Arab neighborhoods and made the homes their own.

Subsequent urban development did not see the area as anyone’s home. For developers it was empty space for new and intensive residential building. To that end it was necessary to evacuate those residents who lived there and destroy the existing buildings in a long and laborious process that rekindled the place’s suppressed traumas. So, in a process of denial and concealment which repeated itself again and again, additional people and communities were added to those post-traumatic refugees. Without any attempt to understand and deal with the trauma that the people of the place experienced, which would be passed down for generations, the place is doomed to repeat its traumas without a real capacity to fit into the urban tissue.

As a result, there is a kind of absurd temporality in the area, even though it is a historical site. This is evident in the open areas that divide between the various sakhnot when they should connect between them. Instead, these compounds become scattered no man’s lands.

For a decent and sustainable planning approach to the Abu Kabir zone of embarrassment, one of the basic assumptions must be that in any given space there is more than one history. These legacies, even if there are contradictions between them, keep up interdependent and reciprocal relationships. As such, it would be appropriate to return the conscious, historic, political and urban orientation to the space, while preserving the area’s character of having multiple complexes.

Returning orientation to the historical area of Abu Kabir will only be possible through acknowledging the place as a post-traumatic space in need of attention through a combination of planning, preservation and psychoanalytical tools. Understanding the different values that existed in the past and which exist in the space today and to determining the cultural significance of the place, will allow thought to be given to preserving the tangible values remaining on the site and the intangible values that have survived among the communities and the people associated with the place.  The psychoanalytic tools will make it possible to observe our own processes of repression and denial of the Palestinian Nakba and its consequences.

One of the possibilities for thinking about the neighborhood’s current orientation could be through a policy of reversing the direction of view: from a perspective looking inwards to an outward perspective: toward the neighboring complexes, toward the public spaces and toward the neighborhoods that border the area in question. A site that is as complex and as sensitive as Abu Kabir demands a plan different from the usual; the cessation of eviction, destruction and erasure are a preliminary step for the comprehensive preservation of the complexes, and preserving most of the archipelago’s different historical and human elements. We must allow space for the culture that inhabited in the place in the past and that lives there now.

 Ideally we might take up the research and planning practices from the world of heritage site preservation that are practiced in Israel and around the world. These methods are based on different stages of research and documentation, holding personal meetings with people interested in the past and present, and determining a comprehensive program that includes the legacies and interests of stakeholders in the various complexes that make up the site. Further, there should be preservation planning for buildings and landscapes on the site, establishing principles to encourage encounters between different cultures and finally, opening the enclosed compounds to the public and integrating community and cultural activities that can create new connections between them.

It seems that intelligent, mixed-use planning is required, especially for public areas that are accessible to all, to preserve and enhance the cultural heritage of the space by making it the property of the general public.

Prof. Architect Amnon Baror, founder of Amnon Baror – Tal Gazit Architecture Ltd., is a preservation planner for many historical sites all over the country. As part of his work in the historic city of Tel Aviv, Baror preserved buildings that are among the most significant in Tel Aviv. Baror is a senior lecturer at the Azrieli School of Architecture at the University of Tel Aviv and a founder of the diploma program for building preservation. He published the book, “A Time for Conservation” in 2013.

Translated by Zoe Jordan.

[1]  The study on zones of embarrassment came about following a dialogue between the psychoanalyst Gabby Bonoit and myself, and deals with the human attempt to erase and hide past traumas by destroying the architectural spaces in which they happened. For further reading, see the article (in Hebrew), “Trauma and Architecture — Slips of the Pen in Architectural Spaces of Embarrassment” published on December 23rd, 2019, on the ‘Urbanology’ website — the laboratory for urban design at Tel Aviv University and on January 30th, 2020 on the ‘Hebrew Psychology’ website.

[2]  Nakba map, from the ‘Zochrot’ Organization:

[3]  The study on trauma and architecture, in collaboration with the Studio for Preservation at the David Azrieli Architecture School, better acquainted us with the remains of Palestinian villages around Tel Aviv-Jaffa and across Israel; Among others, we came to examine the Menashiya neighborhood, the village of Sheikh-Munis, and the Well Houses and Sakhnaot around Jaffa.

[4]  Hinterlands (also: economic home front), were the settlements around the central area which serve as suppliers of agricultural products or consumer goods. The term refers to the land area in the vicinity of a sea or air port which produces and supplies the goods used for export and receives the imported cargo from the fort. The village hinterlands of Jaffa are further detailed later in the text.

[5]   From a not-yet-published Master’s thesis examining the historical route to Jerusalem. Ori Belter’s Master’s degree studies at the Azrieli School of Architecture, Faculty of Arts, University of Tel Aviv.