NAZARETH // Sharif Sharif-Safadi remembers the day he saw his first ceiling painting in Nazareth. It was 1986 and he had just returned from Italy where he had been studying architecture and working in conservation. As he glanced up in what is now a government building he immediately recognised the painting as from the Ottoman Era, between 1856 and 1917. It was the first of many such discoveries Dr Sharif-Safadi made over the next few years as he went house to house in Nazareth, Israel's largest Arab majority city, documenting paintings in homes previously owned by some of the most prominent members of Palestinian society at the time.
Dr Sharif-Safadi gave up the idea of studying overseas and instead refocused his efforts on the paintings, which culminated in a book, Wall and Ceiling Paintings in Notable Palestinian Mansions in the Late Ottoman Period: 1856-1917, published in 2008. Recently, there has been an increased effort to preserve the paintings, both among locals and Israel. At a time when Palestinians are feeling their heritage eroded by the expansion of Jewish settlements in what was once Palestine, the paintings offer an important insight into Arab history in the area. They tell stories of wealthy Arab families who built grand mansions in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1858 changes in property laws allowed people to register their lands and sprawling houses sprung up throughout the city. The architecture was wholly Middle Eastern: large, airy courtyards, stone exteriors, vaulted arches and domed windows. Though their homes were traditional, the wealthy were not provincial. The rich were open-minded and curious about the outside world and a new field, photography, exposed them to images of the West. As the upper crust of Palestine turned their eyes towards the lands north of the Mediterranean, their homes took on European flourishes, such as ceiling paintings.
A Lebanese artist, Salib Yohanna, did the majority, tailoring each to the family they were created for. For Christians who made their money in agriculture, for example, he decorated their homes with images of angels and wheat. Panels in a wealthy trader's home show the owner travelling to the pyramids in Egypt and include depictions of ports in Istanbul, Akko, Jaffa and Haifa. The images of Haifa include a Muslim neighbourhood that was destroyed in 1948.
"They're living history," Dr Sharif-Safadi said. Miri Shefer, an expert on Ottoman history, said that in the 19th century all provinces of the empire were becoming increasingly integrated and the wealthy were imitating what was going on in Istanbul. "If you were part of the urban Palestinian elite, and wanted to have the image and status as such, you had to play the game and live like an Ottoman nobleman."
Dr Sharif-Safadi estimates that prior to the founding of Israel, 100 ceiling paintings could be found in Palestine. Today only about 60 remain, with the majority in and around Nazareth. Dr Sharif-Safadi says that in some cases, Jews covered the ceilings in an attempt to whitewash the country's past. But today, a growing number of Israeli tourists are coming to Nazareth to see the Arab mansions adorned by a Lebanese artist.
"There's a shift towards conservation," Dr Sharif-Safadi said. "It's a shift towards acknowledging the Palestinian narrative. [Israelis] are starting to see the city as a whole, the culture as a whole." * The National