Looking up to his life’s work

When archaeologist Sharif Sharif-Safadi discovered Ottoman Era ceiling paintings in his home town of Nazareth, he began documenting a "living history."

ottoman era painting 311 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
ottoman era painting 311
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
“The moment I found these, my life changed completely,” says Dr. Sharif Sharif-Safadi, archaeologist and expert on the cultural heritage of Nazareth.
It was 1986. Dr. Sharif-Safadi had just returned from Italy. He’d studied archaeology in Perugia and worked on the conservation of historic items in Rome. And then, one afternoon in his hometown of Nazareth, he looked up and saw an Ottoman Era ceiling painting.
“I was shocked. I was moved,” Sharif-Safadi says. He also remembers the moment with irony. He’d studied art in Europe not knowing what was here.
Like Sharif-Safadi, most locals didn’t know about the dozens of paintings scattered through Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab majority city. But a friend told him that there were more. “That day I found my life’s work of documenting [the ceiling paintings],” Sharif-Safadi recalls.
Sharif-Safadi scrapped the idea of studying overseas. In 1987, he began documenting the paintings in earnest, walking from house to house in Nazareth’s Old City, camera in hand. His efforts culminated in a book, Wall and Ceiling Paintings in Notable Palestinian Mansions in the Late Ottoman Period: 1856-1917, published in 2008.
The paintings offer important insight into the history of the area. In 1858, new property laws allowed people to register their lands, a change reflecting an increasingly centralized and stable government. Their holdings secure, the rich felt free to flaunt their wealth and mansions sprang up throughout the region.
Built of stone, the houses included large, airy courtyards, vaulted ceilings and graceful arches. Most homes included a cluster of three domed windows, so the rich, looking out over the city, could “see and be seen,” Sharif-Safadi says.
The interior offers a glimpse into the lives of Arab families. Rooms were multi-purpose and free of furniture. Niches in the walls served as needed, and people moved through the house in a similar fashion. Women came inside when men were in the courtyard, for example, to keep the sexes separate.
But the late Ottoman period was a time of rapid change. Transportation was improving, so there was more movement to and from the outside world. A new field, photography, also helped facilitate cultural flow. The result, Sharif-Safadi explains, was a “growing European influence” that took hold in Istanbul and reverberated throughout the empire. The mansions of the Arab elite fused traditional elements with European flourishes, including wall and ceiling paintings.
As much as the paintings were status symbols – a display of both money and worldliness –they were also a way to “show affiliation” with the Ottoman Empire, says Dr. Miri Sheffer, an expert on Ottoman history and the author of the forthcoming book Ottoman Medicine: Healing and Medical Institutions.
“One aspect of the paintings is that they were Arab; another is that they were Ottoman.”
In the 19th century, Sheffer explains, all of the empire’s provinces were becoming increasingly integrated.
“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,” she says. The paintings were a way to show “shared taste and fashion.”
This sometimes meant that rooms frequented by visitors were adorned with paintings of Istanbul. Deeper in the house, decorations had a more local flavor.
According to Sharif-Safadi, most of the wall and ceiling paintings were created by a Lebanese artist, Salib Yohanna. He employed the secco technique, using colors derived from minerals mixed with egg. Yohanna is thought to have received a pittance for each completed piece – one gold pound and a bottle of arak. Each painting was tailored to the tastes and the background of the family, Sharif-Safadi explains.
Yohanna decorated the homes of Christians who made their money in agriculture, for example, with images of angels and wheat. Panels in a wealthy trader’s home show the owner traveling to the pyramids in Egypt and include depictions of ports in Istanbul, Acre, Jaffa and Haifa. The images of Haifa include a Muslim neighborhood that was destroyed in 1948, when Israel was established.
“They’re living history,” says Sharif-Safadi.
But many have disappeared. Sharif-Safadi estimates that prior to the founding of the State of Israel, some 100 ceiling paintings could be found. Today only about 60 are left.
Some might have been lost during the British Mandate. As nationalism rose, Arabs increasingly “considered Turks as foreigners, invaders, imperialists, colonialists,” Sheffer explains. “They became antagonistic towards the Ottomans.” Imitations of Istanbul, once fashionable, became symbols of oppression.
A majority of the paintings were destroyed after 1948. As owners fled or were expelled from their homes, new occupants moved in. Some decorations were covered by Jews and displaced Palestinians unaware of their significance. In some cases, Jews covered the paintings in an attempt to deny the country’s past. Domed windows were chopped out; cement was smeared over walls and ceilings.
Nazareth is an exception. Because much of the city’s Arab population stayed put in 1948, the majority of the 60 remaining paintings are concentrated in and around Nazareth. Most families are proud of the decorations and careful to preserve both Yohanna’s artistry and the stories that accompany it.
It was oral history that first revealed Yohanna’s name to Sharif-Safadi. Speaking to him, an elderly man, owner of one mansion, recalled his father crying, “Where is Salib to fix this?!” after the 1927 earthquake damaged their ceiling. Sharif-Safadi later spied a panel in another mansion bearing a small inscription in Arabic: Salib Yohanna.
The Fahoum house is adjacent to the Old City’s White Mosque, which the family has owned since it was built in the early 1800s. The Fahoums are currently building a new home in affluent, predominantly Jewish, Upper Nazareth – continuing the negative population growth that has emptied the Old City over the past 50 years.
Despite her parents’ intentions to move, 21-year-old Kholoud Fahoum, who studies dentistry in Jordan, wants to stay. She points toward the doorway and says that her father’s cousin, who died in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, lived in the neighboring house.
“Leaving here is to leave our memory,” Fahoum says. She is equally attached to the ceiling’s adornments – bursts of red and pink roses, set against sky blue, edged by swags of flowers.
Fauzi Azar Inn, once the dwelling of the Azar family, boasts two colorfully decorated ceilings. Angels flit overhead in the salon. One grasps a sickle while the other holds wheat, reminding the viewer that the Azars made their money in the agricultural trade. Green vases overflow with blossoming flowers, a nod to the earth’s abundance.
In the adjoining room, statuary urns display clusters of blooms. Bits of azure make a crisp contrast with the yellow background.
While half of the Azars left for Syria in 1948, the others stayed behind to protect the home. In 1980, a fire threatened the house. Fauzi Azar, the last male member of the family to live in the home, died as he fought the flames. The ceiling paintings bear marks from the episode.
Some have had less passionate caretakers.
The El-Rais house, for example, was left empty in 1948 when the owner fled to Lebanon. The Israeli government considered it “abandoned property” and appropriated the building. Today, the three-story mansion – which includes 13 ceiling paintings – is divided into five inexpensive apartments, homes to the poor.
In one, each room is topped with an elaborate scene. The bedroom ceiling depicts Jesus, bathed in light, feeding a crowd of men from a handful of baskets. In another room, a wealthy man lunches with his wife outside their country home. In the salon, four soaring eagles, their wings outstretched, protect the home. The eye of God, flanked by two very human angels, looks down on the family.
The married mother of three who lives here along with her family saysthat she understands the historical significance of the ceilingpaintings. But as she glances up at them, her face is expressionless.“To me, it’s not important,” she says, adding that she is uncomfortablewith the decorations because they seem more appropriate for thereligious or wealthy.
She and her husband are both internally displaced persons – Palestinianrefugees who live within Israel. Their financial situation isprecarious, their legal status could change. They’re more concernedwith survival than history and art.
Whether the current resident is Palestinian or Israeli, Sharif-Shafadisays, “I’m worried about the future of these houses.” Most areprivately owned, he points out, adding that there are no laws toprotect these homes and the history they contain.
Sharif-Shafadi, who occasionally conducts tours of the mansions, hasnoticed rising interest and “a shift towards conservation… [Israelis]are starting to see the city as a whole, the culture as a whole.”
Does this mean Israelis are willing to accept the Palestinian narrative?
“Israelis are interested, yes. Willing is too strong a word,” Sheffer responds.
“But now, more than ever, people understand the complexity.”