The First Encounter

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In the initial contribution of her blog, artist Ilana Salama Ortar describes her first encounter with The Prophet’s Tower erected on the same site of this epi-symbol of Haifa’s Arab heritage – Villa -Khury – in 1995. The former Villa Khury that was transformed into a shopping mall carries a specific connection to the history of Israel and Palestine and led to several site-specific artistic works, which will resume in the final concluding project Revisiting Villa Khury / the Prophets’ Tower: Haifa 1995–2018.

It is 23 years since I first elaborated my project on the erasure from public memory of the 1948 destroyed Villa Khury (1909), and its substitution by the modernist Prophets’ Tower office building (1979), erected on the same site of this episymbol of Haifa’s Arab heritage. Back in 1995, my project lay bare Israeli tabula rasa policies, of striking out the remnants of pre-1948 Palestine via deliberate architectural and urban planning policies. The fortified Villa Khury was the last Arab stronghold in the city. Its fall in 1948 marked the Jewish victory in Haifa and precipitated the refugee status of its Arab population. Involving civic public participation of both Jews and Arabs, the 1995 project sought to memorially reinstall the Villa Khury, thus temporarily filling the void created by the absence of its Arab inhabitants.

Through a series of installations and performances in various locations in Haifa (Prophets’ Tower Mall, Old City, Memorial Park), using architectural models, sculptures, photos, maps, and questionnaires, it aimed to make the erased past re-emerge into the present daily life and generate dialogue between the different communities in the city by engaging citizens in this process.

Growing up in a bourgeois neighborhood on the upper slopes of Mt. Carmel, I could observe downtown Haifa from above. I spent most of my life in the high mountainous part of the city without ever descending to acquaint myself with the »lower city« – the historical city in which the socioeconomically »inferior« population resides. From a historical point of view, Haifa’s oldest neighborhoods are Arab, are now populated by Palestinian refugees who managed to return to their homes with new Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel from North Africa and Romania and who are now joined by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Thus, there is an analogy in this city between the topographical and economical divisions of high and low.

One day in 1994, I found myself walking along the promenade overlooking the »lower city,« downtown Haifa, from the heights of Mt. Carmel. It was at a time when my political consciousness had increased, and so I found myself drawing and photographing deserted and ruined structures. From the upper promenade my eye caught sight of a black, monumental structure which reminded me of the Kaaba stone in Mecca. Its appearance was anomalous in the urban setting which surrounded it. I photographed it from afar and made some quick pencil sketches; then I decided to get closer, to try to understand it and so reached the enigmatic structure – an office building and a shopping mall called the Prophets’ Tower. »What a prophetic name,« I thought to myself at the time. Moreover, its location at the junction of Hanevi’im, meaning »The Prophets« in Hebrew and Khury, an Arab name denoting priest, streets seemed problematic to me.

Villa Khury

It was a glass and steel structure, which was gleaming and bright when I reached it. Parts of it reflected hues of gray and azure (clouds and sky), while others reflected parts of the surrounding mid-nineteenth century buildings (the images sometimes blurred). For the most part, it was covered with reflective glass, which prevented any gaze into the building and changed its coloration in keeping with the angle of light falling on it. The idea of a monumental, impervious glass box, akin to a giant, inaccessible aquarium, impressed me and left its imprint on my mind. The dissonance between the opaque-black and the reflections of an Arabic urban landscape on the light background led me to wonder about the historical strata of the place. I turned to scholars at the University of Haifa, to professional literature, to Haifa’s city engineer and the municipal archive, and discovered the following striking details about Villa Khury.

The Prophets’ Tower was constructed in 1979 on the terraced slopes of Mt. Carmel. The site is located in the border district between the city center and the outlying residential zones. The architecture of this area has absorbed all the different influences of the city’s urban development since the mid-nineteenth century to the present and follows a period of massive reconstruction in the surrounding area. It is inhabited by a mixed population of Jews and Arabs.

The Villa Khury harbors memories predating the 1948 war. Often called a palace in the desert, it was built in 1909 by the wealthy Christian Maronite family Khury outside the walls of Haifa’s Old City. During the 1948 war, its strategic location put it at the center of a hard-fought battle between Jews and Arabs for control of the crossroads of the city. The fall of the Villa, sealing Jewish victory in Haifa, was closely followed by the exodus of the most of the city’s remaining Arab population to neighboring Arab countries. Memory of pre-1948 Palestinian life and the Nakba [1]was subsequently erased from the landscape. The Villa Khury is a major symbolic landmark of the Israeli policy of tabula rasa initiated by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in the aftermath of the war. In 1979, the Prophet’s Tower, a monumental public building housing office space and a shopping center, was built on the site of the Villa Khury. The Prophet’s Tower epitomizes the roles urban planning and architectural strategy play in controlling public space and collective memory in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Malls are a ubiquitous expression of modernity and its concomitant globalization. All identities, all historical experiences seem to coexist there – or to be forgotten, repressed, camouflaged by a screen of commodities offered for sale under a common roof. The mall is an archetype for any community living with inner conflict, whether religious, ethnic or territorial. The shopping center’s success is premised on a denial of history but the living diversity of history clearly appears there. At this particular site, Haifa’s fate, and by extension, the fate of the entire Middle East, could have tipped one way or the other and that is why I decided to intervene precisely in this shopping mall. I wanted to »purvey my goods« in this place, to intervene with detailed evidence of the site’s repressed history including models, maps, photos and videos. By »purvey« I mean to display on a strictly egalitarian basis all historical points of view, all the underlying layers of the site’s present-day incarnation as a shopping mall.

During the years from then to now, I did several projects on the Villa Khury and the Prophets’ Tower, which will be reintroduced in the blog contributions to trace the process of the realization of the final project Revisiting Villa Khury / the Prophets’ Tower: Haifa 1995– 2018. The blog accompanying the current project’s development aims to provide background information on the history of the project and to make connections between the older projects Villa Khury/Prophets’ Tower, Wadi Nis-Nas; The Visible and the Invisible in Israeli and Palestinian Memory. Revisiting Villa Khury / the Prophets’ Tower: Haifa 1995–2018 turns the former projects into an »archive« and focuses on the following issues:

  • The »historicization« of critical artistic practices addressing contemporary issues and their »afterlife« when deployed in new political, institutional, or cultural environments. How can I recontextualize the materials of the original project? How do I integrate new mediums of expression and formats of perception (especially social media and digital materials) as both a means to collect documentation and to organize interventions in the public space?
  • The extent to which one might assess the situation in Israel-Palestine through the prism of Haifa and the specific site of the Villa Khury and the Prophets’ Tower: Is it possible to represent the contrast between 1995 (when there was still a feeling that reconciliation and forgiveness were not out of reach and dialogue was still going on, despite Rabin’s assassination) and the present-day situation of political radicalization, generalized violence, and despair? Might the story of the project reflect the 20 years that have passed in the region?
  • The role of artistic practices in the production of historical knowledge and forms of citizen intervention in the public space: To what extent did the sites of the project change since 1995? What types of spaces could I create now in Haifa? By comparing, over 20 years, the same sites, might I assess the way Civic Performance Art has changed? Can I suggest a new form of public space and collective memory?


[1] The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, known as the War of Independence of Israel and the Nakba (The catastrophe) for the Palestinians.

Images 1-10 were published in The camp of the Jews, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Publishing House, Red-Line-art Books 2005