Aziza Shaheen was the wife of Issa Shaheen, who himself was the son of a Syrian bride that came to live in Bethlehem at the end of the Ottoman Era. At that time, all of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, so travel between the different regions was much more possible. When she was married to Issa, she came to live in this spectacular house in Bethlehem, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem district were known for being prosperous merchants. Many of them would travel across the country to buy and sell goods and products, and also played an important part in the local community. In fact, an immediate member of our family was once mayor of Bethlehem during the British Mandate.
Dar Sitti Aziza has the style of a traditional Ottoman-era urban merchant’s home. This means large blocks of locally-cut stone for the foundation and walls, flagstones for the floor, arched ceilings, courtyards, and a center space with plenty of small rooms each built for a different purpose. The front door was designed so that an animal as big as a camel with pack-bags on its back could pass into the house.
We are not sure exactly when the first part of the house was built, but know that the original rooms are no less than two hundred years old. There were many innovations and additions to the home with each generation, but the basic original structure was meant to last, and it did.
The location of the home is right below Manger Square, which is the pavilion outside of Nativity Church. Our family members grew up with the sound of bells peeling from the three steeples of Kinesa Al-Mehed (our local name for Nativity Church) and the call of the Muezzin from the Mosque of Omar. Some members of the family lived in this house through the Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli eras of Bethlehem; being born, living and dying without ever calling another place home.
Towards the end of last century, life took each remaining family member off in different directions and out of the house. Many of our relatives live outside the country, while the rest live in neighboring Beit Sahour, best known as being the site of Shepherd’s Field where shepherds were told by angels that Jesus, the savior of the world, had been born in Bethlehem.
Many people lived in the house over the different generations, but Grandmother Aziza was a special member of our family, the house best when they think of the special care and warmth that she gave to it.
Palestinian tradition is that a home is given a name of a family member rather than a postal address, and we are proud that our “official” address in Bethlehem is still Dar Sitti Aziza. Now, we are happy to welcome you into Sitti Aziza’s house; help us make new memories in this happy place.