Work advances on restoration of Haifa's golden-domed shrine

23 April 2010

HAIFA, Israel — With great care and patience, a dozen trusted workers are going over the entire stone surface of Haifa's renowned Baha'i shrine, mending and cleaning every spot that shows damage from half a century exposed to the elements.

The stone restoration of the burial place of the Bab – one of two divine Messengers associated with the Baha'i Faith – is only one part of a four-year project that is bringing the benefits of 21st century engineering and building expertise to a structure whose first rooms were completed in 1909.

The initial phase of the work – structural reinforcement to increase resistance to earthquakes – began in 2008 and is virtually finished.

"A new concealed steel structure, masonry reinforcements, and concrete work are largely complete," said Saeid Samadi, architect and manager for the project. "The stone restoration should be finished by the end of the summer, and other work is well under way."

In addition to stonework and structural reinforcement, the painstaking restoration includes replacing the golden tiles on the dome, gilding anew the elements that feature gold leaf, replacing the red floor tiles inside the shrine, restoring the original ornamental balustrades, refurbishing the wood and metal doors and windows, installing new electrical and environmental control systems, and waterproofing.

SLIDESHOW
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Workers are going over the entire stone exterior of the shrine and repairing every spot that shows signs of damage from 50 years of exposure to the elements. Jubin Nakhai, shown here, is an experienced stone carver from Canada. (Baha’i World Centre photo. All rights reserved.)

The entire project is scheduled for completion in April 2012, but the exterior should be finished sooner, Mr. Samadi said. The refurbishing includes both the original one-story building that was completed a century ago and the outside colonnade, superstructure, and golden dome that were finished in 1953.

"The expectation is that by early October 2011, when the Baha'i pilgrimage season begins, visitors will be able to see the shrine in its full beauty and grandeur," Mr. Samadi said. "At the moment much of the exterior of the building is blocked from view."

In fact, extraordinary care has been taken to shield the restoration work from the public so that pilgrims and other visitors can continue to enter the shrine for prayer and also experience the beauty and peacefulness of the gardens.

Access to the tomb itself is suspended only during three summer months when no formal Baha'i pilgrimages are scheduled.

The Baha'i shrine on Mount Carmel is one of the most visited sites in the Holy Land. The building, overlooking Haifa Bay and the Mediterranean Sea, is known for its beauty and for the adjacent gardens that stretch up and down the mountain.

In 2008, the Shrine of Baha'u'llah north of Haifa, near Acre, and the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel were chosen for the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites of "outstanding universal value" that should be considered part of the "cultural heritage of humanity."

The restoration work will not result in any change in the design or general appearance of the Shrine of the Bab.

Behind the massive scaffolding and the custom-fitted mesh that currently shrouds the upper portion of the Shrine of the Bab, members of the stone restoration team are well along in their task.

Work actually began five years ago, when experts in Italy were consulted about the stone, its particular qualities, and possible techniques for restoration. Then came laboratory tests, research into the causes of deterioration, experimentation with restoration methods and materials, and commissioning of experts from England, the Netherlands, and the United States to come to Haifa and work with the Baha'is in refining the techniques to be used.

The methods were applied first on another restoration project – that of the International Archives Building which stands near the Shrine of the Bab at the Baha'i World Centre. That project, now finished, required 30,000 man-hours for the stone restoration alone.

Currently, the staff is gearing up for the replacement of the gilded tiles on the dome of the Shrine of the Bab. Removal of the original tiles has begun, and an agreement has been finalized for the fabrication of new ones.

It represents the final stretch of a five-year process involving in-depth studies and laboratory tests on how best to manufacture high-performance ceramics that in appearance resemble the original tiles. (See previous article at http://news.bahai.org/story/513.)

All aspects of the project have received the same careful scrutiny, Mr. Samadi said.

"We have sought the best expertise available, used the most sophisticated methods, and studied and tested every element. It took us two years to find exactly the right red floor tiles – in France – to replace the damaged ones in the shrine. Restoring the balustrades has taken us 2,000 to 3,000 hours of work," he said. "This is a very big project."