Golden tile from Baha'i shrine goes on display in museum

March 20, 2007
Huub Mombers, left, receives a gilded tile from the Shrine of the Bab for his museum in Alem, in Holland. Offering the tile on permanent loan, on behalf of the Baha'is of the Netherlands, are Elaheh Verhey-Shahgholi, center, and Jelle de Vries. The ceremony was on 3 February 2007.

ALEM, Netherlands — The Baha'i community of the Netherlands has given a golden tile from one of its sacred shrines to a museum that specializes in roof tiles.

In a ceremony last month, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the Netherlands gave the tile on permanent loan to the Dutch Roof Tile Museum in Alem, a small riverside village in the heart of Holland.

Museum owner Huub Mombers said the tile - from the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel - is the only one among the 3,000 tiles in his collection that is gilded - covered with a glaze made with real gold.

"I have never seen one like this before," Mr. Mombers said, explaining that most "gold" tiles are simply painted a gold color.

The tile given to the museum was actually created more than 50 years ago, one of more than 12,000 golden tiles custom-made to cover the dome of the Baha'i shrine on Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr. Mombers opened the museum two years ago to showcase a collection of tiles from around the world that he had amassed over 20 years.

"We are familiar with gold roof tiles," he said, "but they are all paint. With this tile, it is pure gold. ... I have seen a factory in Germany that has made gold roof tiles for rich people in Saudi Arabia, but they are all paint."

True gilded tiles are so unusual that the Baha'is had trouble finding a factory that would fill their order, wrote Ugo Giachery, a prominent Baha'i from Rome who in 1948 was given the task of locating such a company. He had already been turned away from factories in several European countries when he decided to try the Netherlands, known worldwide for its ceramics.

"Our inquiries were either received with incredulity or were declined for technical reasons," wrote Dr. Giachery in his book titled "Shoghi Effendi: Recollections."

But when he reached the last Dutch company on his list, he struck gold. It was a small factory called Westraven, near Utrecht. The tile business had been founded by two brothers named Ravesteyn in 1844 (although the firm's predecessor had roots in tile-making as far back as 1661).

"At the time, Westraven was in a unique position," said Marcel Hermens, author of a history of the company. "They had a man in the factory who had been experimenting with glazes, especially golden glaze. They also had a manager who searched constantly for new markets and challenges."

The manager, Robert de Brauw, was a chemical engineer by profession and was struggling to make a success of the factory. Mr. de Brauw told Dr. Giachery the factory had only made flat gilded tiles for vertical suspension, never curved tiles for a dome. "But we are willing to try," he said.

Months of research

Thus began months of research to determine the exact materials for the tiles and the glaze, as well as the optimum procedure for firing in the kiln.

"Not only did the tiles and their golden coating have to be able to withstand all weather conditions, their shape and size also posed a problem," said Jelle de Vries, who researched the history of the Baha'i Faith in the Netherlands for his doctoral thesis.

The Dutch Roof Tile Museum is located in an old church and contains several thousand roof tiles. Shown here are owner Huub Mombers, in center holding the gilded tile, and others present for the ceremony last month. Slideshow
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The Dutch Roof Tile Museum is located in an old church and contains several thousand roof tiles. Shown here are owner Huub Mombers, in center holding the gilded tile, and others present for the ceremony last month.

"Since it is not possible to saw glazed tiles once they have come out of the kiln, one has to calculate in advance what changes will occur during the firing process. And this had to be done not once, but 50 times since so many different shapes and sizes were needed to cover the surface of the dome."

Dr. de Vries is the one who discovered the coincidence that Holland was home to both the factory that made the Baha'i tiles, and a museum that exhibits roof tiles. Thus it was arranged to bring a spare golden tile that had been in storage in Haifa to give to the museum, which is located in an old church in Alem.

Mr. Mombers said his new exhibit, which includes a photo of the Baha'i shrine along with the tile, is displayed prominently in the center of the museum.

"This tile is very special," he said. "I have seen gold on pottery but never on tiles. With pottery, you have a couple of pieces. With these tiles you had to do it with 13,000."

The Westraven factory was rare, Mr. Mombers said, because even companies that might have had the technical know-how to make the tiles would have declined because the job was too risky financially.

"Everyone was afraid to do this because it was gold," he said. "No one was willing to guarantee it. You can imagine that if you don't get the job right, working with gold you can be financially ruined."

Mr. Mombers' tile collection includes specimens from many countries and regions - Europe, China, Nepal, Africa and more. But not one of his other tiles is gilded.

"I know of a building in Athens with copper, but I have never seen a building with gold tiles," he said.

The Westraven factory

Encountering Robert de Brauw, director of Westraven Faience and Tile Making, was like "finding a ray of light on a dark sea of uncertainty," wrote Dr. Giachery, the Baha'i representative who had been searching for a tile maker.

"From the very beginning of our conversation he won my confidence and trust, and relieved me of all my anxiety," Dr. Giachery wrote.

"He was a chemical engineer by profession, a member of the nobility, and had taken on the management of this modest factory at the end of the war, and he was struggling to make it successful," Dr. Giachery stated.

"That Mr. de Brauw had been trained as a chemist was a great asset to our project, because three of the four problems in the production of the Shrine's tiles were of a chemical nature: namely, the composition of the tiles, the golden coating, and the glazing. The fourth issue consisted of several material aspects which physics and engineering were to solve and in which Mr. de Brauw was also very proficient," Dr. Giachery wrote.

Calculating the size and shape of each tile was a monumental task. The dome is a partial sphere -- with both horizontal and vertical curve - but it straightens to a drum toward the bottom. The size and shape of each tile depended on its position on the dome.

Westraven had to come up with about 200 different sizes and shapes to properly cover the surface.

The calculations had to take into account that tiles change slightly when fired -- and the beige clay tiles were baked three times, first with a clear glaze, then with the prime orange glaze and finally with a 15 percent gold solution.

"It took months of experimentation and testing," said Mr. Hermens, the Westraven company historian. The contract for the work was signed in Utrecht in September 1952.

Mr. de Brauw was willing to take on the project partly because he had a works manager named Karel Bazuine who had been experimenting with a golden glaze for use on outdoor surfaces, the historian said.

When preparations were complete, the tiles were hand-formed out of clay, likely out of different plaster casts for the different sizes, Mr. Hermens said. They were "biscuit baked" in a big stone peat oven, and glazed in a special enameling oven.

The tiles were shipped to Haifa in early 1953, and the first ceremonial tiles laid in April of that year. By August, the shrine was finished, complete with golden dome.

More facts:

-- The tiles do not overlap when laid. Each tile is tapered from a thickness of 20 millimeters at one end to 6 millimeters at the other.

-- Records say that Westraven made more than 12,000 tiles for the Shrine of the Bab. About 10,500 full tiles were actually laid on the dome, along with a number of partial tiles. Extras are still in storage.

-- On each of the 18 segments of the dome, there are approximately 600 tiles in 70 rows.

-- The tiles at the bottom of the dome are 188 by 176 millimeters, the ones at the top 188 by 70 millimeters.

The shrine itself

The shrine is the resting place of the Bab, regarded by Baha'is as a Messenger of God and forerunner to Baha'u'llah. This building, and the resting place of Baha'u'llah located near Acre, north of Haifa, are considered by Baha'is to be the holiest spots on earth.

The Bab was executed by the authorities in Persia, now Iran, in July 1850, and His remains hidden in that country until 1899 when they were brought to Acre. In March 1909, the remains were interred at their present site.

For many years, the shrine consisted of a simple, four-sided building with nine rooms. In the early 1940s, Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha'i Faith, directed the design of an arcade around the shrine and a superstructure above it to be crowned with a golden dome. William Sutherland Maxwell was the architect. Construction began in the late 1940s.

Shoghi Effendi's construction manager in Haifa was Leroy Ioas, who in turn worked with Ibraham Lahim, known as Abu Khalil, a local stone mason. Abu Khalil was credited with the difficult job of getting the gilded tiles placed quickly and correctly on the dome.