HAIFA, Israel — After more than two years of extensive restoration work, Haifa’s golden-domed Baha’i Shrine has been unveiled, to the delight of visitors, pilgrims and residents of the city.
Early this morning, the final set of covers was removed from the Shrine’s dome, revealing almost 12,000 new, gilded tiles, crowning the immaculately restored building on Mount Carmel.
“Today the ‘Queen of Carmel’, concealed from the gaze of the public for the larger part of the project, is unveiled and resplendent again…” announced the Universal House of Justice, after visiting the Shrine to offer prayers of thanksgiving.
Haifa’s Mayor, Advocate Yona Yahav, later joined civic dignitaries and guests at a celebratory reception, held in the city’s historic German Templar colony with its spectacular view of the Shrine and its terraced gardens.
“I am the first Mayor of Haifa who was actually born here,” said Mr. Yahav. “In 1954, I witnessed the Shrine’s superstructure being built. To see these renovations is very touching. They are of the utmost importance.”
The Shrine of the Bab and its gardens are renowned the world over for their beauty and tranquillity. In 2008, it was inscribed – along with the Shrine of Baha’u’llah near Acre – as a site of “outstanding universal value” on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Last year alone some 760,000 tourists and 7,500 Baha’i pilgrims and visitors were welcomed here.
“The Shrine affects the whole set up of Haifa,” said Mayor Yahav. “It is the core and symbol of this tolerant and multi-cultural city.”
Two years ahead of schedule
In a message sent to the worldwide Baha’i community, the Universal House of Justice recounted how the “restoration of this majestic edifice was preceded by three years of preparations, entailing comprehensive studies to assess its condition, to analyse the impact of the environment upon it, and to determine approaches and materials for the renovation that would remain faithful to the original design as well as withstand the rigours of time.”
More than 50 years of exposure to Haifa’s climate and environmental conditions had taken their toll on the superstructure’s stonework and dome when work began in 2008.
Saeid Samadi, project architect and manager, says experts estimated such a restoration would normally take five to six years. “We originally targeted April 2013 for its completion. It is a tribute to the total dedication and unity of everyone involved that the project has been completed in less than three years.
“The team truly appreciated the importance of the place and never forgot where they were working,” says Mr. Samadi. “We were all inspired by the Baha’i principle that everything should be created to the highest state of perfection.”
The project required the restoration and conservation of the interior and exterior of the original 1909 structure, as well as measures to strengthen the Shrine against seismic forces. An entirely new retrofit design – combining concrete, steel and carbon fibre wrap technology – was needed for the whole building, from its foundation and original masonry to its octagon, drum and dome. More than 120 rock anchors were fixed into the mountain behind newly fortified retaining walls.
“Some 80,000 man-hours were spent on significantly improving the Shrine’s resistance to earthquakes” says Mr. Samadi. “but it is all concealed from view and does not affect the beauty and grandeur of the original architecture at all.”
Restoring the stone and dome
Progress on the Shrine restoration was significantly helped along by an earlier two-year project on the nearby International Baha’i Archives building, says Mr. Samadi.
“We studied the Shrine and researched materials and techniques while still working on the Archives. That experience generated a lot of momentum. We knew the experts; we perfected the skills and techniques. With the Shrine, we did not finish one job before starting another. We were working on the structure, carrying out the stone restoration, doing many things at the same time.”
More than 50,000 man-hours were spent on the stonework by the staff of the restoration office and volunteers – including many young people – from Australia, Canada, China, Ecuador, Germany, India, Kenya, Mongolia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Vanuatu, all trained by expert conservators. Every square centimetre of the building’s exterior was checked and restored.
“For the original superstructure, Carrara marble was wanted but it was not easy to come by after the Second World War,” says Mr. Samadi. “The only stone available was Chiampo marble. When we were researching to see how it has been restored in Europe, we discovered that – because of its nature – it has not been used anywhere else for exterior cladding, just for flooring. There was no background knowledge on how to do it.”
New techniques also had to be developed to replace the Shrine’s golden tiles. For two years, efforts were made to see if the badly eroded old tiles could be restored. “We checked the condition of every single tile but, as a result of their exposure to the elements, many were broken beyond repair and the rest could not be restored back to their original beauty,” says Mr. Samadi.
After several years of research, a Portuguese firm was contracted to produce new tiles in more than 120 different shapes and sizes. Leading-edge technology was employed to manufacture each tile from pure porcelain, covered with layers of glazing and gold solution, and finished with a highly durable final coating.
“The company had never done anything like this before,” says Mr. Samadi. “They are renowned for museum-quality porcelain artefacts. But the result is perfect. Not only are the tiles beautiful, they are five to six times more abrasion-resistant than the originals.”
An expert mason and tile setter from New Zealand – Bruce Hancock – was flown in to supervise the work to be carried out by the staff of the restoration office. “We had to learn as we went,” Mr. Hancock says. “Ordinarily, you lay tiles but they are usually square. These tiles are all shapes and sizes. Every row is curved.
“Initially, I was concerned how we were going to create that curve, but these tiles were designed and detailed in such a way that they just did it themselves. They seemed to have a life of their own. If we did the right thing – getting the two corners right – they did the right thing. It was just amazing.”
The dome of the Shrine of the Bab “now shines in the plenitude of its splendour,” observed the Universal House of Justice in its message.
“This is really something unique,” Haifa’s Mayor Yona Yahav told guests celebrating the completion of the restoration project, “in this city, in Israel – in fact in the world.”
(Baha’i World News Service)