In Israel, an historic renovation touches two communities deeply

ACRE, Israel — In the late 1860s, Bahá'í pilgrims walked hundreds of kilometers from Persia, winding their way over barren mountains, past treacherous enemies, and though blistering deserts, to reach this ancient Mediterranean city in what is now northern Israel.

Their goal was to visit Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of their Faith, Who was being held prisoner in a fortress after His banishment to Acre by the Ottoman authorities. For many pilgrims, merely to gaze on His face was the most important experience of their lives.

Sadly, many came all the way from Iran only to be turned back at the gates of this walled city. They often stood beyond the moat and contented themselves with a glimpse of Bahá'u'lláh as He waved from a distant window.

Today also, Bahá'ís in the thousands come as pilgrims to this same city and to nearby Haifa, albeit by jet aircraft and motor transport. And it is likewise a high point in their lives merely to visit the places here where Bahá'u'lláh lived during the years from 1868 until His passing in 1892.

Among the focal points of Bahá'í pilgrimage has been a visit to the room in the fortress where Bahá'u'lláh was held from 1868 to 1870, and where He revealed some of His best-known works, including a proclamation of His divine mission to political and religious leaders.

For nearly 10 years, however, the room and the adjoining areas were closed because of the need for extensive restoration and conservation work. That work was recently completed and, in June 2004, Bahá'í pilgrims were allowed to visit once again.

While the re-opening marks a significant event for Bahá'ís around the world, the research, careful thinking, and delicate negotiations behind the citadel's restoration also offer the world at large considerable insight as to the historical and scientific outlook of the Bahá'í Faith as a independent world religion that has arisen in modern times.

The story of the citadel's renovation also offers an instructive lesson on the art of compromise in historic renovation. In this case, the fortress-prison has historic significance not only to Bahá'ís but also to Jewish groups concerned with preserving the memory of Jewish activists who were incarcerated and executed there during the British Mandate.

“The most exciting thing about this project is that it has so many faces,” said Erol Paker, a Jerusalem-based architect who served as a consultant on the project. “The building has a history that goes back a thousand years, and it had many different uses.

“It starts from Crusader times, and then it was abandoned for some time, until the Ottomans built a new fortification,” said Mr. Paker. “It was a building where Bahá'u'lláh was held a prisoner. And in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Jewish prisoners were held in it during the British Mandate.”

Those different historical perspectives and uses gave rise to competing visions for how the renovation should be done, added Mr. Paker. “But we achieved something that was approved by all of the parties, without any conflict.”

Acre in history

Acre is an historic city in its own right. It has been a principal base of the Romans, the Persians, and the Crusaders, who named the city St. Jean d'Acre and for whom it served as their last capital and foothold in the Holy Land .

The building where Bahá'u'lláh was held prisoner was erected by the Ottomans in about 1797 on top of the hospice of the Hospitallers of St. John, one of the few surviving Crusader structures.

A commanding stone structure built near the shore of the Mediterranean, the citadel dominates the northwestern corner of the ancient walled city. At one point, it withstood a bombardment by Napoleon.

And the fact that the British used the fortress to imprison Jewish resistance fighters during the first half of the 20th century gives it a special significance in Israeli history.

About fifteen years ago, at the instigation of a group of survivors from among the Jewish prisoners, the Government agreed to transform the site into a museum. The Bahá'í World Centre, based in the Acre/Haifa area, asked that the sacred character of the place for Bahá'ís be given due consideration in the planning.

One key issue that quickly emerged was what time period the restoration should reflect. The Israelis wanted it to date to 1947, to coincide with the historic break-out of Jewish prisoners, while the Bahá'ís wanted it to reflect the time period around 1870, when Bahá'u'lláh was incarcerated.

For years the discussions made little headway, but then it was realized that a major undertaking to excavate and restore the Crusader buildings below the citadel had weakened the structure. And so about ten years ago, the Israeli authorities embarked on a project to reinforce and renovate the citadel. Because of the citadel's importance to Bahá'ís, the Bahá'í World Centre offered to collaborate on the project.

“The authorities realized that the building was threatened,” said Albert Lincoln, Secretary-General of the Bahá'í International Community, who handled the Bahá'í side of negotiations with Israeli authorities. “And basically they allowed us to review the engineering proposal, knowing of its importance to Bahá'ís.”

“Ultimately, agreement was reached on a creative compromise under which the interior of the upper floor of the northwest tower [where Bahá'u'lláh was held] would be restored to the situation that existed in 1920, and the exterior of the building to its condition in 1947,” Mr. Lincoln said.

Mr. Lincoln said the period for 1920 was chosen for the interior instead of 1870 because there was virtually no documentation from the time before the arrival of the British and it seemed unlikely that much changed during the last fifty years of Ottoman rule.

Another issue was authenticity. Photographs from the 1920s showed wooden partitions — not the usual bars one associates with a prison. “It turned out that the British had done the iron work in the 1940s,” said Mr. Lincoln. “The Israelis didn't want the bars removed. ‘They're essential to the atmosphere,' they said. But we said it is about authenticity.”

Architect Paker said these sorts of issues and compromises arise frequently in any significant historic renovation. “All of the parties made some concessions in the end,” he said.

Another aspect of the project involved the degree to which the restoration should reflect modern building techniques and how an authentic appearance would be achieved.

In general, traditional materials were used to obtain as authentic a restoration as possible. For example, one part of the work involved installing false ceilings made of katrani timber, the dense and heavy wood used by the Ottoman builders, under the concrete roof.

White lime plaster of the type used in the 19th century was applied in the many places where the original had peeled off.

“The idea was that we didn't want to make the project look too new, but at the same time not look artificially old,” said Orang Yazdani, a Bahá'í specialist in conservation architecture, who managed the project.

“In five years, it will look closer to what it was like in Bahá'u'lláh's time — as it gets older it will look more like that time,” Mr. Yazdani said.

Another challenge was meeting modern safety codes, Mr. Yazdani said. “How do you deal with modern needs and requirements — especially safety — in an historical building without it looking too out of place?”

The solution involved using copper lanterns, discreet spot lighting, and smoke alarms that are tucked away. However, the cell of Bahá'u'lláh was exempted from such facilities owing to its sacred status.

Further, said Mr. Lincoln, research into the building's history and physical layout turned up a few surprises for Bahá'í historians. In particular, he said, some of the discoveries ran counter to traditional Bahá'í imagery about the deprivations faced by the Faith's chief figure during His imprisonment there.

“For decades, most Bahá'ís understood that Bahá'u'lláh was held in a jail cell, with bars on the window, and so on,” said Mr. Lincoln. “But it turns out it wasn't a prison. It was a military barracks. And the floor where Bahá'u'lláh and His family were held had been the quarters of someone of high standing, probably a military commander.

“It was the process of research that led us to these conclusions,” added Mr. Lincoln. “And it had become clear that if we followed the scientific evidence, some of the Bahá'í world would be disoriented, because it required a rethinking of the whole concept of what Bahá'u'lláh's imprisonment here meant.”

Traditionally, Mr. Lincoln noted, many Bahá'ís have understood Bahá'u'lláh's numerous references to His suffering primarily in relation to the material deprivations He faced during His imprisonment and exile — something that was also part of the pattern of persecution faced by all of the Founders of the world's religions.

“In fact, it seems, even though Acre was undoubtedly a horrible place, with heat and dysentery and filth, Bahá'u'lláh was given some of the best quarters available.”

Mr. Lincoln was quick to point out that such an understanding does not detract from the injustice behind Bahá'u'lláh's wrongful imprisonment — or mitigate the fact that He was indeed held as a prisoner in a place that was notorious for its bad conditions.

In the late nineteenth century, Acre was used by the Ottomans as a prison colony, serving as a repository for some of the worst criminals in the empire. Banishment to the city was considered equivalent to a death sentence because of the filthy and plague-ridden conditions. Mr. Lincoln noted, for example, that one-third of a group of 86 Bulgarian prisoners died within one month of arriving in Acre in 1878.

“But the important lesson here may be that scholarship will always unearth new facts and new perspectives,” said Mr. Lincoln. “This process of calling into question what we thought we knew reflects one aspect of the harmony of science and religion, which is a basic principle of the Bahá'í Faith.

“Other religious communities probably would have come to the same conclusion, because they are also living in the modern age,” said Mr. Lincoln. “But it might have been more controversial.”

On a personal note, Mr. Lincoln added that the new historical knowledge acquired through his involvement with the project had led him to a new understanding of the sufferings of Bahá'u'lláh.

“I went back and read in a completely different way what Bahá'u'lláh said about His suffering,” said Mr. Lincoln. “For me, it is a matter of knowing that Bahá'u'lláh had the solutions for avoiding the First World War and the Second World War and the Holocaust and untold other sufferings for humanity — and no one would listen to him. And that is a different kind of suffering entirely.”