Holy Places

In Israel, a restored Shrine is unveiled, dazzling visitors and pilgrims

In Brief: 
  • After two years of restoration, the historic Shrine of the Báb in Haifa has been unveiled, revealing 12,000 new, gilded tiles
  • The structure, with a foundation that dates to 1909, was also reinforced against earthquakes with a new concrete, steel, and carbon fiber retrofit

HAIFA, Israel — After more than two years of extensive restoration work, Haifa’s golden-domed Bahá’í Shrine was recently unveiled to the delight of visitors, pilgrims and residents of the city.

Early on 12 April 2011, 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 Báb 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 United Nation’s World Heritage list. Last year alone some 760,000 tourists and 7,500 Bahá’í 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

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, said 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,” said Mr. Samadi. “We were all inspired by the Bahá’í 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 fiber 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” said 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

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 centimeter 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,” said 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,” said 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,” said 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.”