In West Bank, work to save stunning mosaics

In West Bank, work to save stunning mosaics

14th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

Near the ancient town of Jericho, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is creating a masterpiece of his own in a bid to save the Middle East's biggest mosaic.

Jericho -- Near the ancient West Bank town of Jericho, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor is creating a masterpiece of his own in a bid to save the Middle East's biggest mosaic.

Recruited by the Palestinian Authority and UNESCO, the 67-year-old has developed a unique shelter that should both protect the stunning mosaics inside Hisham's Palace and keep them accessible to tourists.

The proposed "House of the Mosaics" was designed to shield the multi-coloured, intricate pieces from the elements, while showcasing one of the richest archaelogical sites in the Palestinian territories.

Zumthor, the 2009 winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, began working on the Hisham's Palace project in 2006. He refers to it as more of an "emotional reconstruction" than a traditional restoration.

"The idea is to recreate the original atmosphere of a leisure city," he said, "to make the shelter a landmark of Jericho."

The West Bank city is believed to be some 10,000 years old and is considered one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities.

Jericho : A picture taken on 2 December 2010 shows a Palestinian worker is cleaning the Tree of Life mosaic inside one of the rooms at the ancient Hisham Palace in the West Bank city of Jericho

The ruins of Hisham's Place, built during the Ummayad empire, stand on 60 hectares in Khirbat al-Mafjar, west of the Jordan Valley and 260 metres (850 feet) below sea level.

The site was discovered in 1873, but the first excavations took place in the 1930s, when British archaeologist Robert W. Hamilton began work there during the British mandate in Palestine.

The winter palace is representative of early Islamic architecture, with several residential floors, a courtyard with a portico, a mosque, a fountain and a steam room modelled on Roman baths.

The site was long believed to have been built during the reign of Ummayad caliph Hisham bin Abd al-Malik, between 724 and 743 AD, but experts now believe his nephew and successor al-Walid II built the palace.

Al-Walid II lived in the structure but it was never completed and an earthquake destroyed much of it in 749. Preserving what remains, including its spectacular mosaics, is an urgent matter in the eyes of UNESCO.

"This conservation project is a priority for UNESCO," Louise Haxthausen, director of UNESCO's Ramallah office, told AFP, adding that "Hisham's Palace has all the potential for becoming a World Heritage Site."

The palace is famed for its mosaics, including the incredible "Tree of Life," which depicts the mythical tree with two deer grazing peacefully on one side of it, while a third deer is attacked by a lion on the other side.

Elsewhere on the site, the open-air Great Bath Room boasts a massive mosaic that covers 850 square metres and is the best-preserved floor mosaic in the Middle East and the most well-known in the world, according to experts.

Its interwoven geometric designs are today covered in a layer of sand that provides a temporary screen against the elements.

A view of the Tree of Life mosaic inside one of the rooms at the ancient Hisham Palace

But Zumthor, who is famed for his religious and cultural buildings, plans to create a more durable structure to shield the site from damaging sun rays, rain and sandstorms.

The proposed "House of the Mosaics" would consist of a lattice of Lebanese cedar beams resting on 16 pillars of reinforced concrete.

Standing 18 metres (59 feet) tall,  the structure would be covered with a white fabric to allow natural light to filter in, while also providing for ventilation of the site.

The design also envisages walkways suspended about 3.5 metres (11 feet) over the mosaic, allowing visitors to view it without causing damage, as well as two gardens around the site by French landscaper Gilles Clement.

The total cost of the project is estimated at 10-15 million dollars, including four million to be spent over the next two years, according to UNESCO. Actual construction is projected to begin in 2013.

The Palestinian Authority's ministry of tourism and antiquities calls the project the most significant cultural investment underway in the Palestinian territories today.

A refurbished site could attract crowds of tourists to the site, but those involved in the "House of the Mosaics" project hope it can also serve as a model for the preservation of other archaeological sites.

Philippe Agret / AFP / Expatica

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