Contrary to the sleepy image it has acquired in recent decades, Haifa was once a global destination. Shay Falkon, who owns a roasted-nut shop in the lower city, received an object lesson in the city's history recently while repainting a wall in his store. He discovered a battle-scene mural: a downed fighter plane in the sea, warships flying French, British and Turkish flags, cannons, casualties and explosions.
Falkon, the third generation of his family in the nut and seed roasting business, is an amateur historian who enjoys reading about the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. He seemed almost taken aback to hear that a visitor earlier last month had made the hour-plus journey from Tel Aviv to see his find. "You came especially for this? Really?" he asked, with a broad smile.
His store, housed in a 19th-century Ottoman building, had previous incarnations as a pharmacy and as a storeroom. Two years ago Falkon decided to renovate it for the family business. "We were plastering, and suddenly I saw something brown on the wall. I peeled it away gently and saw a head. I realized there was something there, but decided to leave it for the time being," he recalls.
And so it was for several months, until self-proclaimed "history buff" Yair Bunzel walked in as a customer. Bunzel, who works in information technology at Zim Shipping, in turn, asked Shai Farkash, a relative of his wife's, to see the painting.
Farkash specializes in documenting and preserving murals and other paintings, and for the past several years he has traveled around Israel searching for hidden and forgotten specimens of the art. He uses a technique he learned abroad to restore shapes and hues buried under generations of dust and plaster, revealing whole swaths of history.
Slowly, Farkash's work crew uncovered the entire painting, which turned out to be 480 centimeters by 140 centimeters - "huge by any standard," he says. Farkash also began looking into the story behind the painting. He initially thought it depicted Napoleon's conquest of Haifa, in 1799, a theory that was reinforced by the presence of the French ship. A more likely hypothesis is that the mural documents an event that occurred more than a century later, a battle in World War I involving British and French forces fighting against Turkey.
A few intriguing details in the painting led to this conclusion. Sa'ar Nudel, an archaeologist and historical weapons expert who works at the Israeli National Maritime Museum and at the Haifa City Museum, was able to identify in the mural a seaplane with long floats, of the type the British forces used in the war.
Gil Gordon, an architect who specializes in the German communities in Palestine, determined that the cannon depicted in the painting was a German model that was used in the World War I to protect the coasts. Additional corroboration of the new timeline came from the railway om the painting, clearly part of the Haifa-Damascus line, which was dedicated in 1905.
The French warship may have been the one involved in notorious incident that took place shortly before the end of the war, the background to which was a territorial dispute between French monks and German Templers.
In May 1915 Turkish soldiers destroyed a monument to Napoleon's troops at the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery, high on the slopes of Mount Carmel. The monks accused the German consul of inciting the Turks against them. In response the French navy sent in the Ernest Renan, an armored cruiser, which shelled the German consul's residence. This might be the ship depicted in the painting.
After the war ended, in 1918, the British took over Haifa and the Ottoman Empire came to an end, after 400 years. Since then Haifa has been targeted by artillery in World War II, the Sinai Campaign, the 1991 Gulf War and in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006.
The mural's restoration is proceeding apace. Last week the painter and restorer Eli Shaltiel joined the team. He exposed the signature of the original artist: one Adib Kamal, of Syria. More work is needed to complete the puzzle, and it's a costly business. Falkon has been paying for the project himself. Farkash hopes to get the money needed to complete the restoration from the city and preservation organizations.
Falkon himself is proud of his store's new attraction. "Anyone who was born in a city should know its history," he says. "Maybe it will help to decipher something or to corroborate information. Even a little. It's intriguing." Looking outside, Falkon points to the building across the way. Formerly the famous Hadar Cinema, it is now abandoned, forsaken. "People come here and shed a tear. It's a period that will never return." A persistent client pulls us back into the 21st century. "How much per kilo?" he asks.
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