Reconstructed Ottoman Bridge in Israel Raises Hackles Over Politicization of Archaeology

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The new stone bridge that stretches above Nahal Taninim (Wadi az-Zarka), a river near the Arab town Jisr az-Zarqa, in central Israel.
The new stone bridge that stretches above Nahal Taninim (Wadi az-Zarka), a river near the Arab town Jisr az-Zarqa, in central Israel.Credit: Rami Shlush
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

A new stone bridge, 90 meters (295 feet) long, stretches above Nahal Taninim near the mouth of the river. It has four large arches, and pedestrians and bicyclists can comfortably cross from the southern to the northern bank of the river and back without getting their feet wet.

The separate worlds of Jisr al-Zarqa and of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael have been connected, and the former, an Arab town whose name means “a bridge over the blue river,” has been given an actual bridge.

The bridge isn’t entirely new. It’s a reconstruction of the bridge that was built by the rulers of Ottoman Palestine in 1898 in honor of the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to the Holy Land.

Yehoshua (Yeshu) Dray. 'It’s one of the crazy examples of building a bridge for one day and one trip.'Credit: Moshe Gilad

The Turks built their bridge on the foundations of a far more ancient one. The contemporary reconstruction was carried by a partnership of the Carmel Drainage Authority, the Israel Land Authority’s Open Space Conservation Foundation and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The bridge, which is within the area of the Nahal Taninim Nature Reserve and next to the Jisr al-Zarqa National Park, is open to the public free of charge.

The Romans were the first to build the bridge, 2,000 years ago, together with a large dam, built to collect water that was brought to Caesarea via an aqueduct. In the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, the water was used to operate flour mills, the remains of which can still be seen. On the hill facing the sea are the remains of the city of Crocodilopolis, from the Persian period, and of a Byzantine settlement.

The Turkish bridge was built in haste, to facilitate the kaiser’s journey from Haifa to Jaffa, before continuing on to Jerusalem. It was one of a series of engineering projects built for his visit in Palestine that in. A new pier at the Haifa port and the breaching of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate to accommodate the royal carriage are two additional examples of the excitement that gripped the country’s inhabitants and the kaiser’s hosts ahead of the visit. The last crocodile, incidentally, was caught in the river in 1912.

“It’s one of the crazy examples of building a bridge for one day and one trip,” said Yehoshua (Yeshu) Dray with a smile, as we embarked on a festive walk on the bridge. Dray, an expert on site preservation and the reconstruction of ancient technologies, was hired to reconstruct the Ottoman-era bridge. Zeev Margalit, an architect and director of conservation and development at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, was in charge of the project.

Dray explained that because the kaiser wanted to travel along the shore rather than on the parallel road further inland, on the kurkar ridge, the coastal road was made ready for his entourage. The carriage crossed four additional bridges on the way to Jaffa, but according to Dray they were already in place. It was only the Nahal Taninim bridge that was built especially for the kaiser.

The reconstruction began with thorough research. “Luckily we have earlier mentions of the remains of a bridge here. The famous traveler Victor Guerin wrote, 28 years before the kaiser’s visit, that there were four decorative columns from a ruined bridge. That’s how we know for certain the first bridge was built much earlier, Dray relates.

“The entire structure was built from stones taken from nearby Tel Taninim. They had all been used in previous construction. The technique was simple – they built two walls and arches and filled in the space between them with material brought from the tell.”

Dray takes pains to explain the materials used in the new bridge, which he says were identical to those used by the Turks. He addresses the first difficult decision that had to be made, one of many: whether to dismantle the remains of the wall and use its stones in the reconstruction, or to keep the part of the original structure that remained at the site so as to display it next to the rebuilt bridge.

The latter option was chosen, but Dray repeatedly stresses: “I used the same foundations. I placed stone upon stone. I reconstructed the late 19th-century Turkish bridge precisely.” He says the earlier Roman bridge was 3.5 meters taller than its Ottoman-era replacement.

If that’s the case, why did you decide to rebuild the newer bridge and not the ancient one?

The new bridge over Nahal Taninim (Wadi az-Zarka), in 2021.Credit: Rami Shlush

“Because I’m aware of our limitations. We can’t reconstruct the Roman bridge. Only one period can be reconstructed, and we have to choose. If I build the ancient one I’ll destroy everything above it. Our knowledge about the ancient bridge is far more limited. The biggest error made by reconstructors is to think we know everything. If you don’t have enough knowledge it’s better not to do anything.

“We have evidence and photos of the Ottoman bridge. Thanks to them we can be certain that we didn’t make a mistake. It’s all in the details. Look at the straight lines and the upper cornice. This finish is the most faithful to the original.”

The reconstruction took about four months and cost about 2 million shekels ($633,000) – a short and relatively easy project for Dray. Several times during our conversation he compares it to the big project for which he is known best – the reconstruction of a Byzantine-era synagogue at Umm al-Qanatir, in the Golan Heights. It took more than 10 years and cost about 30 million shekels. It involved marking each of the huge structure’s building stones with serial numbers and attaching radio-frequency identification tags to many of them. During the long reconstruction process, the scattered blocks were collected and eventually replaced in their original locations.

At the end of the process, when a large visitors’ center that forms the entrance to the site was completed, Dray was upset and he became a vocal opponent of what he called its overdevelopment. When he says “They made a Luna Park,” it’s obvious that he’s trying to denounce the results without exploding in a rage.

Dray vows that the new site “won’t be turned into an amusement park.” He’s been given promises that no lampposts or benches will be placed next to the bridge. His real concern these days is how the new-old bridge will handle the water in the river and the storms in the ocean. An artificial flood plain of sorts was built on the bridge’s northern side, to accommodate any flooding of the river. That was there in the Ottoman period, explained Dray.

Nahal Taninim (Wadi az-Zarka), a river near the Arab town Jisr az-Zarqa, in central Israel in 2010.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Build, or let it be?

There are two laws relevant to the issue of preservation in Israel. The Antiquities Law stipulates that anything built before 1700 belongs to the state and is under the jurisdiction of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which must approve any changes to it. Amendment 31 to the Planning and Building Law gives local governments the responsibility for preserving post-1700 historic sites within their borders. It means preservation plans must be approved by zoning boards and released for public comment. Each local authority compiles a list of sites under its jurisdiction that are slated for preservation. Since the Jisr al-Zarqa bridge is in a nature reserve, any work on it must be approved by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. That agency also makes the decisions on preserving archaeological and historical heritage sites as well as on opening them to the public.

The biggest question that arises after one enjoys walking across the bridge is when is it right to reconstruct an ancient structure that collapsed or was destroyed, and when is it preferable to say, cautiously, this shouldn’t be touched. If we enjoyed the bridge so much, why not go on to build and reconstruct other antiquities sites? Not far from Jisr, in Caesarea, for example, the arches alongside the ancient port have been rebuilt. Is that a correct choice? Would it have been better to leave them in the condition in which they were found?

Archaeological or ancient sites, Crusader sites for example, can be breathtaking. Many were once magnificent halls and now they have a dusty and boring image.

In the moments of irresponsible hallucination of a visitor who is not a professional, I imagine the half-ruined Montfort Fortress in the Western Galilee rebuilt to perfection, and Atlit Castle, which the Israel Navy has insisted on continuing to destroy for decades, receiving the loving and devoted care of teams of skilled preservationists, who restore to it its ancient glory.

There are many examples of once-magnificent sites all over the country. Consider the palace overlooking the sea in Apollonia, or Herod’s palace at Masada. How nice it would be if we could see them in their glory days. Maybe the time has come to build the houses that stood on top of the mosaics in Sepphoris (Tzippori) or to reconstruct the remains of the Crusader fortress at Burgata?

At Umm al-Qanatir someone asked me: How do you, a nonbeliever, dare to reconstruct a synagogue? After all, it’s a holy place. I answered him simply: ‘If it were a Roman brothel I would do it with exactly the same enthusiasm.’

Dray cools my enthusiasm. “The job of the preservationist is more than just a renovator. You have to treat this work with awe. Every day I say to myself, you have been given a pledge and your duty is to pass it on it to future generations exactly as it is, don’t be a wise guy. It doesn’t belong to you. It’s the property of humanity.

“The first question you have to ask when you approach a site that’s a candidate for reconstruction is: Is it functional?” he explains. “A bridge over a river is very different from a site or a monument without a utilitarian purpose. It’s easier to decide on reconstruction when the site has a function. In any case, the most important thing is not to do anything that isn’t 100 percent faithful to what was. With this bridge I know exactly what there was, at the resolution of each and every stone. There was one moment during the work when I suddenly realized I had missed something small. The entire section was dismantled and rebuilt with the right stones.

“Another important decision is to completely separate what was there before we came and what we did. There’s a clear reconstruction line on the bridge, but still.” Dray says he is particularly upset when, as in the case of the visitors’ center at Umm al-Qanatir, new buildings are put up at ancient sites.

“There’s no shortage of examples,” he says. “What was done recently at Tel Dor (adding lampposts and benches) is another example, in [ancient] Beit She’an quite a few mistakes were made, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, the feeling in Israel is that everyone uses archaeology to make a political point. That’s wrong. At Umm al-Qanatir someone asked me: How do you, a nonbeliever, dare to reconstruct a synagogue? After all, it’s a holy place. I answered him simply: ‘If it were a Roman brothel I would do it with exactly the same enthusiasm.’”

Who can say ‘only this far’?

Giora Solar, a Jerusalem-based architect, specializes in preserving built cultural heritage in Israel and around the worldwide and is a graduate of the Center for Conservation Studies in Rome. More than 25 years ago he established the conservation department of the Israel Antiquities Authority, leading it for several years before returning to private practice. His firm’s projects include Ashkelon, Beit Shean, Tel Dan, the reconstruction of the Roman amphitheater in Shuni and, in Jerusalem, the Citadel and the City of David. When I ask him whether reconstruction is even permissible, he says simply that it is prohibited, unless you know the precise location of each stone. As soon as you begin making assumptions you must stop. When we spoke he had yet to see the new bridge in Jisr al-Zarqa, but he knows Dray well.

“Yeshu is a first-class professional and I have great admiration for him,” Solar says. “But he also thinks that he knows everything and that’s the problem. There’s always one great fear: Is there anyone, preferably a conservation architect, who can say, at the right moment, only this far. If there’s no such person, there are likely to be serious problems.”

Later Solar expands on the subject of preservation: “In principle I’m in favor of reconstruction on the condition that there’s professional intervention based on historical research. The objective is to show the public how things were. Another objective is functional – if it’s a bridge that was built so that people could cross a river, the reconstruction may be justified.

“It’s permissible to raise columns at the site if you’re certain where they came from. There’s only one bridge I know that was reconstructed and placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites – the bridge in Mostar, Bosnia. There was a tremendous debate about it, because they claimed that it was reconstructed and therefore had lost its authenticity.”

One of the structures at Shivta, part of the Incense Route in Israel.Credit: Moshe Gilad

To what extent should you take the public into consideration, to enable it to enjoy an archaeological site?

“I’m in favor of reconstruction at archaeological sites to facilitate the public’s experience easier, on condition it doesn’t harm the site. If you created a Disneyland that’s very bad. Attracting tourists and education are legitimate goals. The international approach is very cautious in this regard, perhaps overly cautious.

“In Israel more freedom is exercised. The bottom line is that everyone wants to attract visitors, but before starting to build enthusiastically it’s important to do in-depth research, to be familiar with the original material, the manner of construction, and there’s always the question of whether to leave at least a part in ruins.

“Beit Shean, for example, was destroyed in a serious earthquake. That’s a story in itself, and that’s why there we decided to leave evidence of the earthquake. There were major debates surrounding the reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, and in the end it was decided to rebuild it. Another particularly blatant and problematic example was in Herodion. There some people thought about reconstructing Herod’s tomb. The reply I gave there was completely clear: Leave the tomb in its present state, because we don’t know for certain how it looked in the past.”

Israel’s Pompeii

The Nahal Taninim case is a simple one, because the bridge is only 120 years old and the reconstructors have clear evidence of its original appearance. Far more difficult questions are being addressed at the site of the ancient city of Shivta, southwest of Be’er Sheva in the Negev. Its structures are 1,500 years old, and information about their original appearance is limited. But it’s not easy to attract visitors to Shivta. To appeal to large numbers of tourists it seems you have to do something dramatic.

Orit Bortnik, the head conservator of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s southern district, lays out the questions that confront the professionals at the site. “Shivta is Israel’s Pompeii. It has impressive churches, but we’re trying to breathe new life into the stones,” she says. “We ask ourselves what would be the tiebreaker. How do we get people to come to this amazing site. What’s the story we want to tell. What’s the unique value of the place?

“We want to illustrate to the public what was here 2,000 years ago. For that purpose we’re reconstructing arches that collapsed and using a reconstruction method that imitates the ancient construction. The site has undergone a face-lift, but we remind ourselves every day that we shouldn’t touch it too much,” Bortnik says.

The reconstructed bridge of Jisr al-Zarqa is a few dozen meters north of the fishing village and the marina, both of which are within the nature reserve and the national park. During our visit to the bridge, several residents of Jisr approached to congratulate Dray for completing the job, but stressed that the disputes over the development of the fishing village, surrounding the question of proper preservation and the future character of the place, are still far from being resolved.

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