Conference Addresses Saving Antiquities From Nature's Wrath

As Dr. Avi Shapira regaled his audience with stories of earthquakes past, and even a tsunami, people could not help worriedly eyeing the gigantic stones in the ceiling of the venue, the Knights Halls in the old city of Acre.

Shapira, who heads the state's steering committee on earthquakes, is one of several experts from Israel and 16 other countries, including Italy, Japan, Peru, Tanzania, China and India, who are taking part in a special workshop on how to protect heritage sites from various risks.

The workshop, sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority, is a continuation of one held last year by UNESCO in Olympia, Greece.

"Risk management at cultural heritage sites is a challenge all countries face," said Raanan Kislev, head of the antiquities authority's conservation administration.

"Israel, which is a crossroads of the three religions, is rich in cultural heritage sites, including Jerusalem, Masada, Beit Shean, Caesarea, Avdat, Tiberias, Safed and the White City in Tel Aviv. These sites are at risk from earthquakes, fire, vandalism and climate change."

Kislev says setting policies to prepare and respond quickly to these risks will help protect these sites.

Fourty-five percent of Israel's mosaics are at risk, said Jacques Nagar, head of art conservation in the authority's conservation administration. His data is based on a survey of 100 of the most important sites in the country, out of a total of 7,000 mosaics.

"Fourteen years ago, about 51 percent were at risk, so the trend is positive," Nagar said, chalking up the improvement to the authority's impact on those responsible for the sites. "We have also managed to save some sites, but in contrast there are still places where the situation is not good.

"Very large investments are sometimes made to uncover sites, but they don't think long-term about conservation and maintenance. Many visitors come to the sites, which deteriorate," he said.

The state does not have funding for conservation or long-term planning, said Nagar.

"The concern is that we'll wake up one day and find out we have a problem. That's how we lost important sites like the Roman bathhouse in Tiberias or the nearby Mount Berenice church, which were ruined by vandals and neglect."

Recently, vandals destroyed antiquities at the Negev site of Avdat, putting the issue on the agenda.

However, Kislev thinks this is not a major concern.

"Such acts are relatively easy to deal with, mainly through awareness, education and security systems," he said.

Nagar says that when vandalism is repaired quickly, experience shows it deters additional damage.

More difficult to address are the forces of nature, such as earthquakes, climate change and flooding.

Prof. Yosef Hatzor presented a model that was developed at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva that estimated the strength of earthquakes on various sites based on the amount of damage caused.

The equipment will now be tested on heritage sites like Masada, the Nimrod Fortress and Susita to help determine what reinforcement is needed to protect these sites on the earthquake-prone Syrian-African Rift.