Conserving Heritage Sites in Israel

Author name: Eli Ashkenazi 12.09.2020

Osnat Avitan, Yigal Buznah and Eli Moyal are natives of the northern Jordan Valley city of Bet She’an, where they are now raising their children. For years they worked in maintenance at the national park in their city, until the threat of a cornona-fueled spate of furloughs loomed. A unique vocational retraining project has now allowed them and many others to resume work – now as conservation workers at the most important heritage sites in Israel.

Osnat Avitan dipped her sponge in a bucket full of mortar and spread a thin layer of the mixture on a massive brick wall, a meter and a half thick. A light breeze made the oppressive heat of Bet She’an a little more bearable and the work a little easier, as Avitan and three of her friends applied plaster to the restored walls of the Egyptian governor’s house on Tel Bet She’an overlooking Bet She’an National Park.

The four of them have been employees of the national park for between 7 and 31 years. are now raising their own families here, the city where they grew up. The coronavirus crisis posed a tangible threat to their continued work at the site, where the number of visitors plummeted over the past six months with the outbreak of the crisis.

Bet She’an National Park, for example, saw a quarter of a million visitors per year, more than 160,000 of them tourists from abroad. The park director, Nissim Bados, spoke enthusiastically of the large wave of Israeli visitors in August of this year, many more than in August of previous years. But that still didn’t make up for the groups of foreign tourists. One Wednesday morning recently there were two cars in the parking lot, bringing four visitors. “Last year at this time you’d see tourists pouring out of eight buses at the same time,” Bados recalls.

Bet She’an National Park, for example, saw a quarter of a million visitors per year, more than 160,000 of them tourists from abroad. The park director, Nissim Bados, spoke enthusiastically of the large wave of Israeli visitors in August of this year, many more than in August of previous years. But that still didn’t make up for the groups of foreign tourists. One Wednesday morning recently there were two cars in the parking lot, bringing four visitors. “Last year at this time you’d see tourists pouring out of eight buses at the same time,” Bados recalls.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority wanted to take advantage of the new reality forced on its sites and beef up conservation work there. To meet the challenge, it was decided that the teams of experts would be joined by Authority employees who would be specially trained to assist them. The project was funded by Israel’s Finance Ministry.

The coronavirus was a tangible threat to employees at the site. Osnat Avitan at Bet She’an (photo: Eli Ashkenazi)

Avitan is a single mother of one daughter. She began to work at Bet She’an National park 30 years ago in cleaning and maintenance. “I grew up here. This site is my second home. It’s my work place and my source of livelihood and it’s also a place I’m close to, which I love and am interested in. When archaeologists and conservation people come, I like hearing about what they’re doing. But I never thought that one day I would do this work,” she says.

Avitan’s colleague Yigal Buznah has been working at the park for 31 years now. A divorced father of four, he says his eldest son recently finished his army service in the Golani Brigade and can’t find work because of the economic crisis. “It’s good I’ve got this job. True, it’s hard work in the heat and the sun, but you can’t be spoiled nowadays. What’s more, although the work is hard, it’s also interesting and I’ve learned interesting things,” he says.

“These are workers who are part of the life of the place already,” park director Bados says. They live it and are involved in it. The opportunity I was given to move them into conservation work is a wonderful one. It’s a big push for conservation work that we would not have been able to accomplish as intensively as we are now. And it’s also a great employment solution to the situation that’s been forced on the workers – they certainly would have had to be sitting at home right now living on unemployment. When I know that now there are hundreds of thousands of people sitting at home, it’s disturbing. I’m glad that our employees haven’t been hurt and jobs have even been found for them that are interesting and give them satisfaction.

Eli Moyal: “The daily grind had begun to wear me down, and this change really revived me.” The Bet She’an antiquities. (photo: Eli Ashkenazi)

Bet She’an resident Eli Moyal has been working at the park for 26 years now as a maintenance man. He has experience in conservation and archaeological excavation, and so he became head of the group. Every day he prepares the plaster according to the makeup of the original plaster used by Bet She’an’s builders 3,200 years ago. Bados stresses the importance of the lime, which is soaked for a long time in water, for the quality of the mix. “We can learn something from those ancient builders. They were able to identify building materials that ensured strength and durability. It’s very impressive,” he says.

Moyal says that he was glad that the source of his livelihood and that of his colleagues has been spared, although he admits that the specter of furlough still worries him. But he says conservation work really excites him. “When I work here I learn to appreciate and respect the people who built this structure. To think that this huge building was built more than 3,000 years ago. It’s really impressive. I’m very proud that today I’m conserving it. This project really brought me alive. “The daily grind had begun to wear me down, and this change really revived me and gave me motivation,” Moyal adds.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority Director General Shaul Goldstein: “The coronavirus brought with it threats as well as opportunities. We decided to take advantage of this period, despite its problematic nature. Instead of firing workers, we decided to offer them a move to other tasks that otherwise there’s no opportunity to perform. During this time these wonderful workers carried out archaeological conservation that will prevent damage from earthquakes; they’ve done maintenance for the benefit of visitors and renovated and upgraded the sites. Their work has saved the Authority money, but mainly it has given daily meaning to these workers.”

At Bet She’an National Park six workers have been retrained in conservation. The training, which takes about a month and a half, was taught by Dror Ben-Yosef, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority northern district archaeologist, and Ilan Fahima, from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who heads the conservation program at Bet She’an National Park.

“The site has a permanent conservation team, but bringing in the local employees was a boon. It’s great help that we didn’t anticipate,” Fahima says. Training included theoretical studies about conservation and its importance as well as practical experience, such as preparing the materials needed for the work, making plaster and learning how to apply it. “This is not simple work at all. It requires experience and patience to apply the plaster in a number of layers,” Bados explains.

The Egyptian governor’s house was built in the twelfth century BCE, during the time when Egyptian rule in the Land of Israel was at its height. The building was built on top of the biblical mound, high above the more familiar part of the site – the antiquities of Bet She’an at the height of its glory in the Roman and Byzantine periods.  The lower part of the governor’s house is actually a faithful reconstruction of the original. The restored mud bricks of its massive walls were produced the same way it was done in ancient times. Bados explains that not only did the thick walls protect the people inside, they also kept the building cool in the burning Bet She’an summer. The building has to be re-plastered almost every year, after the winter rains erode it.

Bados notes that augmenting the conservation team allowed more thorough work than in previous years, for example, pulling out damaging weeds and roots from between the ancient stones. In addition, the ancient bathhouse was completely cleaned, removing layers of pigeon droppings. “The drainage channel of the antiquities was also cleaned more thoroughly than we ever did before,” Bados says, then throws in a Talmudic adage for good measure: “It’s like the old saying: ‘a mitzvah done not for its own sake ultimately is done for its own sake.’”

Goldstein says that following the success of the project he has gone to decision makers with a proposal to employ thousands of people in work to spruce up the country. “We recently received approval to hire about 500 unemployed people. We’ll start hiring in the coming days and together we’ll clean up and conserve the beloved landscapes of our country. In terms of cleanup, we’re preparing a huge operation together with a drive for education and to change awareness. The operation will be held jointly with the Environmental Protection Ministry and local government, with the assistance of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel,” Goldstein says.