What lies beneath

A neighborhood store undergoing construction becomes the site of an art restoration from the time of World War I.

WWI art (photo credit: Abra Cohen)
WWI art
(photo credit: Abra Cohen)
When Shay Falkon began construction on his family-owned business in downtown Haifa, he had no idea what he would discover beneath the plaster walls.
Falkon, a third-generation nut- and seed-roaster in Haifa, was renovating his small storefront a few years ago when he stumbled upon a piece of history. The shop, his family’s namesake, which showcases heaps of nuts and dried fruits visible from the street, is housed in a long and narrow one-room Ottoman building with high ceilings.
While preparing to paint the large east-facing wall behind a row of freshly roasted edibles, Falkon, 40, says that after scraping away at layers of plaster, he noticed a drawing of “two Turkish men carrying a wounded man” etched into the wall. After careful examination, he realized this was only a small section of a larger painting on the wall, and decided not to paint over it. Despite the fact that the majority of the people who saw the exposed painting suggested he cover it up, Falkon says it was, “curiosity really, I just thought it was something that shouldn’t be covered.”
Nearly two years after the discovery, a customer from Tivon who had stopped by the roasting shop noticed the painting and told his cousin, Shay Farkash, who is the leading conservator of wartime paintings in Israel. Farkash came to Haifa to investigate the piece. “It was amazing to see,” he says, recalling what he originally saw, which was only a fragment of the large painting that is approximately six meters wide and a meter and a half high.
The painting, which dates back to World War I, was the first Turkish painting from this period to be found in Israel. The illustration depicts a wartime battle, likely in or around Haifa. Painted with bone glue (pigment mixed with glue) or tempera in 1916 or 1917, the mural depicts Turkish soldiers on the shore, fighting the British and French both in the air and in the sea. The delicate painting illustrates a plane that was shot down and its pilots swimming in the water.
Historians, both amateur and professional, involved in the project have spent hours combing through historical documentation to try to find out whether the painting depicts a specific battle. While it is still unknown, information has been found through newspaper archives about a battle in 1916 that involved the Turks guarding the Haifa port and a fallen British water plane.
The area where the shop is located, on Kibbutz Galuyot Street in an old area of Haifa, is known to have a long history of Jewish and Arab integration prior to 1948. However, because of a lack of documentation in the area, it is difficult to determine what the building was used for before it was acquired by Israel in 1948.
However, a possible clue was discovered when conservators recently found the signature on the wartime mural during restoration. Written in Arabic, the name of the artist, Abit Camal, was written alongside words that translate to “Hotel Zahran Syria.” While there is no evidence that the building was used as a hotel, it may be the best current speculation.
As Farkash explains, during World War I, many hotels were taken over by soldiers in Tel Aviv and neighboring Jaffa during the battle for Haifa. “It was very interesting to find the signature,” Farkash says, explaining that because of the building’s close proximity to the port and train station, it may be the best plausible reason for the painting at this point.
As to why the mural was painted, Farkash believes that it may have been by a Turkish soldier who was also an artist. He says that during this period, the Turkish navy taught its officers how to paint and even had special artists trained in depicting war scenes.
Alison Hortig is an art conservator in Haifa and one of three people who worked on the project with Farkash. Hortig spent 40 to 50 hours using small tools and chemicals to investigate and expose the covered painting.
“In Haifa there are not a lot of precedents for this type of work,” she says, explaining that this kind of painting is not well-documented or preserved in Haifa. While the process of preservation involved “focused work and investigation,” she says working on the piece in Falkon’s store was rewarding and similar to putting puzzle pieces together.
Because of its rarity and importance in history, Farkash hopes to continue working on the restoration of the mural. “The story depicted is interesting to Israelis and helps to give us a better understanding about what was going on in Haifa at the time,” he says.