Czech company helps restore ancient archaeological treasures: Citadel in Erbil, Choli Minaret and Shrine of Prophet Nahum

Choli minaret in Erbil, photo: archive of Gema Art

The Czech company Gema Art has helped to rescue and restore cultural heritage sites at home and abroad. Among the larger projects, which it has undertaken in the Czech Republic are restoration work at the Municipal House in Prague, the Cathedral of St. Vitus, the Vítkov Memorial, the Pilgrimage Church of John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora, or the Basilica of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary on Svatý Kopeček near Olomouc. In recent years it has also established itself abroad. Projects led by Gema Art were carried out in France, Ireland, the US and in Iraq.

The head of the company, Petr Justa visited Radio Prague’ studio recently to talk about its work and I began by asking how Gema Art had come to take on challenging projects far from home.

Petr Justa,  photo: archive of Radio Prague International

“It was a challenge, because we did not realize that we would go to the Middle East or northern Africa. It just happened that we answered the call of the European Union and took part in the European Framework Programme for Cultural Heritage. We worked on the Nabatean mortars project, in which four countries took part: the Czech Republic, Austria, Syria, and Jordan. The topic was the investigation of the Nabatean mortars, which were used in the first century in the Nabatean city of Petra. And this was the beginning of GEMA ART’s activities in the Middle East.”

How does one recreate mortars that are thousands of years old?

“Well, there was a scientific investigation. We took on-site samples, and there was intensive research both here and in Austria. The Austrian Research Centre in Vienna was involved much more than we were. I was there as an end user, so to say. My profession is originally a conservation scientist and restorer, so I used the results of the investigation to show if recreating the mortars was workable. It was a combination of scientific research and on-site restoration.”

Petra,  Jordan,  photo: Diego Delso,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Was it feasible?

“Oh yes.”

Do you believe the mortar had the same qualities as one used thousands of years ago?

“The idea was to find a system that would be compatible with the old mortars, have the same properties, such as water intake and these standard properties that we were looking for, and that also create the right visual effect. Because the visitors should not be able to tell at first sight what is old and what is new.”

Another big job that you had was the Citadel in Erbil in Iraq, one of the oldest settlements in the world, which is apparently the size of Prague’s Lesser Town. It has streets, a mosque in the centre, how challenging was that undertaking, and what exactly did your work entail?

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

“Well, there was a long story between Jordan and Iraq. The Citadel in Erbil was much later because after the works in Jordan we were asked to participate in a four-year Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs programme of post-war aid to the Republic of Iraq, which was basically pointed at industry but there was also a section of cultural heritage.

“So before we got the job on the Citadel there was intensive work with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. And this was basically based on the preparation of projects in all of Iraq. There were structures that were abandoned for a long period of time before we came to the country. There was, for example, the al-Hadba' Minaret, which was in a very dramatic state of almost collapse, and actually collapsed during the war with ISIS in 2016 or 2017 I think.

“The main interest of our Iraqi partners was to educate local people, conservators and restorers, on how to manage the historic sites, do the conservation, intervention treatments, and teach them how to operate with their cultural heritage.”

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

I believe the then culture minister in Iraq studied in the Czech Republic, did he not? He certainly spent a few years in the Czech Republic, which was probably instrumental in why he turned to the Czech Republic for help.

“Yes, that was the main idea at the time. He spent decades in the Czech Republic, so he spoke, and still speaks, Czech. We were just called by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and asked if we would like to participate. After long hesitation, we said “yes” because we were, of course, afraid to go to Iraq since, at that time, the war was not over. Our first mission to Iraq was in the summer of 2004, and this was really a few weeks after the US troops announced that the war was over.”

And did you find yourself in danger at any time there?

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

“We were very much secure. Our security system was enormous, and all our travelling around Baghdad was done in manoeuvres. Of course, I was quite worried. But the idea was not to spend much time in Baghdad. And our first mission was to the Iraqi National Library and Archives where there were a lot of manuscripts and books that suffered from the war because the Archives were always the target of Saddam Hussein’s troops and were hit by a bomb.

“But the bomb did not cause major damage. The major damage was done by firefighters when they tried to extinguish the flames with water. And you can imagine what can happen in a very hot climate when the old paper is soaked in water. In a few days, fungi started to grow, and it was like an avalanche.”

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

What were you able to do?

“We had good experience with fungi from dealing with the Prague flats in 2002, so we immediately ordered that everything be frozen. The US military offered a big transport freezer. Then the conservationists from the Baghdad Archives were invited to the Institute of Restoration in Litomyšl and they had intensive two-months training on how to operate; under which conditions to defreeze and restore the works. And that was quite successful. That was one part of the project.

“The second part of the project was to prepare the conservation laboratory. So the conservationists were taught here in the Czech Republic how to treat the archival works. And, simultaneously, we prepared a laboratory and workshop system that we packed and sent to Baghdad. There, in the Iraqi Archives, we built the conservation laboratory. They have been using it since, and it has been almost 20 years now.”

When you first visited the Citadel in Erbil, what was it like? It must have made a big impression on you.

Choli minaret in Erbil,  photo: archive of Gema Art

“Of course. I remember the day; it was the 7th of March 2007. Another special thing happened there because a minister of the Kurdish Regional Government – because Kurdistan has its own government as an autonomous country within Iraq – the then minister of culture spent six years in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague broadcasting to Iraq. So he had a very good connection to the Czech Republic. He didn’t speak Czech, but he was very friendly, and he gave us the offer to restore the Choli Minaret, which is a 12th-century minaret that is a kind of symbol for the Kurdish population. It’s on flags and everyone in Kurdistan knows it. This was the start. After we did Choli, UNESCO announced a programme for the reconstruction and stabilization of buildings in the Erbil Citadel, which is just two or three hundred metres from the Choli Minaret.”

What was it like when you saw it first?

“At the time, the Citadel was heavily populated by rural people. And they didn’t care about history, they just tried to survive because they were very poor, with 10 to 15 people living in one room. It was more like a refugee camp. The problem was that there was no waste system, and water was leaking everywhere, so there were many dangers because the Citadel and the hill it stood on was very unstable. Buildings were collapsing every other day. So there was some destruction happening just for natural reasons.”

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

So all these people were moved out before you could actually start the restoration?

“They actually did not want to move, and the government could not send them away. They had the idea to give them some money and a piece of land so that they would move away. That happened very fast. 10 thousand people left, and, from one week to the next, the city was abandoned. This brought more disaster than if they had left more gradually. But that’s how it happened. Fortunately, UNESCO prepared a lot of funds, so we were not the only company to work there to try to stabilize the buildings.”

And how successful was it?

“First we had to make ourselves a base. So we repaired one old house for our use as a base. In exchange, we got to use it for 10 years rent-free. Up to now, we have restored 10 to 12 houses with real historic value. Because there are plenty of buildings there that were reconstructed throughout the years and do not have a real historical value. UNESCO always chose some historically important buildings, which we then restored.”

How long will it take to reconstruct the whole Citadel?

Erbil citadel,  photo: archive of Gema Art

“50 years (laughs). There is a long way to go. Originally there were hundreds, maybe even a thousand buildings in the Citadel. But the problem is that the Citadel is on top of an artificial hill. There was a small hill there before. But today it is about 35 metres above the city level. And inside the hill, there are all these levels of history. So there are hundreds of buildings of different types – mostly mudbrick, which just disappeared, but also some important buildings – buried in the hill. We know that there are some important pieces of archaeological culture there that date back two thousand years.”

So you had archaeologists working alongside you?

“Very little, because it’s difficult to do archaeological excavation under the city. There were some pits opened at the fortifications. The University of Cambridge uncovered fortifications in lengths of about 50 metres. Many people participated.”

“But for the reconstruction, GEMA ART was the first one in the city. In the end, one Turkish company joined GEMA ART in the project.”

Erbil information centre,  photo: archive of Gema Art

And did you uncover any archaeological treasures? Would the fortification not have housed things people wanted to protect?

“Well, we are not archaeologists. This was not our task. It is strictly divided. Kurdish archaeologists are quite experienced and are helped by archaeologists from all over the world. There also was, and still is, an active group from the universities in Pilsen and Olomouc. There still is a Czech programme for archaeological excavations in Kurdistan. You know, Kurdistan is just one archaeological site, you can dig wherever you want, and you will find something. Our task in the first stage was just to stabilize the foundations of the houses especially at the perimeter of the Citadel, where the houses were just falling into the city. And we didn’t finish the houses, they are still structures, not habitable houses. The last project that was completely finished including electricity, waste, and security, was the Museum of Kurdish Culture which we completed roughly three and half years ago. It is called the Interpretation Centre of Erbil Citadel and it was the major UNESCO programme for this part of Iraq. And it is a very high-tech museum. You can’t find anything like it in the Czech Republic.”

You have also conserved the tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum, is that right?

Erbil information centre,  photo: archive of Gema Art

“Yeah, this came after. This is a funny story, because I have been working for the Jewish Museum in Prague since 1993, so for almost 30 years. The Shrine of Prophet Nahum was originally a synagogue, and an American NGO called the Alliance for Cultural Heritage, which tries to help restore cultural heritage sites in war-torn countries, asking us if we would restore it. Nobody believed it possible to repair the Shrine of Prophet Nahun back to its original state. It stood just on the border between Kurdistan and ISIS-occupied territory, which was just 4 kilometres away. The whole city was evacuated. There was just one guy who refused to leave the city because his father promised the last rabbi that he would take care of the synagogue. So 5 thousand people were evacuated and just one guy was left. Fortunately, he survived.

“To come back to your question, as I was working for the Jewish Museum, people from the United States called Prague saying ‘look, you have a good system of conservation of Jewish heritage. Could you recommend someone who could do something for us?’ So they gave them my name, and Cheryl Bernard, the president of ARCH (the Alliance for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage) called me, thinking I was in Prague. She said ‘Petr, I got your name, could you be so brave as to go to Iraq?’ And I replied, ‘I am in Iraq’. And she was just in the city of Erbil and I was in the Citadel. So she immediately visited me, I showed her our work, and she said ‘Done, we will not look for anybody else.’ And this is the story of the Alqosh shrine that we have been working on.”

But you said that it was in a very bad condition. Did that not put you off?

“Yes, there were actually three stages of the project. The first stage was the research done by structural engineers, not cultural heritage people. And the main task was how to stabilize the foundations because, again, it is on a hillside, and the whole synagogue was just moving down into the city. All the walls and roofs were open, so rain could come in which multiplied the deterioration of the site. And the first stage took one year, we prepared an almost one-thousand-page report. Based on the report, we started to do the work. Unfortunately, we should have been finished in April of last year, but the pandemic interrupted the project, and we are still waiting for the green light to come back, which is sad because we spent almost three years on the project, and we only needed six more weeks to complete the site. I have booked a flight for the 5th of March, so I hope that I can go back next month to reopen the site. Because there is really very little left to complete the synagogue.”

Which project did you value the most, in this part of the world?

“From the global perspective, the Shrine of Prophet Nahum is definitely at the top. Because it is the tomb of a biblical prophet who died in 6000 B.C. He is actually buried there with his sister Sara, so there are two tombs. And this place is very important, one of the most important places for the Jewish religion. You can imagine how many visitors we had from all over the world, from India to the United States and Mexico. So many people were attracted by the fact that someone was restoring this place. And we are very close to the opening. I hope that it will open for the Jewish public.”

Do you have a dream project? Something that you know about and would love to be asked to do?

“You know, I would love to work on something difficult. I don’t care about easy projects, because I can do them here in the Czech Republic. So I am looking for the opportunity to do something complicated. Once I was called to participate in Timbuktu in Mali, which is a very important site. But I would love to do Old Havana which is the largest UNESCO world heritage site, and it is just falling into pieces. This would be a great opportunity -if they decide to do something. Because, you know, the situation in Cuba is not easy. I visited Angkor Wat a few years ago, it’s an absolutely marvellous heritage site from the global perspective. So it would probably be those three.”