Shira and the virtual reconstructions of ancient Bethany

Giacomo Pizzi11 December 2019

Very long brown hair and engaging smile. Shira Shafie, 24, is a young Palestinian architect from Ramallah. A recent graduate of Birzeit University, she recently began her first work experience for the Mosaic Center. Thanks to his technical and computer skills, he created a series of four 3D videos to graphically depict the historical evolution of the Bethany site in the various eras.

Veneration for the city of Lazarus, Martha and Mary is well attested since ancient times: a first church was built in Bethany in the fourth century and was part of a real complex, the Lazarium, built near the tomb of Lazarus. A second church, built in the 5th century, following the destruction of the first due to an earthquake, rose further east. And finally, during the Crusader period, at the behest of King Folco d’Angiò and his wife Melisenda, new renovations were started which transformed the church again, so much so that archaeologists speak of a third church. In addition, the crusaders built a monastery for the Benedictine nuns and a new church above the tomb of Lazarus with the function of a chapel for the nuns.

The archaeological excavations and the work of restoration and redevelopment of the site, carried out in the ‘Betania Ospitale’ project by the Association pro Terra Sancta and Mosaic Center with the support of the Italian Agency for Cooperation and Development, have brought to light again the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader structures. Today the pilgrim, going to the Franciscan monastery, can admire the Byzantine mosaics of the first and second church, celebrate mass in chapels obtained from the vaults of the ancient monastery, and rediscover the history of an archaeological site of great importance. However, for less experienced eyes, it is not easy to imagine the grandeur of the Benedictine complex or to understand exactly what the structure of the Byzantine churches was. For this reason it was decided to use the technology and the power of the images to make a virtual visit to the four churches that followed one another over time.

“The goal is to make people understand the various stratifications that followed one another in the archaeological site – explains Osama Hamdan, the construction manager, – and in doing so we thought especially of the boys”. The site of Bethany, in fact, is visited by many Palestinian students and children who have the opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of their country, carrying out educational and interactive activities at the convent and the museum. The video will be screened in the “Interpretation room” when the work is completed and will be available on the project website.

Shira was given the task of transforming archaeologists’ data, drawings and maps into a virtual building that allows the spectator to walk between the pointed arches and the rooms of religious buildings. Proudly showing us her work, she explains how for her it was a great opportunity to be able to work on this project: “I was able to put into practice everything I learned in my years of university study”. Shira has enrolled in the faculty of architecture following the wishes of her father who wanted to be an architect. She loves her profession and what fascinates her most is “being able to recover a history that is long lost through modern technological tools”.