To the sound of the Custody’s bells

It is a type of music is beneficial to everyone. Whether it is announcing the time or calling people to prayer, whether it is expressing mourn or the joy of the people, the symphony of bells and carillons represent the daily audible background in the Christian neighborhoods of Israel and Palestine.

Nowadays, most church bells are equipped with an electronic system that allows certain songs to automatically be played back. However, the bells would not be able to continue ringing for so long without human intervention. Indeed, they are in need of regular maintenance, about every six months.

Gianluca Angelici is an artisan at Eti Auto motion, the Italian company that handles the maintenance of the bells belonging to the Latin Patriarchate in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The Custody asked for his help during his last visit. “Our role is to verify the accuracy of the melodies emitted by the bells. When they were manufactured in foundries, mainly in the last century, there was not any concern for musical scales. Today, priests want to properly play melodies, such as the Ave Maria or the Christus vincit.”

He went on to explain : “We record the sound of each bell, and then we compare it to the notes on the scale, and to musical frequencies. All of this is done using a special computer software. If the tone of a bell does not match, we replace it.” In May, Gianluca Angelici worked on the church in the Monastery of St. Nicodemus in Ramleh. “One of the bells did not sound in tune, but we could not replace it. So, I installed a sound simulator. Now, when the priest wants to play a melody, he will use the simulator, and when he wants to ring the bells in full peal, he can use the original bell.”

The Custody has 18 bell towers in Israel and Palestine. All of the bells in the region date back a hundred years. The reason that they are not even older is that they were often stolen in times of war, and people would melt them in order to build cannons or other weapons.

Witnesses to history, the bells bear the marks of time, like the one at the Latin Patriarchate with five bullet holes in it, the result of the wars around Jerusalem. “As long as it does not have a large crack in it, it can still be used,” said the Italian craftsman.

The Custody of the Holy Land has decided to soon set up a system of maintenance and preventative maintenance for the sanctuaries. Ettore Soranzo, head of the Technical Office of the Custody said, “All of the outside components of a church get damaged over time because of the sand, but also the dust, sea air, water, etc. Previously, nobody would systematically inspect the outside of these buildings nor would anybody regularly go up into the bell towers to ensure their sturdiness. The result was that we had to perform more emergency interventions. Our intention is to sign a preventive maintenance contract with a European company.” These regular visits will allow us to check the condition of the bells but also of the stained glass in the different shrines, as well as the frescoes and mosaics. There is no craftsman specializing in this field in Israel-Palestine, and the presence of numerous centuries-old churches in Europe guarantees that expertise.

The bells and bell towers, the audio and visual symbols of the Christian presence in the Holy Land, we hope will continue chiming for a long time to come.

Hélène Morlet

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