Learning about heritage from George Town

By: Jobers R. Bersales November 30,2016 - 07:41 PM

I missed the turnover ceremonies for a number of heritage churches in Cebu, including that of the Metropolitan Cathedral that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) last week due to a busy schedule.

I would have wanted to ask something that I, together with about 10 others, learned in George Town, one of the two cities in Malaysia that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) declared in 2007 as World Heritage Sites.

Managing George Town’s status is the George Town World Heritage Council Inc., a quasi-government corporation that was organized after the prestigious Unesco inscription. The city, capital of the state of Penang, hosts nearly 4,000 shop-houses built of bricks covered with lime mortar and “painted” with lime wash.

We had a briefing conducted by Jack Ong, communications officer of the council, who told us that only hydrologized lime was allowed in the maintenance of the walls of the shop-houses inside the heritage core and its buffer, numbering to some 3,800 of them. Hydrologized lime refers to the slaking of lime. Lime comes from shells and limestone (anapog) that are burned to a powdery condition. Slaking involves soaking this powdery lime in a barrel of water for between three weeks and 90 days.

This slaking, a practice known since the Roman times in Europe, ensures that lime has reached a level where it can be mixed with sand and applied as lime wash or as part of a mortar mixture. During the Spanish period, lime mixed with some binder was the main building material — the ones you see holding heritage churches together amidst all those massive cut coral stones.

According to the famous Augustinian friar of Boljoon Julian Bermejo, who built watchtowers in southern Cebu and a large command center on top of the now repurposed Ilihan Bluff, the binder was the sap of the law-at tree. That plant, when cooked, exuded a sticky sap that was then mixed with the slaked lime, sand and gravel to form those watchtower walls. The formwork holding this would have been amakan (woven bamboo strips) or just flattened bamboo strung close together to hold this mortar mixture until it dried.

Once dried, another set of slaked lime and powdered sand was mixed with the law-at sap and applied as finishing material. One can still see this finishing material on the watchtower closest to the highway in Alcoy near the town proper.

In George Town, we learned from Jack that they expressly forbid any other deviation from this age-old material that forms the main fabric of all the two-story shop-houses. Cement in whatever form is never allowed.

This begs, therefore, the question why the NHCP allows the mixing of unslaked or dry lime with pozzolanic cement (and the usual sand and gravel) as a restoration material.

I sent a Facebook message to one of my friends at NHCP to ask about this difference but got no reply.

The good thing is that there is a team from NHCP that has also been restoring ceiling paintings in the few churches of Cebu that have one and they use watercolor paints which are easy to remove should problems arise.

One other positive note from the NHCP is that the retablo of Argao, built probably in the 1730s–1750s, that was covered in totality with gold leaf by an excited but utterly uninformed priest of about a decade ago, has finally been shorn of its gilded cage, as it were. The statue of the church’s patron saint, San Miguel Arcangel, is now finally shorn of its gold, which covered even its eyes.

And for this, we must thank the NHCP and people like Archt. Mel Aquino whose team finally achieved what we all were told was impossible to undo.

* * *

Speaking of the Ilihan Bluff, since a viewing deck has now been built on top of this defaced hill in Boljoon, I would venture to ask the people who designed this deck to start looking for the foundations of the command center set up near this area by the revered Augustinian friar Julian Bermejo. It was here on top of this bluff that he commanded the defense of the Visayas islands against Moro slave depredations and effectively stopped so many slave raids through a series of signal systems using flags and smoke. A marker should be placed there to mark that spot.

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TAGS: cathedral, ceremonies, ceremony, church, churches, communication, Europe, heritage, jack ong, lime wash, limestone, Metropolitan Cathedral, mortar, national historical commission, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, NHCP, Penang, Philippines, Roman, schedule, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Turnover, Unesco, United Nations Educational
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