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Architect's Report

Dott. arch Khalil Abdel Hadi, Dott.ssa arch Marina Cappellino

A Mudiria building in El Bordi - Bardiyya, Tobruk, Libya

The building, the mural and their restoration

1. A History of the Area...

The coast of Marmara to the east of Tobruk, the ancient Antipyrgos, is marked by a thick succession of wadi cuts, almost always dry, which, when not leading to the sea in a sandy beach, retain high, sloping rocky shores, as small fjords. Google earth
These morphological features, facilitating a safe landing from the winds, have encouraged the attendance, documented since ancient times, of the type of vessels whose navigation was mostly inshore: both on the routes that from the Middle Eastern regions, along to Egypt, reached the Western Mediterranean, and the routes to the north, which led from Cyrenaica to Crete and the Peloponnese.

One of these ancient ports, situated a hundred and twenty miles east of Tobruk, and about thirty from the Egyptian border, is the current El Bordi , called Porto Bardia under the Italian rule and Petras Maior in antiquity.


The village is situated on a cliff about a hundred meters high and is connected to the large and well protected natural harbor by a convenient road that descends to the east of the promontory on which it stands.

The double value of this settlement, "rich in water", which is crucial for supplies during the navigation due to the presence of the port and the proximity of the Egyptian border, which historically almost always was in a short distance, made this place important in the period until the second half of the nineteenth century, during the Ottoman rule, when it became the seat of nahia, depending on the Caiman of Tobruk, commanded by a Mudir, a military and administrative chief.

2. ... and the Building

In 1916, Bordi Sleiman or El Bordi finally fell under Italian control and the building hitherto referred to as the "Mudiria" was used as a garrison headquarters of Italian military and administrative control.

The Mudiria, still known by the Turkish old term, is a building located approximately in the center of the promontory of El Bordi, which dominates all around, almost square in plan and gathered around the courtyard, is one floor high, partly raised towards the sea and is concluded by a practicable terrace.

Built almost entirely with stone masonry, squared or not, it bears the traces of its diversified historical past: the original structure, where were used perfectly square blocks and lime mortar for the corner piers and for the jambs and lintels of doors and windows, dates back to the Turkish period, probably in the early nineteenth century, was built on the ruins of an earlier building reusing large sections of masonry blocks of limestone but always filled with small stones and using an earthen mortar, with very little lime.

The building in its most recognizable phase, the Ottoman period, had a floor height of about 55 cm lower than the current plan and well worked stone floor slabs, while the walls were coated with a thin layer of lime plaster, traces of it remaining at the elegant northern entrance made of shell limestone blocks, embellished with moulded capitals and bases.

Following the Italian occupation, comprehensive amendments were made and a different interior layout of the rooms produced a significant change of the opening to the exterior, and a rebuilding of large sections of masonry in which were often included bricks and stones; reinforced concrete was used to build the new lintels.
The paving of the rooms was raised to the current level and the floors were re-done with brick vaults on iron beams. In the east wing, the dome vaults, built with hollow bricks, are likely to be ascribed to a second phase, contemporary to the elegant Italian projecting cornices that adorn the main facade to the south.

3. The War and the Mural

The Italian Porto Bardia entered the contemporary history between December 1940 and January 1941 when in the middle of World War II the British and their allies, in this case Australians and New Zealanders, fearing an Italian advance to Egypt, to the Suez Canal, were able to separate and encircle the Italian troops right at Bardia which was bombed and shelled from the sea and from the land and forced to surrender, causing the imprisonment of 40,000 Italian soldiers deported to various parts of the world: South Africa, India, Egypt.

During 1941 Bardia was taken by German-Italian Axis forces and came back into British hands in the autumn of that year. Liberated by the Italians in the summer of 1942 was finally recaptured by the British in the autumn of 1942 after the defeat at El Alamein.

Restored mural

During the period when it was in British hands, John Frederick Brill, a soldier of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corp), painted a mural in the north-eastern corner of the building. In the mural, 483 x 211 cm made largely in black and white, dominated two strongly opposed elements, the beauty of life represented by ballet dancers, musical notes written on scores, Dickens’ books, sensual naked women and the ugliness of war symbolized by mounds of skulls piled up, money, banknotes and greedy hands outstretched towards the girls turned into puppets by the wand of a dark conductor, under the gaze of sad faces painted in the background, including that of the author which, framed in a window-recess, looks surprised and distraught.
The inscription "J. Brill RASC 21.4.1942 " perfectly places the painting. The soldier John Brill, a student of the British Academy of Fine Arts, died, aged 22, July 1, 1942 at El Alamein, where he is buried.

Today the presence of such an artistic testimony makes the building a unique destination for many visitors aware of being in places where were fought the most extreme battles of World War II.

4. The Condition of the Building

At the end of 2008 the building, closed for twenty years, appeared in a state of severe deterioration due to general lack of maintenance, especially the roofing.

Building before

Without plaster and window frames, the missing floors of rooms 16 and 17 and with the vault of the hall, 14, partially collapsed, the building was heavily damaged in the bearing walls of the north side having vertical pronounced lesions particularly over the drip which originally had the task of removing rainwater from the roofs, but that in recent times concentrated it in some areas causing further degradation.

mural before

The frames of the openings of the main facade of the building and the murals of John Brill were also severely damaged, by both the infiltration of rain water from roofs, and the capillary rise of water from underground that detached and fractured the plaster and paint film creating large gaps on the surface of the painting.

before restoration

An architectural survey was carried out, analyzing the causes of degradation and studying solutions to various problems of restoration, which took account of the materials available on site, 550 km from Benghazi.

5. Restoration of the Building

Following approval of the restoration project by the commission and the Department for Conservation of Historic Towns, the work began in February 2009 consolidating the wall structures around the perimeter where they had lost the characteristic texture and structural value.

before restoration

At the same time the severely damaged eastern pavilion domes were supported and what remained of the ceiling of room 14 was dismantled.
The intervention on walls continued by the vertical lesions, with the construction of stitch-unstitch of the masonry blocks of stone and lime mortar using materials similar to the original ones and taking care to break the fracture lines.
This was followed by injecting EMACO structural mortar into the holes created by the disintegration and erosion of the original mortars, this type of intervention linking the parts has made the structures consistent again and resistant to high loads.

The roof

After that we rebuilt the vaults of rooms 14, 16 and 17 with steel beams and vaults of bricks and mortar of lime and cement, a typology present in the west wing of the building and the vaults were consolidated in the rest of degraded rooms 12, 13 and 15, acting on the extrados.

We verified the status of serious deterioration of the steel beams in room 7, which houses J. Brill’s mural, and in room 8 and 9, the floor has been desassembled and restored, also in this case, with similar construction techniques and materials.

The rear

The seriously damaged vault domes of the eastern wing, have been cleared at the extrados from inconsistent layers of tar and cement mortars, sucking the debris from the fractures and pouring in the cracks a reoplastic antistretch concrete, giving a structural continuity to the walls, then, on the surface of the dome vaults, and all the other horizontals of the building, we laid a waterproof coating suitable for local high temperatures.

6. Turkish Floor and Second Mural

During the works, one of the original stone floors was discovered inside room 5, and although lacking many of the slabs in the central area, has been restored and completed with a mortar casting and aggregates similar to the original stone slab. In rooms 7 and 2, the cement and grit tile floor of the Italian period were kept.

The floor

In order to make the Mudiria Complex more enjoyable in every respect, the underground passage that ran from outside of the north-western corner of the building to the cliff, was restored by building a steep local stone staircase.

Simultaneously with the restoration of the building, expert restorers in the field of wall paintings, secured the mural of J. Brill in room 7 by injecting acrylic resin in order to rejoin the painting film to its plaster support and by spraying with a water-alcohol based glue solution. After the surface fixing was done, the backing plaster was consolidated by injections of special additives and the cracks were undercut and restored. The restoration work was continued by erasing the vandalic writings using abrasive pencils with fiberglass or metal tips, filling the graffiti and plastering the gaps with lime mortar of the appropriate particle size.

Restored Mural

The integration of painting, created in order to facilitate the reading of the whole picture, was performed at the larger gaps, with subdued colourings which reproduce the missing figurative parts, deduced from the original photographic documentation, separated from the surviving portion, in the lower area where the plaster has been restored, with a thin engraving that highlights the restoration, visible at close range.

The second Brill mural

In the east wall of the room was found under several layers of paint, another painting in colour, just sketched by J. Brill, in wich there are three male figures.
The restoration work was completed with new plumbing, electric installations, smoke detectors and air conditioning, and with the application of lime plaster, the building of woodframes and the coloring of the rooms that will be used as an archeological museum.