The Stonemasons of Beit Jala: Location, Skill, and Passion

By Dan Koski

[part 1 of 2]

The quiet hilltop city of Beit Jala that overlooks Bethlehem and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank has, by and large, escaped the interest of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, chroniclers and greater travelogues, but any serious student of the Holy Land will have at the very least come across its name or passed on through this Christian village. Yet the village has made its mark in more ways than one, including, quite literally, a mark in stone through its legacy of stonemasons.

The quality of the stonemasonry in Beit Jala is one of its many charms. From its Ottoman city centre to its more modern constructions from the British Mandate onwards, its residential, commercial and religious buildings have long been admired by pilgrims, travelers and researchers either passing through or residing in the village (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Historic Beit Jala buildings, late Ottoman to post-Jordanian era (photo by D. Koski).

It is said that Beit Jala was the first water-skin stop of the Holy Family en route to Egypt. With its abundance of water, relatively cool climate and proximity to both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it is no wonder that Beit Jala took the interest of many of the disciples of Jesus who passed through it in his first few days on Earth. While identified as a Christian place of pilgrimage by at least the Ottoman era on a surviving Greek Orthodox pilgrimage map of the Holy Land in Crete, its Arab Palestinian Christian population became of equal interest by the 19th century.

With a surge in Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox missionary activity in the late Ottoman Era, as well as a resurgent Greek Orthodox Church, local quality stonemasons were in high demand for innumerable building projects ranging from churches, schools and hospitals to more refined work such as statues needed for chapels (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Stone icon of Saint George above the lintel of a Beit Jala home (photo by D. Koski).

Being geographically close to Jerusalem and having contacts through the various Christian churches and communities which already had a keen interest in Bethlehem district, Beit Jala stonemasons had an invaluable leg up from the competition. Furthermore, with a local abundance of much-valued Jerusalem stone, known for its quality and pinkish rose-tinted hue (indeed, oral history attributes the columns of the nave within the Church of the Nativity to as being from the vicinity of present-day Beit Jala), administrators overseeing building projects could potentially use both local skill and building material, significantly reducing their overhead. The magnificent stonework of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene on Gethsemane and the façade of the Milk Grotto Church in Bethlehem, both completed in part by stonecutters from Beit Jala, bears witness to the quality work that could be accomplished by the end of the 19th century.

Unsurprisingly, a local market for expert stonemasonry begun to emerge in the late 19th to early 20th century, as the prosperity of several prominent Bethlehem and Beit Jala families from successful business ventures in the Americas resulted in a new urban middle class that sought to both house their growing families and show off their wealth. Unlike the family palaces of the Old City of Nablus which sought to emulate the grand hosh of Damascus, Bethlehem and Beit Jala families favored a style of residential architecture with more Western influences, with the front entrance of the home facing outwards and buffered by a small courtyard fenced off with either wrought-iron gates or a simple stone wall. Most famous of all of these homes is the Jacir Palace of Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb, at present the most prolific hotel in the region, if not the entire West Bank. The Greek Orthodox cemetery of Beit Jala boasts edifices which rival their Victorian peers (Fig. 3).

Fig 3: Relief panel of the Ottoman-Era Rizqallah family sarcophagus, located in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery of Beit Jala (photo by D. Koski).

Another unique structure is the Judah Salah House of Beit Jala, whose ornate decorative stone façade includes two caryatids of family members in 20th century dress.  During the Second Intifada, in which Beit Jala was occupied by the Israeli military in part due to its strategic, elevated position over Bethlehem, one of the heads of the caryatids was shot off in the crossfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces, and has since served as a continuous reminder of the constant threat of conflict in the region.

As a principally Palestinian Christian city, it should come as no surprise that the village includes some excellent examples of stone work on its five churches (three Orthodox, one Catholic and one Lutheran), its cemeteries and in the homes and businesses of its residents.  As elsewhere in the Holy Land, Christian and Muslim homeowners alike place commemorative stones over the front entrance of their homes as a blessing (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Decorate stone lintel over a 20th-century Beit Jala home (photo by D. Koski).

By far the most common depiction of Palestinian Christian stone iconography is Saint George, patron saint of Palestine, followed by an ornate cross, the Virgin Mary and Christ. Beit Jala stone icons of Saint Nicholas can also be found, for the gift-giving saint was known to have resided in a cave near what would become a monastery dedicated to Saint George (and himself) in later years.

At Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in the town’s center on sleepy summer afternoon, an inquiry on local stone sculptors at the local parish office with the priests and office workers resulted in no less than half a dozen family names without so much as a pause between names:  Matar, Saba, Abu Ghattas, Rabah, Nastas….

“See Fawzy Nastas, my father in law,” the church secretary suggests. “My wife will take you to meet him. He’s one of the best there is.”

In Part 2 of this blog, Beit Jala stone sculptor Fawzy Nastas will delve into his experience of “Making the Stones Speak.” Dan Koski is long-term a resident of Beit Jala, and can be reached at dankoski1979@gmail.com.

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