The Stonemasons of Beit Jala: Making the Stones Speak

By Dan Koski

[part 2 of 2]

Fawzy Nastas of Beit Jala is one of the most prolific stone sculptors in the West Bank. Having first learned his trade as an apprentice to his father during the renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 1960s, he is the third stonemason within four generations (his grandfather having fled the country due to mass conscriptions into the Ottoman Army). Fawzy speaks English with a soft Italian accent; a remnant of the many years in which he studied stonemasonry in Italy. His workshop is witness to over five decades of consistent work in the Holy Land and abroad; commemorative grave markers for the Christian deceased, a veritable iconostasis of stone icons for residential and commercial homes, life-sculptures of national, civic and religious figures ranging from the Virgin Mary to Palestinian civic and national leaders (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Beit Jala stone sculptor Fawzy Nastas in his workshop (photo by D. Koski).

His commissions both sacred and secular can be found across the Holy Land. Some have suffered the fate of continual conflict in the nation; an enormous statue of Christ was vandalized by sectarian extremists while in a studio in Jerusalem; another statue of the Palestinian national leader Abd al-Qadr Al-Husseini, commissioned by a West Bank university, was decapitated by Islamic fundamentalists who objected to the life-sized imagery being so prominently placed (a copy was made and the original, now restored, stands sentinel in front of the Nastas family home) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Samples of stone icons for sale in Fawzy’s workshop, traditionally placed above the front door of Palestinian Christian homes and businesses (photo by D. Koski).

No mere artisan, Fawzy holds a doctorate degree from the Academy of Fine Art in Brera, Milano, and is frequently called to lecture on and represent Palestinian stonemasons and artists in conferences and exhibitions across the country. His knowledge of the history of the craft extends to delightful folk stories, such as an oft-repeated legend of one of the first well-known stonemasons of Beit Jala, Jabra Saba, who while working on the Jacir family home of Bethlehem (now the Jacir Palace) kept pestering the French architect for his next assignment at the building project. The architect, tired of the conversation, eventually blurted out a command: “go make a monkey!” – a task which the eager artisan eagerly set himself to and promptly displayed his finished work to the exasperated architect some time later.

Other legends of the works of Beit Jala stonecutters take on a darker side; for as with many other places where grand homes and buildings from eras past are part of local history, stories of haunted houses occasionally surface.  The afore-mentioned Salah house of Beit Jala, now past its prime, plays the part of the haunted house in many children’s neighborhood games and stories, while a long-standing story of a boy who once visited the Jacir Palace described meeting a man in outdated clothes – and then identified him from a mural portrait of the original owner, long since deceased (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The Judah Salah Family home of Beit Jala, considered one of the finest examples of Beit Jala stonework (photo by D. Koski).

A Future?

Now reaching his sixth decade of stonemasonry, Fawzy continues to work exclusively with his hands, and also teaches stone masonry. Like many other artisans in related fields, he is wary of the future of his craft.

“They use robotics and computers,” Fawzy says, speaking of the new generation of stone sculptors in general. “They don’t know how to draw, and they can’t finish (the fine-detailing) of their work. There are people who come to me with offers to work on projects with computers, but I refuse. To work on art, it must be done by hand. Almost every year, I am going to symposiums across the world for art, to represent Palestine. The question is, why are they choosing me? It is because, in my opinion, I am working by hand.”

Will stonemasonry in Beit Jala survive this century? With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future. Today, Beit Jala is better known for its disproportionate number of doctors, engineers, and academics, for another legacy of Beit Jala’s proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been access to private schools, missionary organizations and civil society organizations that continue to open doors to higher education in Palestine and abroad. With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future.

While taking photos of decorative lintels and stone icons. I came across a construction site near the city centre. A skeletal frame of a new building using more expensive stone dressing is going up, and while not even the exterior walls of the first floor have been completed, a large stone icon of Saint George slaying the dragon (Fig. 4), complete with a blessing and an inscription of the year in which the foundation of the structure was laid, has been placed at the upper center of the street entrance.

Fig. 4: Stone icons of Saint George, patron of Palestine, Christ, and other Christian figures, created by Fawzy Nastas (photo by D. Koski).

The smooth polished stone face of Saint George, untarnished as of yet by exhaust fumes and the intensity of the Palestine sun, looks on over the old city of Beit Jala and towards Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

Dan Koski is a long-term resident of Beit Jala, and can be reached at dankoski1979@gmail.com. A special thank you to Faten Nastas Mitwasi, artist, Chairwoman of the Visual Arts Department of Dar Al-Kalima College and daughter of Fawzy Nastas, who is preparing a book on Palestinian stonemasonry.

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