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.

A Day in Jerusalem

By Charlotte Kelsted

In April 2018, a generous travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund allowed me to carry out an introductory research trip to Palestine. My research explores the attitudes and experiences of British women (colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others) who resided in Palestine during the British Mandate (1920-1948), focusing specifically on encounters between these British women and local Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities. I started my PhD seven months ago, and this research trip has undoubtedly been the highlight of my doctoral study thus far.

After arriving into Tel Aviv late in the evening, I spent the first night of my trip at the charming Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem. The Kenyon Institute, formerly the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem (BSAJ), was established during the British military administration of Palestine in 1919, as result of a joint effort by the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Academy and the Foreign Office. The library at the Kenyon Institute contains over 10,000 volumes on the Middle East and is particularly rich in material relating to Mandate Palestine.

Next to the Kenyon Institute is Dar Issaf Nashashibi, an inspiring archive and library devoted to promoting Palestinian cultural heritage. Dar Issaf Nashashibi was my first stop in Jerusalem and I was fortunate to meet Dua, Head Librarian, who was exceptionally helpful. From the top of Dar Issaf Nashashibi one can see Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Fig. 1). Founded in 1918 and inaugurated under the British Mandate, the Hebrew University has rapidly expanded since the early twentieth century: with 270 students in 1934, in 2017 there were 23,000 students registered at the university.

Fig. 1: Mount Scopus and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (photo by C. Kelsted).

 

Next I visited the Mount of Olives to see the Dome of the Rock in all its splendour. This iconic shrine dominates the Jerusalem landscape and as the golden dome sparkled in the midday sun, the adhan from Al-Aqsa Mosque drifted up the Mount of Olives. Setting eyes on this view for the first time was a stirring moment for me, having gazed longingly at a photograph of this view from my desk in Exeter for several months prior to the trip (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The Dome of the Rock seen from Mount of Olives (photo by C. Kelsted).

Back in the heart of this remarkable city in the afternoon, I entered the Old City for the first time through Damascus Gate. The atmosphere that greeted me was intoxicating: narrow passageways full to bursting with fervent tourists, locals expertly weaving in and out of the crowds as they attempt to carry out their daily business, clamorous shopkeepers and street vendors selling their wares, young men speeding through the ancient, cobbled streets on motorbikes, popping up behind you without a moment’s warning and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon and other aromatic herbs and spices emanating from the souq.

Escaping the intensity of the Old City, I roamed along the ramparts from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate and onwards, finally reaching the Spafford’s Children Centre. I had first heard the moving story of this centre from The Right Honourable Lady Cope of Berkeley at a Remembrance Service for the British Palestine Police in November 2017, and had been looking forward to visiting ever since.

The Spafford’s Children Centre was founded by Bertha Spafford Vester – an ancestor of the Rt Hon. Lady Cope, a patron of the British Palestine Police Association – in 1925 (Fig. 3 – Special thanks to Rachel Lev at the American Colony Archives, for kindly supplying this image).

Fig. 3: Mothers, nurses and children, Anna Spafford Baby Home (today the Spafford Children’s Centre), 1925 – 1934; part of Members and Activities of the American Colony and Aid Projects, 1926 – 1937 (courtesy of American Colony Archive, Jerusalem).

Bertha’s parents, Horatio and Anna Spafford were pious Christians who moved to the Holy Land in 1881 following the loss of four of their children at sea and another to scarlet fever. On arrival in the Holy Land, Horatio and Anna Spafford founded the American Colony and embarked on a project of philanthropic work to benefit all sections of Jerusalem’s population. In 1925, inspired by the work of her parents, Bertha established the Spafford Baby Home (now the Spafford Children’s Centre). To this day, the centre aims to assist all children and families in need of support, regardless of race or religion.

In the early evening I left the Old City and headed northwards, back to the Kenyon Institute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. On the way I came across St George’s Cathedral (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Façade of Saint George’s Cathedral (photo by C. Kelsted).

This cathedral was built in the late nineteenth century under the instruction of George Blyth, who had founded the Jerusalem and East Mission (now the Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association) in 1888. This charming cathedral was the principal Anglican place of worship in the Palestine during the Mandate and thus a focal point for the British community between 1920 and 1948. Taking a moment to envision the British colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others who would have congregated at this cathedral – several of whom taught at the adjoining school and college – was the perfect way to end my first day in Jerusalem.