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.

Our First Hundred Years (and fifty more)*

By Adam Fraser and Amara Thornton**

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Palestine Exploration Fund.  To kick off the celebration (as a preface to the events that are to come throughout the year) we will be looking at our first hundred year celebration in 1965.

Held at the Victoria and Albert Museum initially from 1 October to 28 November, “World of the Bible” featured a wide range of goodies from the PEF’s history.  In addition, the PEF benefitted from the skills of its co-sponsor the British Council’s art and graphics department.  The 3D maps of the Holy Land they made for the exhibition are still held in the PEF today.

The exhibition highlighted various phases of the PEF’s history, beginning with the initial surveys by Charles Warren and Claude Conder and Herbert Horatio Kitchener in the 1860s and 1870s.  It showcased a century of excavations in the Holy Land, culminating in Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations in Jerusalem. A folder in the PEF archive is devoted to press cuttings from “World of the Bible” – one of the most publicised displays was a reconstructed rock-cut tomb from Lachish, discovered during the Wellcome-Marston Expedition in the 1930s. The Queen Mother was among the visitors!

The archaeologist Olga Tufnell organised the exhibition – her detailed journals in the PEF’s archive chronicle her efforts to arrange the displays. Loan material was gathered from around the UK and beyond.  After its debut at the V & A, a pared-down version of “World of the Bible” went on tour to cities in Britain and the Middle East.

Thanks to Olga’s efforts, there is a substantial collection at the PEF commemorating this exhibition. Here are some of the treasures we’ve found.

pefcentenary005

Exhibition publication from the PEF’s archive – from the notice at the bottom obviously this was not the copy offered for sale to the public. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Labels from the exhibition archive.  Some highlight items on display, while others indicate key moments in the PEF's history. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Labels from the exhibition archive. Some highlight items on display, while others indicate key moments in the PEF’s history. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This telegram from the British Consul General at Beyrout to PEF Secretary Walter Besant shares the news of the attack on PEF surveyors at Safed, near the Sea of Galilee. It was mounted for exhibition in 1965. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This telegram from the Consul General at Beyrout to PEF Secretary Walter Besant shares the news of the attack on PEF surveyors at Safed, near the Sea of Galilee, in July 1875. It was mounted for exhibition in 1965. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Philanthropist and traveller John Macgregor was an active member of the PEF.  In his canoe, “Rob Roy”, he sailed the Jordan River in 1868/1869, identifying its source.  Olga Tufnell chose to exhibit his original sketchbook in the 1965 exhibition.  This image from the sketchbook showcases Macgregor’s considerable skill as an artist.  His best-selling book “Rob Roy on the Jordan” was published in the autumn of 1869.  Macgregor donated his sketchbook to the PEF in 1880.

Philanthropist and traveller John Macgregor was an active member of the PEF. In his canoe, “Rob Roy”, he sailed the Jordan River in 1868/1869, identifying its source. Olga Tufnell chose to exhibit his original sketchbook in the 1965 exhibition. This image from the sketchbook showcases Macgregor’s considerable skill as an artist. He donated his sketchbook to the PEF in 1880. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

The page following this peaceful watercolour in John Macgregor’s sketchbook lists supplies for an expedition to Huleh, in the north east of modern day Israel.  The items listed include tea, soup and brandy, a pistol, flannel trousers, money and quinine. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

The page following this peaceful watercolour in John Macgregor’s sketchbook lists supplies for an expedition to Huleh, in the north east of modern day Israel. The items listed include tea, soup and brandy, a pistol, flannel trousers, money and quinine. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Charles Warren’s shafts tunnelling through the ground in Jerusalem are deftly captured in this line drawing in John Magregor’s sketchbook. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

Charles Warren’s shafts tunnelling through the ground in Jerusalem are deftly captured in this line drawing in John Magregor’s sketchbook. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This annotated V&A museum letterhead was pasted inside one of Olga Tufnell’s exhibition notebooks. It lists the admission details for exhibiton visitors. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

This annotated V&A museum letterhead was pasted inside one of Olga Tufnell’s exhibition notebooks. It lists the admission details for exhibiton visitors. Copyright Palestine Exploration Fund.

*Our title derives from eminent Victorian Egyptologist Margaret Murray’s colourful autobiography My First Hundred Years, published in 1963 when she was 100 years old.
** With special thanks to John MacDermot.

Charles Warren in Jerusalem … continued

By Kevin Shillington

Charles Warren was a keen Freemason, having already at the age of 23 been the Master of a Lodge in Gibraltar. Before my visit to Jerusalem I had learned that Warren had been involved in a Masonic ritual in a cavern, somewhere deep underneath the Old City. There were two possible candidates for the site: one called ‘The Masonic Hall’, the other ‘King Solomon’s Quarry.’ A recent book on Warren’s Freemasonry appears to claim that these two sites were one and the same – hence my need to clarify the issue.[i] The site known as the ‘Masonic Hall’ is a chamber that Warren tunnelled his way into in February 1869. It was half-filled with rubble and soil, but rising out of the centre of the earth floor was a smooth pillar with a broken top. The scene reminded Warren of a traditional Masonic myth and so he named the chamber the ‘Masonic Hall’ (Figs 1 & 2). The famous war artist William Simpson, also a senior Freemason, was visiting Jerusalem a month later and he sketched the scene. As can be seen from Simpson’s sketch, the column was originally the support for twin arches that lined the roof.

 

The ‘Masonic Hall’ as drawn by William Simpson, from a copy in the Masonic journal Ars Quatour Coronati, 1888. Warren ordered the clearing of the rubble, which, when he first entered the chamber, reached up to the mark on the column.

Figure 1. The ‘Masonic Hall’ as drawn by William Simpson, from a copy in the Masonic journal Ars Quatour Coronati, 1888. Warren ordered the clearing of the rubble, which, when he first entered the chamber, reached up to the mark on the column. By the time Simpson made his sketch, the hall had been partially cleared of rubble.

Figure 2. The ‘Masonic Hall’ today, part of the ‘Western Walls’ archaeological complex. Warren broke in through the hole in the roof – the dark patch against the back wall, right of centre. The earth at that time was two-thirds of the way up the column. [Photo KS]

Figure 2. The ‘Masonic Hall’ today, part of the ‘Western Walls’ archaeological complex. Warren broke in through the hole in the roof – the dark patch against the back wall, right of centre. The earth at that time was two-thirds of the way up the column. [Photo KS]

The other site was Zedekiah’s Cave, also known as King Solomon’s Quarry. The cave, long-known from ancient and medieval times, had been blocked up, but the entrance was rediscovered by Dr James Barclay in 1854, or rather by Dr Barclay’s dog, that disappeared down through a hole into the cave while being taken for a walk. The entrance is just outside the city wall near Damascus Gate and the cave extends through numerous chambers for several hundred metres. It is clearly the product of human quarrying and when Warren saw the evidence that stone masons had cut huge blocks out of the walls of the cavern, he convinced himself that this must be the work of King Solomon’s stone masons. In Freemasonry tradition, the latter were the original Freemasons, from whom the modern ones take their inspiration. What better place to hold an unofficial Masonic meeting?

Dr Robert Morris, an American Freemason, visited Jerusalem in May 1868 and Warren proposed that they hold a meeting in the far depths of King Solomon’s Quarry, as near as possible to the site of the Temple Mount above (see Figs 3,4 & 5).

Figure 3. The Freemason Leon Zeldis of Hertzlya kindly allowed me to see his copy of this very rare book by the American Freemason, Robert Morris and to make photocopies of the relevant pages that recorded the Masonic meeting in Zedekiah’s Cave.

Figure 3. The Freemason Leon Zeldis of Herzlya kindly allowed me to see his copy of this very rare book by the American Freemason, Robert Morris and to make photocopies of the relevant pages that recorded the Masonic meeting in Zedekiah’s Cave.

Figure 4. An illustration of the cavern in Zedekiah’s Cave, as reproduced in Morris’s book. The etching was based upon Morris’s account of the Masonic meeting held there in May 1868, which describes a pillar in the centre of the cavern and a flat rock which they were able to use as an altar for their ritual.

Figure 5.

Figure 5. The author in one of the caverns of the Cave, with the mason’s marks clearly visible in the roof and the far wall. In fact the quarrying was far more likely to be of the Herodian and Medieval periods and seems to have been blocked up in the 16th Century. Photo KS.

There is no contemporary claim that Warren or anybody else held a Masonic meeting in the ‘Masonic Hall’. In modern times, Freemasons rarely, but occasionally, follow Warren’s example and hold meetings in Zedekiah’s Cave.

[i] C.N. Macdonald, WARREN! The Bond of Brotherhood (Colin Neil Macdonald, Singapore, 2007), p56.

Charles Warren: Pioneer of Jerusalem Archaeology, 1867-70

By Kevin Shillington

The larger project, of which this forms a part, is a full biography of Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927), Royal Engineer extraordinaire. Warren first came to prominence in the mid-Victorian Age as ‘Jerusalem Warren’, the man generally credited with pioneering archaeological excavation in, around, and under, the Old City of Jerusalem, and in particular, the Haram al-Sharif (which Warren translated as ‘The Noble Sanctuary’), known to Jews as the ‘Temple Mount’. As someone with no previous knowledge of Jerusalem or its archaeology, I felt it essential that I ‘walk in the footsteps of Warren’ as well as talk to current archaeologists about the significance of Warren and his work, and the PEF was kind enough to award me a grant to cover my flight and hotel: 20 October – 1 November 2014.

First I needed to understand the topography of Jerusalem – extremely complicated and very difficult to visualise from purely archival and literary study.

Fig.1: This view of the south-east corner of the Haram was taken from the top of the Mount of Olives. The wall in shadow to the right of the picture is the eastern face, that in sunlight, the southern face. The wall leading away to the top left of the picture, alongside the main road, is the southern wall of the Old City. At the bottom of the picture is the sharp fall-away of the Kidron Valley. I found I could not make sense of this topography until I had walked round and through the entire Old City. [Photo: KS]

Fig.1: View of the south-east corner of the Haram taken from the top of the Mount of Olives. [Photo: KS]

The wall in shadow to the right of Fig 1 is the eastern face of the Haram, the wall in sunlight is the southern face. The wall leading away to the top left of the picture, alongside the main road, is the southern wall of the Old City. At the bottom of the picture is the sharp fall-away of the Kidron Valley. I found I could not make sense of this topography until I had walked round and through the entire Old City.

Understanding Warren’s Jerusalem in the light of today’s Old City is aided by illustration (Figs 2-4):

Fig.2:  The buttress of Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall of the Haram, photographed by Felix Bonfils in the 1850s and thus, as it appeared when ‘discovered’ by the American theologian Edward Robinson in 1852. [Picture reproduced by kind permission of Fr Jean-Michel Tarragon, from his collection at the Ecole Bibliotheque, Jerusalem.]

Fig.2: The buttress of Robinson’s Arch, at the southern end of the Western Wall of the Haram, photographed by Felix Bonfils in the 1850s and thus, as it appeared when ‘discovered’ by the American theologian Edward Robinson in 1852. [Picture reproduced by kind permission of Fr Jean-Michel Tarragon, from his collection at the Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem.]

Fig.3: Robinson’s Arch in Warren’s day, from the famous Simpson etching of 1867 [original in PEF Archive], with Warren seated with drawing board on his lap.

Fig.3: Robinson’s Arch in Warren’s day, from the famous Simpson etching of 1867 [original in PEF Archive], with Warren seated with drawing board on his lap.

Fig.4 : Robinson’s Arch 147 years later (2014) with, in the centre of the paved street, a metal fence guarding the underground access to Warren’s actual shaft, sunk in the picture above. Warren excavated down to bedrock (a practice which he maintained in all his shafts), which is the same depth again as that between today’s ground level and the base of Robinson’s Arch.[Photo: KS]

Fig.4 : Robinson’s Arch 147 years later (2014) with, in the centre of the paved street, a metal fence guarding the underground access to Warren’s actual shaft, sunk in the picture above. Warren excavated down to bedrock (a practice which he maintained in all his shafts), which is the same depth again as that between today’s ground level and the base of Robinson’s Arch.[Photo: KS]

I was fortunate to have Dr Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who for the past three years has been “continuing Warren’s research”, to guide me through the ‘warren’ of Warren’s ‘underground Jerusalem’ (Figs 5-7).

Fig 5, Slomit & piece of Rob. Arch DSC_0793

Fig 5: Dr Weksler-Bdolah showing me a reproduction of a large piece of rock that had fallen from Robinson’s actual Arch, probably during the Roman destruction of AD 70. [The original is in the Museum]. It was part of the underground ‘rubble’ that Warren blasted his way through with dynamite, causing damage to the rock itself, as can be seen from this picture. [Photo: KS]

Fig.6: One of the ‘galleries’ that Warren and his team excavated below Robinson’s Arch, from a copy of the original Simpson painting in the PEF Archive, showing Warren with lighted candle peering round a huge rock that blocked the roof of his tunnel.

Fig.6: One of the ‘galleries’ that Warren and his team excavated below Robinson’s Arch, from a copy of the original Simpson painting in the PEF Archive, showing Warren with lighted candle peering round a huge rock that blocked the roof of his tunnel.

Fig.7: The author, with electric torch in hand, in the same place today, which has been excavated much deeper for easier passage than in Warren’s day. The rail above was for transporting buckets of rubble cleared in modern times. [Photo: PS]

Fig.7: The author, with electric torch in hand, in the same place today, which has been excavated much deeper for easier passage than in Warren’s day. The rail above was for transporting buckets of rubble cleared in modern times. [Photo: PS]

To be continued …

The PEF on Television

By Felicity Cobbing

PEF Executive Secretary and Curator

The following list highlights the many appearances of the Palestine Exploration Fund on television.

2000

‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ (CVTV for Channel 4) [Series on biblical archaeology] 

‘The Tomb of Christ’ (Optomen TV for Channel 4) [Documentary]

Biblical Archaeology (Discovery Media) [Documentary]

2002

‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (Lion TV) [Documentary]

2004

‘Bible Stories’ (BBC2) [Documentary Series]

2008

Documentary on biblical archaeology & history (BBC Glasgow)

2011

‘The Man who discovered Egypt’ (BBC Wales/BBC4) [Documentary on W. M. Flinders Petrie]

2012

‘The History of the Jews’ (BBC2) [Documentary Series]

2014

Series ‘Great Continental Railway Journeys’ (Boundless Productions for BBC) in progress

‘Secrets of the Bible’ (World Media Rights)  in progress