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.

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.