‘Ancient Merits of Stone’ : Age-Old Architecture of Israel Still Solid as a Rock

Los Angeles Times

And the king commanded, and they brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house.

--I Kings 5:17

Shabtai Levy, sitting in his wooden lean-to on a suburban building site, is in some ways a more fitting symbol of the spiritual link between past and present in the Holy Land than any priest or rabbi or imam.

Squinting beneath bushy white eyebrows to avoid the smoke from the ever-present cigarette hanging from a corner of his mouth, Levy works slowly, using a hammer and thick iron chisels to shape the stone.


He is 60 years old and has “been working with stone since I was 12.”

How many stones has he cut in all those years? Levy laughed and shook his head, then said, “Millions!”

Levy learned the trade from his father, now 90 and retired. The stonemason’s skills were passed down to him through a human chain that reaches back through the “four score thousand hewers in the mountains,” who, according to the Bible’s First Book of Kings, quarried the stone Solomon used to build his temple.

Preceding them were the people who, 10,000 years ago, built a stone wall around their settlement at nearby Jericho, which is considered to be the world’s oldest city. Part of a conical tower built by those early people is still standing.

Nature provided copious amounts of stone here on the highlands between the Mediterranean plain and the Jordan Valley. And stone, owing to tradition and law as well as availability, has played an important role in the life of these hills, from the beginnings of recorded history to the present.

David is said to have slain Goliath with a stone just a few miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Valley of Elah, and Jesus saved the adulteress on the Mount of Olives by advising those who would have executed her, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone. . . . “

Rocks are still a commonly used weapon here. Palestinian Arab teen-agers in the West Bank refugee camps that dot the route between Nablus and Hebron stone passing Israeli cars almost daily, even though they are risking years in prison.

And the police in Jerusalem put up roadblocks every Saturday to prevent ultra-Orthodox Jews from stoning motorists who in their view are violating the Sabbath. It is traditional for Orthodox Jews to leave stones instead of flowers as a remembrance when they visit the graves of their loved ones.

Stone walls are everywhere on the hills between the Galilee and the Negev, draped on the hillsides like strings of popcorn on a Christmas tree. The walls, which date from time immemorial, trap scarce rainwater and divide the slopes into narrow terraces for farming.

The Jerusalem holy places of the three great monotheistic religions are all associated with stone. The Dome of the Rock shrine is built over the stone from which the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven to confer with God. Judaism’s sacred Western Wall is built of giant Herodian stones still standing from the Second Temple, which was destroyed in AD 70. And the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to stand over the stone outcropping called Calvary, on which Jesus was crucified.

The importance of stone as a building material is evident at every hand. On the populous coastal plain around Tel Aviv, the buildings are of concrete and glass, but here in the hills they are of stone, and this gives the towns a sense of timelessness.

‘Ancient Merits of Stone’

“In the mountain towns of Israel . . . the ancient merits of stone--strength, beauty, insulation--were too much valued to be set aside,” geologist Ithamar Perath says in his book, “Stone Building and Building Stone in Israel.”

“By far the greatest amount of stone building is concentrated in and around Jerusalem,” Perath says, and in addition to its other features, stone has “saved countless inhabitants’ lives.”

Jerusalem’s stone buildings “have repeatedly withstood the peppering of small arms fire, and occasional heavy artillery shelling,” he says, adding, “A less-solidly built city would have suffered irreparable damage.”

Max Bill, a noted Swiss artist and architect and a member of the Jerusalem Committee formed in 1968 as an international town planning advisory body to Mayor Teddy Kollek, was asked what it is about the stone architecture that makes Jerusalem special. He replied: “The difference from other cities is that Jerusalem really goes with nature. The same stones that lie around on the ground are the stones that make the buildings.”

Hills Stripped of Trees

If wood ever had a chance of competing as a building material here, the Ottoman Turks took care of that when they denuded the hills of trees to build and run a steam railway from Constantinople to Mecca, leaving only the rocks behind.

The British codified stone’s special place in Jerusalem when the League of Nations gave them a mandate to rule Palestine after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A municipal ordinance from that period requires that exterior walls of all new buildings be faced with stone; the British regarded this as fitting in view of the city’s historical nature and its dignity as a religious center.

The stone architecture survived the departure of the British and the coming of the new state of Israel, but not without a few touchy moments.

The new Jewish state adopted the old British ordinance as its own but lifted it temporarily in the 1950s when Diaspora Jews flocked here in such numbers that they taxed the availability both of stones and stonemasons. A few stucco and prefabricated concrete buildings from that period can still be found around the city, and they are considered embarrassing eyesores.

Wall’s Destruction Considered

And just after Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, even talked about destroying the wall that surrounds the Old City in order to make the unified city more open.

According to geologist Perath, the 1967 war may have saved stone architecture in Jerusalem. “Among the Jewish population, the once highly esteemed craft of stone dressing and building had been on the decline for a generation,” he notes. The Shabtai Levys were already a disappearing breed.

But with the administrative takeover of the West Bank, “the entire mountainous center of the country, with its great stone reserves and settled population was drawn into the sphere of an intensive, countrywide building activity, and stone building came conspicuously back into fashion,” Perath says.

Much stone for building in Jerusalem today is quarried around Hebron, on the occupied West Bank. And the great majority of the workers who finish, or dress, building stones, on both sides of the pre-1967 border, are Arabs.

‘Chisel in Their Hands’

“They come out of the womb with a chisel in their hands,” Yitzhak Mantsuri, the Jewish manager of a Jerusalem stone-finishing plant, said of his Arab workers. “In Italy, they have come up with machines to do this work, but it doesn’t come out as well.”

Stone is considerably more costly than alternative building materials, and this is one reason that new structures have only a facing of stone.

“In effect, an age-old situation has been reversed,” Perath says. “It is the building which supports the stone.”

The process starts with huge stone blocks being freed by jackhammers from the thick layers of limestone laid down 100 million years ago, when the area was covered by a shallow sea and the skeletons of microscopic marine animals built up on the sea floor.

The blocks, weighing 10 tons or more, are trucked to a cutting plant like the one in suburban Mevasseret Ziyyon, which is owned by the Histadrut labor federation’s construction company, Solel Boneh. There, huge saws built on metal frames as large as a room slice cross sections from the blocks at a rate of a few inches an hour. The eight-foot-long sheets of smooth stone are then reduced to strips and, finally, into foot-long tiles.

A Natural Appearance

The tiles go to finishing plants like the one Mantsuri manages. There are about a dozen of them in Jerusalem. At Mantsuri’s place the other day, about 20 Palestinian Arabs sat on wooden pallets or scraps of cardboard on one side of a partly enclosed building, dressing tiles in what is called the taltysh style. The edges of the stone are chipped away to leave a raised center. When they are cemented onto the outside wall of a building, they look almost like natural, unworked stone.

For all its importance in these hills, some people--Perath among them--worry that the future of stone building is uncertain.

“Stone today is a mere tapestry, inessential, and it may disappear at a whim of fashion or legislature,” he said.

None of Shabtai Levy’s three sons will replace him when he retires. One is a rabbi, another a mechanic and the third works for the Defense Ministry.

Nonetheless, he is sure that people will continue to demand stone. His reasoning is simple: “It’s beautiful. It doesn’t absorb water. It stays cool.”