The writing in the wall

The Old City walls need protection from water damage, tree roots and air pollution, and, until now, weren’t tended to since the British Mandate.

Old City walls 521 (photo credit: Courtesy IAA)
Old City walls 521
(photo credit: Courtesy IAA)
If the walls around the Old City of Jerusalem could talk, just imagine the stories they would tell. Even though the ancient walls don’t talk, thousands of stories are tucked into their cracks, just waiting to be discovered by those patient enough to look for them.
The Ottomans, for example, loved to paint the gates. Jaffa Gate was a brilliant blue, though the British didn’t like the colors and stripped the stones of paint. Jordanians filled in the decorative “teeth” with stones and other rubble near Tzahal Square to provide them with extra protection during the War of Independence. Jordanian soldiers were also notorious for carving their names into ancient stones while serving on boring duty.
These are just some of the stories that the Israel Antiquities Authority has discovered in recent years, after undertaking a massive survey and renovation project that took eight years and NIS 17 million.
In 2004, stones from the Jordanian reconstruction of the wall near the New Gate began breaking off and falling into a basketball court of the College des Freres boys’ high school. Spurred by concern that the crumbling rock could cause an accident, the IAA decided to undertake an enormous survey of the walls. The survey started in 2005, and the IAA suddenly realized that the walls needed a lot of care and attention.
The last major survey of the walls had taken place during the British Mandate. British archeologists haphazardly renovated parts of the wall, using cement to stabilize certain parts, a practice now known to be destructive to the stones. Apart from some minor fixes after the 1967 Six Day War, the walls have remained mostly untouched since then.
As impenetrable as the walls seem, the stones won’t last forever unless they are properly maintained.
Water is their biggest enemy, explains Avi Mashiah, the director of the Jerusalem-area branch of the IAA’s Conservation Administration, who oversaw the Old City Walls Conservation Project.
Other wall death sentences: destructive roots from trees (especially caper bushes, the most tenacious with the largest roots) and air pollution from passing cars that coats the walls with black.
“There aren’t many cities with such a huge and important monument in the middle that is still in use, and we’re still using the gates,” says Mashiah.
“This is the symbol of the city.”
The project, carried out by the IAA, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the National Parks Authority and funded by the Prime Minister’s Office, concluded at the end of May. The last gate to be cleaned was Lions’ Gate, the main entrance to the Temple Mount. The authorities were worried that a celebration could be manipulated by the Arabic press into a political move, so there was no final ceremony marking the end of the project. The research, which yielded enough material to write a series of 14 books, may be published at a later date.
The conservation groups documented and renovated slightly more than three-quarters of the Old City walls. They left the southeast corner, the area around the Temple Mount, untouched, as it is under the supervision of the Wakf Muslim religious trust. The Wakf is also dealing with conservation of the wall, and over the past few years scaffolding has gone up and down that section. “Their standards are different from ours, that’s all I’ll say,” Mashiah adds diplomatically.
The meticulous stone-by-stone analysis brought up many disagreements over the very nature of conservation, says Mashiah. “Our biggest dilemma was whether to have minimum involvement or to restore the wall to the original Ottoman wall,” he says. “It’s changed over the years. Should we conserve it as it was or as it is today? What is historical? What needs to be fixed?” Other questions arose as well: Should broken stones be replaced or left to show the passage of time? What about bullet holes? The issue of what to preserve and what to redo came up quickly with Zion Gate, the first gate renovated in the project. Before the gate was harmed by hundreds of bullet holes and serious combat during the Six Day War, the stonework had been incredibly ornate. “But the battle scars, which destroyed the architectural features, are a national symbol,” Mashiah notes. In this case, it was clear to everyone involved that the battle scars would be preserved. But in other areas, the plan was less clear.
At the Damascus Gate, the experts decided to recreate some of the stonework that had been lost during the battles of the Six Day War, including an ornamental crown over the top of the gate. At first, residents were incensed, calling it a “Zionist invention,” says Mashiah.
The IAA made a big poster in Arabic, showing an archival picture of the gate with the full ornamentation, and suddenly the older residents remembered the way it used to look.
The Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate presented unique challenges because they are both used daily by merchants, and the situation could easily explode in the tense political climate. To stave off possible riots over antiquities work in east Jerusalem, the IAA met frequently with the merchants and explained the process to them. The two sides worked out agreements so that the conservation effort would be done mostly at night, to minimize disruptions, and without using water, which could damage the merchandise. The conservationists arrived just in time: the ornamental stonework over the top of the Damascus Gate was frighteningly close to breaking off and crashing onto the market below. It was strengthened with 12 steel bolts, which are visible from the interior of the wall.
In east Jerusalem, where archeological work is fraught with tension between Jews and Arabs, the Arab merchants at the Damascus Gate had nothing but praise for the renovation.
“They did good things, and they did it all the way,” says Nadim, who has had a stall selling women’s clothes outside the Damascus Gate for the past 20 years. “There was no problem with the community,” he adds. “It’s a big difference – before it was totally black. If you’re a tourist, well, look how it looks now!” The sight of the bright white stones perched on top of the Damascus Gate and other areas is jarring in comparison to the other ancient stones. Mashiah notes that residents in the capital were incensed when they spotted the first bright stones in the walls, worried the IAA was destroying the ancient symbol in favor of a sanitized “Disneyland” version. The Jordanian mission to the UNESCO summit at the end of June in St.
Petersburg complained that the wall renovation project focused too much on replacing parts of the walls.
But Mashiah notes that in just a few years, weather and natural elements will fade the new additions to such an extent that it will be impossible to differentiate between the new and the old. Already, the stones replaced at the beginning of the work at Zion Gate are indistinguishable from the older stones. Within five years, the protective material experts applied to the stones will completely wear off, and in a decade, the IAA may have to re-start the survey process to check for new cracks.
“People don’t understand how much thought was invested into each stone,” says Mashiah. “But that was the challenge – that you wouldn’t know.”