Bethlehem bounty

Sculptor Akram Anastas counts Judaica, Christian and Muslim art among his stone treasures.

Akram Anastas next to his duplicate of a fourth-century Byzantine capital found in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, for a Norwegian church (photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
Akram Anastas next to his duplicate of a fourth-century Byzantine capital found in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, for a Norwegian church
(photo credit: GIL ZOHAR)
If there were a Nobel Prize for ecumenism in the plastic arts, Akram Anastas would likely be a candidate.
The Bethlehem-based sculptor produces many of the stone mezuzot, hanukkiot and halla boards that one finds in tourist stores along Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and in Old City boutiques. Ditto for the medallions of St. George slaying the dragon that many Palestinian Christians display in their homes. And so too for the plaques of the Dome of the Rock that many Palestinian Muslims utilize as a decorative cornerstone when building a new residence.
Anastas, 54, blessed with golden hands and a fertile imagination, is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to art, and not just stone carving. “I do anything in art,” he grins. “I’m a painter. I’m a sculptor. I’m a renovator.”
His métier includes fountains, mosaics, tombstones, fireplaces, sinks, counter tops and light sconces – anything one can think of in stone.
“It’s all art. Art has no language; art is art,” he declares.
Born in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala into a family that came from Greece several centuries ago, Anastas never intended to work as an artist or to take over his father’s stone carving business. Earning a master’s in numerical analysis and linear programming from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, he returned to the West Bank in 1982. For the next three years he worked as a statistician at Birzeit University north of Ramallah.
“I got bored with teaching, so I opened a supermarket,” he recalls. “In 1985 my father told me, ‘I’m going to quit. If you don’t take the business, I’ll sell it to another man.’ So I took it over.”
Anastas employs two people at his atelier in El-Khader, south of Bethlehem, just as Michelangelo employed apprentices at his scuolas in Florence and Rome. They do much of the grunt work – chiseling, cutting and polishing – but the ideas all originate with Anastas.
He has worked on thousands of stone carvings during his career, selling them to Israeli, Palestinian and international buyers. Among Anastas’s most familiar works in Israel are the fountain in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel, the replicated pillars of the Byzantine-era synagogue at Sussiya south of Hebron, and the four lions which preside in a perpetual roar at Ramallah’s Manara Square. The latter were executed in China, where stonemasons are both highly trained and inexpensive, he added. But the Sussiya pillars “were done by hand, as in the old days,” he notes with pleasure.
His works have been presented to popes John XXIII, Benedict XVI and Francis; his altars and mass tables are found in many Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches across the country. The Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, St. Peter in Gallicantu on the slopes of Mount Zion, the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahur, and the monasteries of Mar Saba and St. George in the Judean Desert all contain his carvings.
But he’s proudest of his sacred work in the St. Haritoun monastery at Ein Fara in the Nahal Prat/Wadi Qelt national park. There he created “everything,” he says matter-of-factly.
Currently Anastas is racing, if one can use that word to describe the painstaking and laborious process of carving stone, to complete a duplicate of a fourth-century Byzantine capital found in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The 90 x 90 x 70 cm. capital will be shipped to the Church of St. Olaf in Sarpsborg, Norway southeast of the capital Oslo.
Sarpsborg and Bethlehem enjoy twin city status. King Olaf II, canonized as St. Olav, who brought Christianity to his country, is painted on a column in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The project has a budget of €20,000, and is scheduled for completion in 40 days.
Busloads of tourists, including from Korea and Japan, come to buy his Holy Land souvenirs. Among the popular items with the Oriental visitors, he notes, are dreidels, including those whose handle is broken. Unaware of the artifacts’ cultural meaning, they buy them because “they like the shape.”
What of the future? Anastas is completing the renovation of two apartments above his atelier, and hopes to invite European sculptors “to experience the Holy Land.”