Jerusalem Old City renovation shows gateway to the past

Near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem are two graves. The legend of the small burial ground has made it a must-see for tour groups, who stop to hear the tragic story of the deceased. According to the legend, enthusiastically promulgated by tour guides, the graves belong to the two engineers who built the city's walls in the early 16th century for the Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleiman - who then proceeded to chop off their heads.  

The Damascus Gate plaza. The main dilemma was which version of the gate should be restoredn [Credit: Tomer Appelbaum]
Explanations for their sorry end vary: Some say it was because the pair did not include Mount Zion within the walls; others say the wall was so successful that the sultan decided to make sure no one would ever know how to build another. 

Scholars doubt that these are the tombs of the engineers. But a slight hint that they might be was discovered recently at another of the Old City's gates, the Damascus Gate. 

The hint comes in the form of a floral design hammered into the rusty metal of one of the gate's gigantic doors. A design on the original 16th-century door closely resembles one on the two graves. It is a well-known decoration on Ottoman monuments in Turkey, but quite rare in this country. Although this is not enough evidence to solve the mystery of the tombs, it does strengthen the theory that they are indeed somehow connected to the Old City walls. 

The flowers would never have been discovered if not for the restoration, now nearing completion, on the Damascus Gate, the most magnificent of all the Old City gates. It is part of a larger project, to be completed in four years, to document and restore all the Old City walls. 

The flowers are at the top of the five-meter-high gate and cannot be seen from ground level, but only from the scaffolding put up during the restoration work. They were discovered by restorers from the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is implementing the project together with the Jerusalem Development Authority. Funding for the project comes from the Prime Minister's Office. 

An inscription on the outside of the gate notes that it was built in 1538 as one of the first two gates in the walls, the second being Jaffa Gate.  

The gate, with its elaborate stone carvings and inscriptions, was planned by Sinan, Suleiman's architect - its magnificence disproportionately astounding compared to the other gates. The Ottoman builders constructed it over a Roman gate, parts of which can still be seen. 

The gate has changed little since then. But its location, in the heart of a crowded urban setting in a sometimes violent area, has left its mark in the form of bullet holes, fallen stone adornments, plant roots that have widened the cracks, and soot that has blackened it. 

The work - in a lively East Jerusalem area, full of Palestinian market stalls - has taken 10 months. It was accompanied by its share of rumors about Jews who supposedly wanted to erase any Islamic symbols on the gate and replace them with Stars of David. 

And so, the restoration of the gate required not only artistic and archaeological skills, but quite a bit of diplomatic finesse to reassure the merchants whose stalls crowd the gate. 

The main dilemma that restorers faced was the question of the "correct" restoration of the gate. Should they use modern elements to reconstruct the way it looked 500 years ago, and remove any elements added mistakenly over the centuries? Or should they recognize that later elements also have their place? 

For example, the British, who restored the gate in the early 20th century, added stone decorations that either did not fit properly or were installed in the wrong places. Have these, too, not earned a place in the gate's historical saga? 

An Antiquities Authority staffer working on the restoration project [Credit: Haaretz]
Israel Antiquities Authority architect Avi Mashiah, who led the project together with architects Tamar Nativ and Yuval Avraham, said: "There are two stories here. On the one hand, there is the most magnificent of the gates, and on the other, signs of changes over the years. When you strengthen one story you weaken another. In the end, we decided there was no reason to preserve mistakes and to try to restore the gate to its appearence in 1538." 

That decision required the production of reconstructed elements closely resembling the originals. "Auditions" were held to choose the right stonemason. The winner was a Palestinian stonemason from the village of Hizma, north of Jerusalem, who did the best job of copying the Ottoman originals. 

So that future generations can differentiate between the original features and the restoration work, the new segments bear a lead stamp with the Israel Antiquities Authority logo. 

Even the accumulation of urban dirt on the gate presented a dilemma. "The dirt is so much a part of the gate, we were afraid if we removed it, the impact would be too strong and people would say we had created a new gate," Mashiah said. 

Cleaning was not completed, to avoid the use of chemicals that would harm the stone. 

Seasonal plants whose roots do not penetrate too deeply were left, along with birds' nests. 

But the most difficult challenge for restorers was the small cell above the gate, where a single, brave warrior would be stationed in the event of an attack on the gate. Over the years, the cell began to detach from the wall, and there was concern that it would fall to the ground, endangering passersby. 

The problem was solved with the insertion of 11 steel rods to anchor the cell. But the restoration of its stone decorations, ruined in the War of Independence and the Six-Day War, roused a wave of protest in Palestinian newspapers and among the residents of the Old City's Muslim Quarter, who claimed that the antiquities authorities were creating new "Zionist" symbols that had never been there before. 

To counter the claims, the antiquities authority prepared a sign and fliers in Arabic with historic pictures of the gate, showing the undamaged cell. 

"People don't remember the way it looked before," Mashiah said. "Even the old people, who should remember, don't. But now, when they look, they see a whole gate." 

Most of the scaffolding was removed in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now underway. The magnificent gate will continue to watch over the hustle and bustle of daily life - just as the engineers, who either are or are not buried at nearby Jaffa Gate - would have wanted.  

Author: Nir Hasson | Source: Haaretz [August 17, 2011]

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