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The Stone Tradition in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 23.06.2007:

By George Nustas

Any visitor to Palestine will be impressed by the vast use of stone in construction. Churches, mosques, public buildings, palaces, houses, and walls – old and new, exclusive and common – all share the use of local stone as the main building material, giving Palestinian towns their particular character.

Although most of our ground is composed of limestone, there is a great variety in colour, grain, and – less perceptible but more important – the density of the stone. This variety explains why each town has its own colour, the differences being sometimes very subtle.

The main stone types used for construction are, in order of density: Mizzi Yahoudi, a light-grey stone found mainly in the Dheisheh area; Mizzi Halou, an off-white stone found around Jerusalem and Hebron; Slaieb, red with blue or yellow veins found south of Jerusalem; and Kakouli and Nari.

Different stone types have various uses in construction, the more noble ones being used in columns and stairways as well as to highlight doors and windows. Dense stones are required for building façades, whereas the more porous ones have been used in the past as insulation as well as in partition walls.

Centuries of stone construction have shaped this industry in which the tasks are clearly defined. Extraction from the quarries, classification, transportation, and stone cutting are just a few of the tasks involved. Parallel industries that have developed include blacksmithing to make the tools needed for stonecutting. Skills are passed down from generation to generation.

Ornamentation in architecture can be compared to jewellery. Pillars, cornices, and sculpted keystones require very highly skilled craftsmen. The preferred stone for sculpting is the Mizzi Halou, praised for its homogenous character.

Ornaments reflect the status of a building as well as the period during which it was built. There are traditional designs in stone ornamentation that have been unchanged for centuries, dating sometimes all the way back the Hellenistic period. At the same time, every period has had its trends, and every sculptor has brought his or her own unique “touch” and innovation to the work process.

There have been many professional sculptors during the past century. One of them happens to be my father, Jeries Nustas (1922-2004), who comes from a long line of stone sculptors. He has sculpted many contemporary stone masterpieces at the church of the Holy Sepulchre where he worked for a quarter of a century.

George Nustas is a professional sculptor and a member of the League of Palestinian Artists. He presently teaches art appreciation at David Yellin College.


This Week in Palestine

May 2007

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