Dispatch 8: City of Stone
David's Citadel
Herodian tower,
David's Citadel

Soon after I arrived in Jerusalem at the start of March, my hair turned into a giant broom.

I'd never had this problem before, and I had no idea what was causing it. Surely not the air—I've been in semi-arid climates before, and for much longer than this. I tried changing shampoos, changing conditioner, washing my hair less often, using a spray-on conditioner... Nothing worked. I couldn't figure it out.

By May, my hair was driving me so crazy, I decided to get most of it cut off. Sure, I was only going to be here for another couple of months, I could just wait and see if this problem disappeared when I left Israel... but you try living with a giant broom on your head for two more months.

So I went to see Dave, a stylist who's originally from Boston and who has a small shop in Bakaa, a nice neighborhood on Jerusalem's south side. (Since my Hebrew is limited to asking for water, help, and falafel, I wanted to go to someone whose first language is English.)

I explained to Dave the unprecedented problem I was having with my hair (or, rather, with my giant broom). He said, oh, yeah, that's a common problem here, because of the stone in the water.


Yes, it turns out there's fine stone—or, I suppose you could call it stone dust? stone powder? pulverized stone?—in the water of Jerusalem.

This suddenly explained many things I had noticed in passing. After I wash my clothes and hang them out to dry, for example, they're stiff and coarse when I take them off the rack and start folding them. The texture of my clothes has become abrasive here, and some of my favorite things don't feel good against my skin anymore. (I had tried changing detergent, but when that didn't work, I stopped thinking about it. I don't have a lot of time to devote to household problems here.) Stone deposits form at the bottom of the electric kettle in my kitchen here, there's often a powdery substance covering the bathroom sink (like construction-site residue), and if I let the final sip of coffee sit in a cup overnight, I have to chip it out the next morning.

So, ah-hah! Now the persistent problem with my 'do is clear to me. There's stone in my hair! And I can't rinse it out, because it's in the water. Since there is nothing I can do about this, I instruct Dave to take off 4 or 5 inches so I won't look like a fright-night creature for my remaining two months here.

Stone in the water. Who knew?

But it's not surprising, really. Everything here is made of stone.

The walls of the Old City, the uneven cobblestone sidewalks of King David Street in the New City, the ancient Wailing Wall from Herod's time, the 19th century terraced houses of Yemin Moshe, the genuinely creepy chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the shabby apartment buildings on my 20th century street, the abandoned cisterns of the Romans, the over-crowded dwellings of the ultra-Orthodox in the Mea Shearim quarter... All made of stone.

Armenian Quarter
Armenian Quarter

Colonel Ronald Storrs, military governor of Palestine after the Ottomans lost the region to the British in 1917, banned stucco, corrugated metal, concrete, and wood as building-fronts in Jerusalem. He decreed in 1918 that all building-fronts in this city must be made only of Jerusalem stone. His edict is still law today, which is why Jerusalem is overwhelmingly a city of pale stone.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish historian Josephus described Jerusalem as "a snowy mountain glittering in the sun." Today, that’s still the impression you get as you approach the city from the West, climbing up to Jerusalem's windy heights from the coastal plains and the flat farmlands between here and Tel Aviv. The twisting road that ascends to Jerusalem so sharply that my ears pop whenever I'm on it, is littered with the ruins of rusted-out armored cars from the 1948 war. Except for those metal remembrances of blood shed and lives lost, everything else along the road is made of stone. Huge boulders, shiny housing developments, roadside stretches of sharp pebbles, tumbledown huts and sheds, a gleaming hillside cemetery of above-ground sarcophagi, a monument with chiseled Hebrew writing that welcomes you to Jerusalem. All made of stone.

Since the very beginning, Jerusalem's historical problem has always been developing an adequate water supply. (This may explain why no one here but me is bitching about stone in their hair. Maybe they’re just glad to have water, full stop.)

King David (ca. 1000 BC) realized he could take the fortified city of Shalem by separating the Jebusites on this hill from the water supply outside their walls. Some three centuries later, King Hezekiah of Judah (ca. 700 BC) realized that what had occurred to David might also occur to those darned Assyrians. So he commanded the digging of underground tunnels (or, more likely, the expansion of Jebusite tunnels, which were probably, in turn, a prehistoric expansion of a natural underground watercourse) to bring water from the Gihon Spring to the Siloam Pool, which was protected by the city walls.

These days, you can wade knee-deep—in places, thigh-deep—through these tunnels as part of the City of David archaeological site. I went with my friend Tim. His wife, Hilary, was working that day, so she couldn't join us. And Hilary somehow managed to suppress any expression of the dreadful disappointment she no doubt felt at not being able to accompany us on a long, underground trek through freezing cold water, in narrow, low, pitch-dark, stone tunnels, to come out at the bottom of a steep hill we had to climb to get back to the city.

Gihon water
Before me...
At my feet...
Behind me...

Actually, despite this (all too accurate) description, it was great fun. Especially since we were on our own, with just Tim's little flashlight, so it felt like a real adventure. I gather the tunnel can get quite busy in the summer, but we pretty much had it to ourselves. I must admit, I would not have gone alone; the roaring water at the entrance to the small, dark, ancient passageway is intimidating, and the underground, stygian-black, knee-deep hike would have been frightening rather than fun if I'd been by myself. Anyhow, the big surprise of the tunnels is how crystal clear and plentiful the water is. In Africa, on many occasions, I drank water that wasn't anywhere near as appealing as the water that still flows through Hezekiah's tunnels from the Gihon Spring some 2,700 years later. I was also surprised by how clean the walls of the tunnels are. Slightly damp in one short stretch, they are otherwise dry and pristine, with no mold, fungus, or slime anywhere along the way.

Fortified by new water tunnels and new stone walls, Hezekiah's city withstood the Assyrian siege and survived for another century (until those darned Babylonians came along and sacked it in 586 BC, which officially marks the end of the First Temple period). However, the Kingdom of Israel had a stonier fate. (Israel had separated from Judah after Solomon's death. David established the Jewish throne at Jerusalem, but it was his son Solomon who built the famed First Temple—and, incidentally, bankrupted his kingdom with rampant spending.) Conquered by the Assyrians, killed, captured, or enslaved, the defeated tribes of Israel, the northern kingdom, became the much-storied "lost tribes" of Israel. But at the Center for Jerusalem Studies in the First Temple period, where they have a tiny museum with a nice tour and a film about the First Temple period featuring (predictably) Charlton Heston, they think that one of the places the "lost tribes" went was, in fact, Jerusalem.

The city expanded enormously during Hezekiah's reign, becoming almost as big as the Old City is now—though not in quite the same location. (It's as if, over the next 2,200 years, until Suleiman the Magnificent built the walls we see now, someone gradually kept shoving the whole city north, so that King David's comparatively tiny capital now lies outside the Old City.) Scholars at the Center postulate that the city's unprecedented growth during Hezekiah's reign was due to war refugees fleeing from Israel to Judah.

The massive shift in the city's physical size is easy to trace because, back in the bad old days, folks had to build walls around their cities so they could sleep safe in the knowledge that they'd wake up in the morning with their homes still standing and their heads still attached to their shoulders. (The Israelis building the Separation Barrier is not a new security measure, but rather a return to a very, very old one. The walls of the Old City are far more attractive than the Separation Barrier, but for millennia, they were built and rebuilt for exactly the same purpose: to keep the Other Guy out.) So archaeologists can easily see how much bigger was the territory that Hezekiah's wall surrounded than the city walls which preceded his reign.

Hezekiah's walls are also easy to identify because they are probably the thickest walls ever built at Jerusalem. You can see an impressive remnant of this fortification, now called the Broad Wall, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. But you might wonder how that amazingly wide wall allllll the way down there was supposed to keep out those darned Assyrians. Didn't they just scramble over it?  Well, in a city that's probably been inhabited for 4,000 years, conquered 37 times, and sacked seven times, a lot of debris builds up over time, and that's what successive generations keep building their homes and streets on. So in almost every part of the Old City, we're sitting way above where the ancients were sitting. Though I can stand in the Jewish Quarter and look down at Hezekiah's wall now, I would have been looking up at it 2,700 hundred years ago. Additionally, people used to be a lot thriftier with building materials. What's left of Hezekiah's wall is a lot shorter that it was when the darned Assyrians finally turned away and went home; because after the city was sacked, subsequent inhabitants took stones from the old walls to build new walls, as well as houses and stables. Everything here is made of stone—and it's often stone that somebody else used first.

Upon capturing the Old City in 1967 from Jordan, Israelis found the Jewish Quarter in ruins, synagogues destroyed, homes burned, rubble everywhere. In one of the many irrational features of warfare, people have a tendency to say, "Here's our enemy's captured house, let's destroy it and then piss on the remains," instead of, "Hey, here's a sturdy dwelling captured from our enemy, let's give this house to some of our impoverished citizens who have no shelter of their own." However, by all accounts, a fair bit of the old Jewish Quarter was, in fact, ancient, unsafe, unsanitary housing that any sensible building code would have required be knocked down. For centuries, a notable portion of the Jewish Quarter's population lived on charity and in squalor.

After the 1967 conquest of Jerusalem (which Israelis call the "reunification" of Jerusalem, because the winners get to write the history books), Israel soon began removing the rubble and restoring the Jewish Quarter, which is now the wealthiest neighborhood of the Old City. While rebuilding, they also committed many acts of archaeology, and they've done a very good job of incorporating the ancient remains they found with the modern stone quarter they constructed. The result is a neighborhood that doesn't look like any other I've ever seen, and also not like any other part of the crumbling, mostly Crusader-Mamluk-Ottoman Old City. You don't really need the Israeli flags and informative signs that are posted everywhere around the quarter telling you that you're entering the Jewish Quarter; you'd have to be fairly oblivious not to notice you're in a very different neighborhood now. Though, like every other part of Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter is made entirely of stone.

Jewish Quarter

Jewish Quarter

In addition to Jerusalem's extraordinary archaeological sites of the First Temple period (such as City of David, Hezekiah's Tunnels, and the Broad Wall), there have been a tremendous number of Second Temple digs, discoveries, and projects since the 1967 war.

After wading through the intestines of ancient Jerusalem, so to speak, Tim and I visited one of these. Ophel is a huge archaeological site around the southern end of the Temple Mount, lying between City of David and al-Haram ("Noble Sanctuary," the Moslem name for the Temple Mount). Here archaeologists have uncovered more than a dozen layers of the city. Many of the Roman-era finds are the basis of Second Temple mini-models and Herodian Jerusalem reconstructions that you see in Jerusalem. Initial exploration of this site began in the 19th century with various plucky British and American archaeologists who convinced the Ottomans to let them poke around a bit, but the major digging has mostly occurred in the past 30 years. Now you can walk on the Hulda Steps that led up to the Second Temple, climb around the remains of Jewish ritual baths and Byzantine homes, drop a shekel into a Roman aqueduct, and stroll across the tiled floors of a Persian palace that once sat here. All made of stone.

Western Wall underground
Western Wall (underground)
On the other side of the Temple Mount is one of the most extensive archaeology projects ever undertaken. Known as the Western Wall tunnels, these underground digs are still taking place beneath the massive medieval stone arches on which Moslem rulers built their new Jerusalem, many centuries ago, to ensure that dwellings were at a convenient height to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

This entire area of Jerusalem is an extraordinary feat of Moslem building, and the now-crumbling medieval neighborhoods are smooshed up against Herod's Western Wall (which is almost completely obscured by them) and poised above massive underfoot Arab water cisterns which rose 20 or more feet above the stone-paved streets of forgotten Roman Jerusalem. When you go into the Western Wall tunnels, as I did a few weeks ago, you're beneath the streets of current-day (and medieval) Jerusalem, looking at the Western Wall from what was street level here 2,000 years ago. The archaeological work in these tunnels is amazing, the tour is excellent, and the entire set-up is extremely impressive. (On the other hand, the Israelis who take your ticket are as sullen, surly, and rude as everyone else in Jerusalem. Being a tourist in this city is roughly as much fun as riding a bus full of mismedicated psyche patients.)

Personally, I have never been a fan of religion. And, indeed, after four months in Jerusalem, religion has sunk to a new all-time low in my esteem. Or, as a journalist remarked to me one day here, "There's nothing like the Holy Land to make you hate religion." So I really don't care whether they're digging up the Western Wall of the Second Temple or a series of Roman bathhouses and brothels. I just like history, and there's certainly a lot of it beneath the streets of Jerusalem. Indeed, one of the most intriguing things in the Western Wall tunnels are the transparent plates in the floors allowing you to see even further down, to other, even older eras, to places where they're finding archaeological remains 10 or 20 feet below the current levels of the tunnels.

Tunnels, looking down
Inside the tunnels,
looking down

It should be noted, by the way, that the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are not built on a solid "mountain," as the name Temple Mount implies. Most of what we call the Temple Mount is actually debris and landfill that Herod put on and around Mount Moriah (which was more of a slope than a mountain) to create the massive plaza, as big as 12 soccer fields, on which he built his Second Temple.

In fact, the ancient Hebrews came back and built the original Second Temple about 50 years after the darned Babylonian exile. This was the temple which Judah the Maccabee (Judah the "Hammer") seized during the Jewish revolt of the 2nd century BC, cleansed of all nasty Hellenic influences, and "rededicated." The celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple is more popularly known as Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights which occurs every December. And gosh, what a coincidence, it exactly coincides with various pagan mid-winter festivals of light, all loosely grouped around the Winter Solstice in December. The best known solstice celebration in the Western world in our era, of course, is Christmas. The Emperor Constantine, when he became a Christian, turned the traditional Roman mid-winter solstice celebration into a festival of the new faith, retaining most of the pagan holiday's customs—some of which are still practiced by Christians today. (Constantine's devoutly Christian mother Helena, in the spirit which would forever after characterize life at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, managed to "identify" the site of the Crucifixion by having a Jerusalemite imprisoned until he told her where it was.)

Anyhow, after the Roman Empire eventually split in half, the Eastern and Western churches began celebrating Christ's birth, like his death, on the basis of different calendars. Which is why no one at the Holy Sepulcher can ever agree on when to put up the tree. (Actually, there's a dangerously rickety ladder that's been propped up against the church ever since I got here. Well, I read the other day that, in fact, it's been there for well over 100 years. The various Christians sects inhabiting the church in bitter mutual enmity can't agree on how or when to take it down, or where it should be stored. So it will probably be propped against the Church of the Holy Sepulcher until Judgment Day.)

As for Judah the Maccabee, he founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled Israel for a little while between the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans, who remained happily pagan for another four centuries after invading Jerusalem, were the rulers who said to Herod the Great, "Here, you try to control these people." And it was Herod's son, Herod Antipas, who said to Pontius Pilate (in actions, if not necessarily in words), "No, no, Jesus Christ is your problem." (Historians suspect that neither Herod Antipas nor Pontius Pilate wanted to take responsibility for executing a controversial populist leader around the notoriously volatile crowds in Jerusalem at Passover, which may be why the New Testament describes Jesus getting shuttled back and forth between them before being crucified.)

In tandem with piling all that landfill on Mount Moriah, Herod the Great built retaining walls to stabilize the Temple Mount for what became the biggest religious site in the ancient world. The Western Wall, where Jews worship (and, in the consistent spirit of religion here, fight about who gets to pray, and when, and how, and how loudly) is one of these retaining walls. Nor was the Temple complex Herod's only remarkable construction. He turned Jerusalem into an impressive city, including a large fortress next to what is now the Jaffa Gate. Moslem rulers later built on the remains of this and created what is now known as David's Tower (named by confused Crusaders). Today this stone citadel is a beautifully restored historic site and museum. Herod the Great also built a huge palace that covered much of what is now the Armenian Quarter; in a city where the water supply has always been a challenge, Herod's palace was famed for its gardens and fountains. Before his death, which is what historians think brought the flurry of building to a halt, he also did massive construction projects which you can still visit today at Tiberias, Caesarea, and Masada. All made of stone.

The Hulda Steps,
remains of Herod's Temple complex,
below Suleiman's wall
and al-Aqsa Mosque
Huldah Steps

As for me, despite a touch of claustrophobia, I find Jerusalem's underground fascinating, so I tried to visit a few more beneath-the-streets sites. Unfortunately, though, two sites under the Arab quarters are no longer open to the public. The Roman museum, including remains of mosaic floors below street level, is abandoned, closed down, and hidden by weeds beneath the Damascus Gate now. Zedekiah's Caves, between the Damascus and Herod Gates, is also abandoned and closed down. The ticket seller's booth has broken glass and is covered in thick dust. Sometimes also billed as "King Solomon's Mines," it's believed these underground tunnels were probably quarries for the Second Temple building projects.

Unfortunately, the language barrier prevented me from finding out why these sites closed down. However, I'm assuming it's related to the sharp decline in tourism experienced here during the second intifada. Some other attractions I've visited in Jerusalem have also been closed and forgotten, and many cafés and other commercial places listed in my guidebook have vanished. In a city made of stone, blood still carries away many things.

June 22, 2006