Behind Stone Walls - Yerushalyim of Concrete, Rebar and Rubble

Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Living in Jerusalem

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I've taken the time to comment on the numbering system for preserving old stone houses a couple times in this guide, and as with many other things, the more you look, the more you start to see. I knew that all of the new "stone wall" construction was done with factory made facade stones, perfectly rectangular and not more than a few inches thick. The facade stones are mortared in place over a standard reinforced concrete wall, usually and extra mesh is secured to that wall to help retain the mortar the facade stones get buttered up with. However, I always figured that the nice older homes were built with stone blocks, reasonable box shaped stones finished on all six surfaces so they would fit snugly together. Whenever I see some history show about ancient civilizations, that's how they did their stone building, and the modern archeologists like to marvel at how you can't fit a piece of paper in between the stones, which have stood for thousands of years. But I didn't quite understand why they would need such a beefy steel welded scaffolding to temporarily hold up a stone wall which I assumed would have stood just fine on its own.
I started paying a lot more attention to old stone home that were in disrepair or had been demolished, and it struck me that I never saw a stone finished even nearly well enough to serve as a block. Sometimes, stones that were used in a corner were finished on two sides, or stones around windows and doors could even be be finished on three sides, but I never saw any evidence that the stones were being finished on the top and bottom so they could be stacked like bricks or cinder blocks. What the stone masons do is get the outer face of the stone rectangular, and then fade the remaining stone in at the back, so there will be no question of it interfering with any neighboring stones. I'd guess that any given stone has a logical front face and the the rest of the stone shaping work falls out of that. Now it's possible that some of the oldest luxury homes that I've never seen broken apart are constructed with stone block that had been finished on six sides, but since I've been looking the last couple weeks, I haven't seen any evidence of that. I suspect that only the most expensive building projects would have used quarried blocks, and tend to be bigger than the stones used in homes.
The picture to the left is of a partially demolished house wall in Nachalot. As you can see, the stones were nicely finished on the outside, but the interior was all rubbles and concrete. Since I've started looking, I've seen some old house walls that look more like dry laid New England farm walls from the side, with little bits of stone wedged in just enough to hold the wall face flush. Some old walls are finished with stone on both sides, others are concrete or mortar on the inside. It usually all gets plastered over in any case, you don't see a lot of stonework from the inside of most buildings. After a thinking about it a little, it struck me why they built this way. It was cheap! Back before the JNF started planting forests all over Israel (I still remember the pushka we had for collecting), there wasn't a lot of lumber available, and what you could get would have been expensive. Stones in the Judean Hills are cheaper than a dime a dozen, you can dig a hole in the ground for all the stones you hit. FInishing every stone as a block would have been fine for the Pharos with their slave labor, but the cheapest way to get a flat wall made out of stone is to only finish one face of the stone and fill the rest in with whatever.
Getting back to the house renovation with the numbered stones in our first picture, here's the opposite side of that wall as it appears now. They've cut way back on the original width, which is why they would have needed to hold that outer face so firmly in place, and mortared up the back of all the stones with fresh concrete. Now they're in the process of adding rebar and mesh for another concrete pour, so as to end up with a modern structural wall capable of bearing more floors. The old stones are there for aesthetics, inside, it will be modern reinforced concrete construction. Aside from gaining structural support for more floors, this technique probably adds square meters to the living space by thinning down the walls. I'd often wondered at the thickness of the walls (as witnessed by window casings) in some of the older Jerusalem buildings I've been in. It seemed like an awful waste of stone unless they were building a castle, but now I realize that the walls were thick because the were full of rubble and binder.When you compare the walls of stone houses built with the fill technique to brick walls, they are several times thicker.
The technique isn't new. The corner stone in the picture is from an archeological site, which is described as a watch tower from the early middle ages. It probably wasn't a corner stone originally, I'd expect corners to be finished on two sides, but they're getting it wrong was just right photography purposes. They get the facing flat so you can fit stones together tightly and keep the water out, but the back of the stone is tapered almost to a point. One way you can see this yourself is by looking closely at the stone walls of house that are near the street, and looking for cracks or spots where a little bit of facing stone was shipped away. You'll quickly find that the stone behind the facing is always fading away from the surrounding stones, so like most building systems, it's one that will gradually fail due to the elements if it isn't maintained. I took quite a few example pictures of these voids behind facing stones, but the close up views don't end up showing as much as I'd like. If you get in the habit of not looking where you're going as you walk around town, you'll see plenty of example like the one below, where a stone has simply fallen out of place on the out wall of and otherwise solid looking old home.

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