Amid controversy, restoration is completed on Old City’s Damascus Gate

The following article appeared in this morning’s Haaretz (print edition) about the completion of restoration work on the Damascus Gate, as part of an ongoing, long-term preservation project on all the Old City’s walls and gates. The complete article (including the Jaffa Gate connection) is here; excerpts are reproduced below:

Jerusalem Old City renovation shows gateway to the past

Project reveals hidden secrets at Jaffa, Damascus gates, puts new spin on an old legend.

By Nir Hasson

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?

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.  (…)  Most of the scaffolding was removed in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now underway.

Miscellaneous comments:  The whole notion of what constitutes a “correct” restoration is interesting. It reminds me of the dispute between the Greek Orthodox and the Latin (Roman Catholic) communities during the long-running restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that occupied much of the latter half of the 20th century. The Latins, of course, wanted as much as possible to keep the structure the Crusaders created in the 12th century, while the Greeks wanted the church to reflect its Byzantine origins. In the end, perhaps as a compromise, neither was really accomplished, with many unfortunate additions and partitions from modern times left in place (in some cases actually removed and then replaced!).

In the present case of Damascus Gate, the Israeli restorers have declared the well-intentioned but questionable alterations from the British period a “mistake”. The British, in their turn, took the same stance regarding the Ottoman-Turkish clock tower that then stood above Jaffa Gate (and all that gate’s other unsightly accretions) — and wasted little time dismantling it (ca. 1922). And so it goes…

One other interesting point, only alluded to in the article: The city walls constitute, in themselves, a discreet ecosystem: a whole host of birds, lizards and other animals, plus multiple plant species all make their homes in the wall, and attempts have been made, whenever possible, not to disturb this unique environment.

Damascus Gate during Ramadan (2007)

EXTRA:  Sometimes restoration of the city walls means dealing with masonry not 500 years old but 2000-plus!  This was the scene a few weeks ago south of Jaffa Gate and the Citadel, where workmen for the IAA were tending to Jerusalem’s fortifications from the Hasmonean and Herodian periods.  This particular stretch of the city walls is one of the few places where, after a bit of homework, one can “read” the whole gamut of Jerusalem history in the stonework…

This entry was posted in Antiquities, Damascus Gate, Issues in Archaeology, JERUSALEM and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Amid controversy, restoration is completed on Old City’s Damascus Gate

  1. Shockson Reward says:

    Your stuff is nice, i love your articles keep on doing the right work. I have got an interest in heritage management.

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