A Harvest of Stones

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A Harvest of Stones
25 Oct 2007

Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the universe suddenly became a tangible reality recently. The discovery was made right up the street from my home in the suburban neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

The state-run Antiquities Authority was doing a routine salvage excavation ahead of the planned construction of a new school. They stumbled on a sensational historical find—a limestone quarry whose stones were used to build the Temple Mount.

Archeologists have found scores of ancient quarries in excavations in and around Jerusalem, but never have they found stones used for constructing the Temple. At the site in Ramat Shlomo, they unearthed enormous stones and artifacts such as coins and pottery fragments dating back to the first century BC.

The stones are up to eight meters long and weigh as much as seven tons. Archaeologist Yuval Baruch points out the significance of this find: “We have never found any other monument in Israel with stones of this size except for the Temple Mount walls.” Worshippers at the Western Wall can see stones like these at the bottom of The Wall which date from the time of King Herod’s renovation of the Second Temple.

It’s 6:30 AM before the heat of the day sets in when I set out for my walk to the ancient stone quarry. I pass a row of semi-detached cottages and a stretch of forest that surrounds a children’s park. The pine trees, rocks, and scruffy bushes give me an idea what this whole area looked like before the homes were built and people moved in about eleven years ago.

It’s a misty time of day when the light can play tricks on your eyes. When you can easily mistake shards of glass at your feet for diamonds.

It’s Chol HaMoed Sukkos, and many of the front yards have small fruit trees next to their succahs. The citrus fruits are ripening on the branches, and I breathe in the lemony scent.

After a right turn at the top of the hill, I continue on to the end of the block where the neighborhood stops abruptly, and the olive trees of the Arab village of Shuafat take over. The last building is the Shomrei Hachomos Shul, and directly across the street stands a sign announcing this as the site of the upcoming Bais Chana School. The school may have to find another building site now that the importance of the ancient quarry has been confirmed.

This is also the end of the line for the bus route that services Ramat Shlomo. The buses come here for short rest periods before they begin their circuits again. Just meters from the bus stop and the construction sign, the excavation site slopes up on a hill that covers an area of about an acre and a half.

Before the excavation, this hill was a tangle of growth, trees, and craggy rocks. It was too dangerous for children to play there, but it afforded some grazing land for sheep from the neighboring Arab village.

Soon after the salvage excavation began last summer, evidence turned up pointing to the significance of the site. The heavy backhoes were removed in favor of a small army of workers with brooms whose job it was to sweep away the dirt from the stones without damaging them.

In front of the Shomrei Hachomos Shul, men wrapped in taleisim and holding their lulav and esrog rush to the morning minyan. Across the street and behind the bus stop, the ancient stone quarry suddenly rears up, looking like a field of giant rocks.

A crow sails above my head and then dives ahead of me to peck in the sand between clefts of stone. His loud cawing is distinct against the muted backdrop of waves of traffic, whistles, and other waking up sounds of the city.

After climbing up the first tier of rocks, I can see in the distance the Ramot Forest and after that, a bird’s eye view of Jerusalem. I look in the approximate direction of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount which lay hidden behind all those high rise buildings four kilometers distant and 80 meters below the height of this ridge.

Archeologists have recently discovered part of an ancient main road to Jerusalem proper just 100 meters from the quarry. It was likely that the giant stones were transported downhill on this road by legions of slaves to the area of the Temple Mount.

The ancient stone masons abandoned many of the stones in the middle of the process of liberating them from the bedrock. Standing next to a gigantic stone that is half-way chiseled out on two sides, I try to imagine how many slaves it would have taken to get it to its destination.

The Roman appointed King Herod had massive resources and considerable slave labor at his disposal for his extensive construction program which included palaces and temples for pagan gods to serve the gentile populations. And most impressive of all the structures he built was his massive expansion of the Second Temple, along with renovations of the entire Temple Mount.

In 20 BC. when Herod announced that the old Temple would be torn down and replaced with something magnificent and much, much bigger, the Cohanim were skeptical. They insisted that Herod quarry all the stones required for the project before the destruction of the original structure could begin.

The limestone here in the quarry is of superior quality for building since it is especially hard and resembles marble. When used in the construction of the Temple Mount, the gigantic size of the stones and their high quality canceled out the need for plaster or cement. Their enormous weight helped to maintain the stability of the structure over thousands of years.

As I climb from tier to tier of the stones, I notice a number of straight and narrow furrows in the limestone. These furrows were what remained after the stones were detached from the bedrock.

The process of quarrying each stone block began by hewing deep and narrow channels around all four sides of the block. What is done in modern quarries with diamond hard blades whose precision work is often computerized, these ancient stone masons accomplished with chisels and mallets.

Once the stones were isolated from the surrounding limestone by channels, they began the work of detaching them from the bedrock. This was done with a row of cleaving stakes hammered into the bottom part of the block. Then a piece of wood was inserted in the space created by the cleaving stakes, and the wood was moistened. The expanding pieces of wood helped to create a fissure, and the stone was detached.

One of the archeological finds was a five kilogram iron tool left wedged into a cut in the limestone. It was used by one of King Herod’s stone masons who were probably Jewish slaves.

It’s only around 7:30 AM and already quite hot so that I can imagine what it was like working with a chisel and mallet out in the sun for hours. Did it ease the toil of these slaves knowing that their work was making a contribution to the Holy Temple?

The renovated and expanded Second Temple may have been completed around 10 BC. It was destroyed shortly afterwards by the Romans in 70 CE. This historical truth of our presence on the Temple Mount is now being contested by those who assert that the Jewish Temple never existed there. They are the same deniers who aver that the Holocaust never happened.

As I stand among these half-hewn stones in this ancient quarry, this verse from Tehillim has a new meaning: “Emes meEretz teetsmach.” “Truth from earth will sprout.”

I rub my hand along the limestone rocks, feeling their bumps and crevices just like those in the stones of the Western Wall where I rest my head to have private conversations with G-d. At the Western Wall, every possible hollow and crevice within reach is packed with requests and messages scribbled on papers and sent Heavenward through this interface between Heaven and earth.

I sense that these are also holy stones all around me in the quarry. They were not privileged to be completely wrested from the bedrock and reach their destination in The Holy Temple, but they were intended for that purpose.

The archeologists speculate that the quarry was used for a twenty-year period and then abandoned. Two thousand years later, we reclaim it with the missing chapter it provides. In unearthing this ancient quarry, we’ve stumbled on a harvest of stones, interrupted, half-reaped. They stand up to testify in the physical reality of our Holy Temple, made palpable by the sun-warmed stone on our fingertips.

© Varda Branfman, 2001. Varda Branfman has been living with her family in Jerusalem for the last 22 years. A former Director of the Maine Poets-in-the Schools Program, she now runs workshops in using writing for healing and reaching breakthrough insights. She is the author of I Remembered In The Night Your Name, among other works.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.