There is a question I receive very often as a guide in Israel, in particular in the Old City of Jerusalem. It comes in various forms such as: “Are there any original buildings in the Old City?” “How old are these buildings?”
To talk about original buildings in Old Jerusalem is problematic. What is original? If we are talking about buildings dating to the first Jerusalem, the answer has to be an emphatic no. After all, Jerusalem has been built and destroyed innumerable times.
If by original we talk about buildings that were built hundreds of years ago and are still standing, the answer must be yes. Examples of this are The Dome of the Rock and The El Aqsa Mosques on Temple Mount, built in the 7th and early 8th centuries, and still standing more or less as they were built. Another example is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the 12th century by the Crusaders, and incorporating even older building from the 4th century.
So these buildings are original, although not necessarily the first buildings on the site.
But often the questions relate to the ordinary buildings used as housing or other mundane purposes. Again, it’s hard to come with a direct answer.
Many years ago I lived in an old, restored house in the Jewish Quarter. It was an old house that had been renovated and modernized as part of the general renovation of the Jewish Quarter, following the Six-Day War in 1967.
I am not exaggerating when I say some of the walls were more than 5 ft. thick. At the time I did not question how that came about, but today I do understand the process.
A long time ago, a house was built there. With the passing of time, it may have been damaged through acts of war or natural causes. Instead of tearing it down, as is so often done today, new layers of stone were pasted on to the walls, thereby making it structurally sound again, but of course also adding depth to the walls. This probably happened many times, until it today has those amazing thick walls.
A friend of mine also lived in an old building. And one day they decided to scrape away the newer levels. When they reached Crusader columns, they decided they had gone deep enough. And from then on part of the decorations of their living room were these 12th century columns.
Another thing to understand is that most common building material in Jerusalem, indeed in Israel, is stone. In Jerusalem it is referred to as Jerusalem stone. But quarrying stone is expensive and takes time. So it was normal to use stones from destroyed buildings to build the new buildings.
Examples of this can be seen especially in archaeological sites all through the country. But many buildings in the Old City show this feature as well.
There are also architectural features that can easily be seen as you walk the alleys of the Old City that show how a building has undergone changes. There are arches in walls, now blocked up. There are walls with stones from obvious different ages.
So the answer to those first questions on being original and age of buildings is that there are original buildings. But there are even more stones that may have been quarried two thousand or more years ago, that are now in secondary use in relatively modern buildings. These stones are the proof of the continuous life in Jerusalem for more than three millennium.