Even antiquities need help fighting the ravages of nature. The Western Wall is being inoculated, quite literally, with preservative ahead of Passover, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Sunday.
The Western Wall, formerly known as the Wailing Wall, was part of the wall surrounding the Second Temple courtyard, archaeologists believe. It is the only standing remnant of the grand temple complex in Jerusalem thought to have been erected by King Herod and destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Other finds from the Second Temple do exist, though, including colorful roof tiles from the courtyard, which archaeologists reported in 2016. They believe the tiles were atop porticos (roofed colonnades) on the Temple Mount.
Though it still stands, in its 2,000 years of existence the wall has suffered much weathering. Twice a year, conservators and engineers inspect every single stone.In fact, each of the hundreds of giant limestone bricks has its own “identity card,” complete with its history of treatment. When they find new cracks and fissures developing in or between the stones, the conservators use syringes to delicately administer small amounts of limestone grout.
“Our most recent survey revealed that it was necessary to treat the ‘peel,’ or outer layer, of several stones,” said Yossi Vaknin, head conservator for the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Western Wall area.
The grout being used isn’t exactly the type one would use in the home. Its chemical composition is identical to that of the stone, Vaknin explains to Haaretz. Conservators inject tiny quantities, gradually building up layers inside each chink, crack and crevice. It works fast, ultimately sealing the cracks and fissures perfectly, he says; afterward, one can’t tell where the blemish had been.
To facilitate its rapid drying, the conservators also inject alcohol with the “micro-lime” grout, Vaknin explains: “Once the alcohol is exposed to the air, it evaporates and the chemical reaction happens immediately. Within hours the material is dry and stable.” Nor is rain an obstacle to the work, helpfully.
“It is the best possible method of ‘healing’ the stones and the ultimate defense against weathering for the most important stones in the world,” said Mordechai Eliav, director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
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The IAA has been doing this limestone-alcohol treatment of the Wall for years. Now, however, the sight of conservators with syringes in hand carefully “inoculating” may seem especially poignant amid Israel’s drive to vaccinate the population against COVID-19.
Vaknin adds that in the past, before the invention of limestone-based grouting with alcohol administered by needle, conservators had applied limestone water to cracks in this most famed of walls. The new technology is more efficient in preserving the stone, he adds, and it holds up well over the years, as the conservators see from their monitoring of each and every stone.
Part of the wall’s problem is pollution: sulfurous, sulfuric, and nitric acids in the air and rain pit and dissolve the rock surface, causing peel. Another key conundrum is its population of plants.
No moss grows on the Western Wall, but it is home to three indigenous plants: the thorny caper bush (aka Flinder’s rose), which isn’t a rose but does produce white flowers; a prickly-leafed plant called Podonosma orientalis, which boasts purple flowers; and a member of the toxic henbane family called Hyoscyamus, which produces yellow flowers.
All are familiar sights to Wall visitors and all can and will widen crevices in and between the stones with their roots.
“The plants are part of the Wall’s ecological system,” Vaknin says. “It’s true that their roots may penetrate the cracks, causing pretty impressive damage. They cause stones to fracture and even fall off.” But the plants are cherished too, as part of the Wall’s authentic look. The conservators aim to preserve them too, within the constraint that they not cause stones to collapse, especially not on the heads of its 12 million visitors a year.
The IAA notes that the conservation being carried out at the site is subject to religious strictures established by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
It bears adding that the Second Temple is actually the third, it seems. No ruins have ever been found of the First Temple, which legend says was built by King Solomon on the Temple Mount and was destroyed by the Babylonians in about 587 B.C.E. When the Jews were allowed to return from exile decades later, they built a new temple on the site, but it was a simple structure. That second temple’s simplicity reportedly did not appeal to the builder of monuments, King Herod. He replaced it with the building we call the Second Temple. It was looted and destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., who delighted in the victory so much that it is commemorated not by one victory arch in Rome, but two.