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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Limestone

Galilee Diary #333, April 15, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

…There are people with hearts of stone;

There are stones with human hearts.

-Yossi Gamzu, “Hakotel,” (The Western Wall)

Last week we yielded to the temptation to install a recirculating waterfall in the terraces of our front yard. We dug a hole, bought the pump and liner, and took the old pickup truck out the gate and down to the dry bed of the Hilazon stream to collect smooth rocks. Our house is built on foundations attached to the limestone bedrock of the shoulder of Mt. Gilon; it is of course constructed mostly of concrete in various forms – whose main ingredient is limestone quarried from a different mountainside, crushed and baked into cement. Our garden is terraced with chunks of limestone of every shade of gray, brown, and beige, collected from various locations on our mountainside. Those rocks that have found their way to the stream bed have been tumbled against each other by the annual floods, losing their jagged edges over the years. The shapes are pleasing and feel good to the hand. And every trip to the valley yields a few geodes, those mysterious lumpy spheres that look ordinary from the outside, but contain interesting and often beautiful crystal formations inside. Limestone being what it is, fossils are common too; along the path up the mountain on the opposite side of the valley there is a rock bearing the clear impression of some ancient spiral crustacean the size of a dinner plate.

When we were still operating our guest house, and hoping to expand it, someone sent me a young American as a potential investor. He couldn’t quite see investing in an educational center, and tried to convince me that our community should open a business that exploited the Galilee’s most plentiful resource: rocks. “Why not open a factory for terrazzo floor tiles? You have all these rocks everywhere…” Up until about 15 years ago, just about every house in Israel was floored with the same 8-inch terrazzo floor tiles, which were available in dark gray, dark red, and about fifty shades of beige. Called “ballatot” in Hebrew, they were a universal Israeli cultural artifact. Since they often loosened from their mortar substrate with age, “under a ballata” was the standard place to hide a stash of cash kept in the house. But then, suddenly, ceramic tiles overwhelmed the market. We built an addition to our house in the early nineties, and it was not even discussed – the new section was floored in terrazzo tiles that exactly matched the existing house. Two years ago we added again, and learned that terrazzo floor tiles are no longer manufactured, and that we could not, at any price, match the existing floor. Good thing we didn’t build a terrazzo factory.

Tour guides apparently spend a lot of time on limestone in their training, as it seems they are always pointing out the various types in the landscape and explaining why the differences matter. Hard and soft, more or less porous, etc. To me as a hiker or a tourist the distinctions don’t matter much and I can never remember which is which. It’s all calcium carbonate to me. But in building our waterfall we had to drill and chisel one of the terraces to get the water to go where we wanted it, and my son and I discovered how much it matters – and developed new respect for stone masons, whom one can still see at work here and there, creating a perfectly shaped surface, with seeming effortlessness, using tools that have not changed in thousands of years.

The Golan and the Jordan Valley, being a volcanic region, are characterized by hard, black basalt. The Negev is geologically complex, with a wide variety of minerals. But the Galilee and Judea and Samaria, all former sea bottoms, are built of limestone – and so, just as the limestone preserves the memory of layers and layers of prehistory – the remains of the buildings we built of it preserve the layers of our own history – from Megiddo to Zippori, from Caesarea to the Western Wall. It’s all just calcium carbonate – but somehow, it’s much more than that.

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