Israeli experts removed, rebuilt top of iconic Tower of David amid fears of collapse
Channel 12 TV report details complex, highly sensitive renovation at ancient site alongside Jaffa Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City
David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Experts in recent months completely removed the top of Jerusalem’s iconic Tower of David and rebuilt it, using a mix of mainly new stones combined with salvaged original stones.
In a television report aired Friday night on Channel 12, authorities revealed details of the highly sensitive work, carried out as unobtrusively as is possible for a structure that towers over the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City.
The project was undertaken amid growing fears that the 400-year-old tower faced potential collapse, and that its top two meters in particular were in urgent need of reconstruction.
Sensitivities surrounding the restoration and reconstruction work were heightened by the fact that although the entire Tower of David complex, also known as David’s Citadel, has yielded archaeological findings dating back to the First Temple period, and though it is a landmark widely highlighted as an Israeli national symbol and widely but erroneously believed to be directly connected to King David, the iconic tower is actually the minaret of a mosque that was added to the complex during the Ottoman era some 400 years ago. The construction was part of an expansion project at the citadel initiated by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who also restored the Old City walls. (The mosque was used until 1917, when Britain’s General Allenby marched into the Old City and proclaimed, at the citadel, the capture of Jerusalem.)
Zionist pioneers adopted the citadel, with its soaring tower, as a secular symbol of “power and hope” in contrast to the religious centrality of the Western Wall, noted Eilat Lieber, the director of the Tower of David Museum. Its image quickly became a mainstay on everything from postcards to menorahs, foods and wines.
Lieber told Channel 12 in a report on the renovation work that all of Israel’s various security apparatuses had weighed in on the project, with various requests that it be postponed “until after Ramadan, after Jerusalem Day, after Nakba Day,” for fear that it could prompt an escalation of friction in the incendiary Old City and East Jerusalem.
“In the end, we said, ‘If we don’t fix the tower, and something happens on our watch, it’ll be a lot worse… Let’s just get it done,'” she said.
Concern for the stability of the tower was highlighted by a report from the Italian professor responsible for the well-being of the Tower of Pisa, said Lieber. An engineering expert from the University of Padua, he warned that the tower — whose last major renovation was conducted in the mandatory era, when the very tip was replaced with concrete — faced potential collapse.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) conservation and renovation expert who oversaw the project, Yossi Vaknin, explained that iron braces holding together stones in the tower had gradually expanded when exposed to the elements as the stones cracked and wore away, further destabilizing the structure, especially near the top.
“It’s falling apart in our hands,” Vaknin said to camera in a sequence filmed at the top of the tower last year, showing the swollen strips of iron, the cracks and broken stones.
“You’re taking apart an icon of Jerusalem?” Channel 12’s reporter asked Vaknin. “In order that it will survive,” Vaknin responded.
The top section of the tower was therefore removed, and a new top section was constructed at a stone factory in Shfaram, in northern Israel, using new stones augmented with stone salvaged from the removed section.
The reconstructed section was then given “a more authentic, more ancient appearance,” so as to be similar to the original, Vaknin said.
Lieber said that seeing the tower without its top during the brief period while it was being replaced was disquieting for her, even though she knew exactly what was being planned.
“I have to say it was a shocking sight — for me too. Coming here every morning to work… suddenly the tower has no head. I knew it was going to happen, but the sight was stressful.”
Related: Elevators added to Tower of David museum, making ancient citadel accessible
A Muslim employee on the project said Arabic social media at the time featured conspiracy theories falsely asserting that “the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jewish rulers, the enemy leadership is taking our story apart — the Muslim story,” but the worker stressed that “I’m proud of what I’m doing” because the work was necessary.
The new top of the tower was installed in December, the report said, with a basalt-based material used to help bind the stones together.
The TV report showed the stages of the renovation process, culminating with the replacement of the decorative metal finial on the tower’s rebuilt top.
“I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights on this project,” Vaknin said, but in the end the work on the tower was completed without any security frictions.
Vaknin said that with some work still ongoing at the citadel, the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in early February “made me truly feel that the ground beneath my feet was shifting.”
Scaffolding around the tower was finally removed last week.
At the site this weekend, crowded with visitors, areas around the tower were still closed off for renovation work. But staff said the tower may be reopened to the public in the near future.
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David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel