Jaffa, the mysterious and ancient city lying just south of Tel Aviv, is a place that I have visited on many an occasion. I have wondered through the old town, tasted various different types of hummus, haggled in the flea market and imbibed the art exhibitions.
Today was a chance to learn about the history of the city, and it really was a fascinating day. Jaffa has its beauty spots: a lovely view down the coast; a grand neo-baroque church; quaint old streets. Still, as sights in Israel go, there is nothing that particularly makes it stand out.
However, there is a great atmosphere in the city, something a little bit edgy, and together with this are a fantastic array of tales going back 3500 years. Our guide was a good story-teller and he painted the picture of the city well as we explored its ancient paths.
We began the day at the famous clock tower, built at the beginning of the 19th century. Exploring the square, we learned about the history of the buildings – the old gaol, the former governor’s house, the areas formerly owned by the Greek Orthodox church.
Continuing up the hill which formed the main part of the original city dating back to the Bronze Age, we enjoyed a lovely viewpoint over the coastline, including Andromeda’s rock. Our guide regaled us with the legend about this underwater ridge, so perilous for sailors attempting to reach the city – there are only two breaks in the rock through which it is safe to enter – they have found many ruins of boats from throughout the ages on the Jaffa sea bed.
Moving through the old town and its urban legends, we arrived at St Peter’s Church. According to Catholic tradition, it is built on the site of the home of Simon the Tanner, where Peter stayed while visiting Jaffa. During his visit, he had a grand vision, which ultimately led to the spreading of Christianity into a major global religion after it became possible to encourage non-Jews to adopt the faith. The church, whose construction was funded by the Spanish Royal Family at the end of the 19th century, is a beautiful building, imposing itself on the coastline.
Wondering through the streets and hearing yet more tales of Jaffa’s past, we arrived at the appropriately named Jaffa Tales Visitors Centre. The centre does a good job of relating some of the better known stories associated with the city and displays some interesting artefacts.
Before breaking for lunch, we visited the excavations of ancient Jaffa, dating back 3500 years to the Bronze Age. Another great tale was that of Thutmose III, Pharaoh of Egypt, who found an ingenious way to conquer Jaffa during his campaign in the 15th century BCE.
Following a quite fantastic lunch in Guetta, one of my favourite restaurants and masters of Libyan cuisine, we visited the port area, hearing about the history of the sea trade in the area and the recent refurbishment. We also got a good recommendation for ice-cream, although frustratingly no time to verify it. That alone definitely warrants a return visit!
Turning back to the old town, we followed the steps of Napoleon as he broke into the city during his campaign of 1799. Here was time for another tale, although this one had a rather grisly ending.
We concluded the day at a surprising site – the Protestant cemetery of Jaffa. There were quite a few tombs of note, but most unexpected was that of Dr Thomas Hodgkin (he of Hodgkin’s disease fame). He came to the area on a trip with Moses Montefiore, and unfortunately contracted dysentery and was unable to leave.
His tale, together with many others, led to a very fun day. You will have noticed that I have avoided going into too much detail on the stories, but I will be happy to take you around Jaffa in due course and relate them in person!
Having concluded our study of Israel’s wars in class, we were now to go out into the field to get a better idea of the story behind the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the longest and most difficult war that has been fought in Israel’s history, with 1% of the population killed in action. Although we have been touching on the wars in our tours around the country, these two trips are dedicated to two of the most serious fronts of the war: the road to Jerusalem and then the south of the country. Both Jerusalem and the south were cut off from the rest of the country and were effectively put under siege; difficult and costly battles were fought to break through. Today’s tour was dedicated to the road to Jerusalem in 1948; next week we shall explore the Southern Front.
We began our day near the small village of Shoresh, just off route 1, in the Masrek Nature Reserve. Hiking along the ridge, we reached a viewpoint over Shaar Hagay, known by many by its Arabic name, Bab-el-Wad. Both translate as ‘the Gate of the Valley’. Here, the road to Jerusalem ascends through a narrow gorge. Our guide explained that the local Arabs soon realised it would be more effective to lay siege to Jewish population areas rather than to attack them outright, with many key roads passing through areas of large Arab population. This area of the Jerusalem road was particularly vulnerable with its steep ascent causing supply lorries to struggle along at around 10km/h, sitting ducks for the assembled forces on the slopes of the valley.
The Israelis tried many different methods to break through – using convoys, then adding primitive armour to their trucks. But they could still not break through. The viewpoint made it clear the huge challenge faced by these convoys. We read some witness accounts from drivers; they were absolutely terrified.
Leaving the viewpoint, we drove slightly further down route one to the Castel. This was the site of the first Arab village conquered by the Israeli forces in the war. It played an important role in the war, in terms of boosting morale, even though the site went on to exchange hands a couple of times before being finally conquered. Here the Israelis killed the commander of the local Arab forces when he was by chance shot by a sentry – another significant morale boost. At close to 800m above sea level, this was an important vantage point on the Jerusalem road.
The site was still covered in a deep blanket of snow from the previous weekend, when Israel had suffered its worst storms in over 100 years. The snow had by now hardened but this was not going to stop Israelis from enjoying its novelty – there were plenty of kids frolicking around and a fair amount of adults also!
Turning back on ourselves, we made a short stop at the Kiriat Anavim cemetery. It seemed that we were the first to visit since the stop and there was still a lot of snow here also. Trees also lay all over the place, blown over by the strong winds. This is the cemetery of the Harel Brigade, part of the Palmach, who were responsible for fighting the battle to open and protect the road to Jerusalem. They suffered the heaviest losses of any part of the nascent IDF in the war; one third of the brigade was killed. We heard the stories of some of their most famous fallen, and reflected on the tragic losses of this period.
Continuing north, we stopped at the Memorial for the Armoured Corps (Yad Lashiryon) at Latrun. Now also a museum for tanks (which they claim has the biggest variety of tanks of any collection in the world), we learned about the formation of the Israeli armoured corps in order to try to take this hilltop in the 1948 war. Here was a former British fortress, and taking it was essential in order to control the road to Jerusalem. Unfortunately the Arabs had also realised this and from May 1948 the area was swarming with soldiers of the Jordanian Arab Legion, the best trained soldiers in the region. We had a quick tour of some of the tanks and visited the memorial, designed by the famous sculptor Danny Caravan.
The Israelis fought five battles for Latrun, all of them tragic failures. Realising the futility of further attacks, they ingeniously built a by-pass around the area (and also that of the problematic Shaar HaGay). As they copied a technique used by the British in the East, this new route was known as the Burma Road. We relocated to a viewpoint near Neve Shalom whence we could better understand how the battles played out, and also the location of the Burma Road. With the construction of this new route, the siege of Jerusalem was broken, and later a new road was built connecting the area just west of Latrun with the area of Shoresh. With the Latrun and Shaar Hagay area remaining under Jordanian control until 1967, this became the road to Jerusalem in the interim.
The siege of Jerusalem was lifted, and now the forces could focus on the Jewish areas cut off by the Egyptians in the south. More on that to come after our next field trip…
As part of our series of trips exploring the development of the modern city of Jerusalem (i.e. outside of the Old City walls), today’s tour was dedicated to buildings constructed during the period of the British Mandate, from 1920-48.
As always, however, not everything fits into the tour’s theme. We took advantage of our location to begin the day at the Jesus Hilfe Lepers’ House. Built in the late 19th century and run by nuns, the building was constructed as a home for the numerous sufferers of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, in the city of Jerusalem. After the establishment of the state it was taken over by the Ministry of Health and through their work there a treatment was developed for the disease. The last inhabitant left a few years ago and it is now a culture centre. There is a small exhibition about the lepers’ home, and also about the history of the disease, which is not the same as the tzaraat in the bible, which is normally translated as leprosy.
We then began a stroll around the neighbourhood of Talbiye / Kommemiyut. We learned that this period was typified by the construction of ‘garden neighbourhoods’, the idea being to keep traffic away from the centre of the neighbourhood, and maintain a tranquil atmosphere, as much as was possible. Our guide pointed out some of the grander buildings and told us stories of their inhabitants, as well as architectural features.
We moved on into the neighbourhood of Rechavia, built at the same period. We noted the current home of the Prime Minister, and heard more stories about some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood over the years.
A somewhat unexpected break came in the visit to the Tomb of Jason. Discovered during construction in the area, it is the remains of a Jewish tomb from the 2nd temple period. In fact, there is very little to see, but what is interesting is the images of ships found painted on the wall inside. We don’t know who this Jason was, but given the dating of the tomb, together with its grand nature, some believe it belongs to the High Priest who wrote the second book of Maccabees.
We continued to the Yad Ben Zvi institute. Yitzchak Ben Zvi, the second president of Israel, was a passionate researcher of the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. Housed here is his small hut, in which he made his home, and also a research institute established in his memory. On becoming president, he famously turned down the grandeur of a state home constructed for the purpose, preferring to remain in his simple hut. They don’t make them like that anymore!
Our next stop of significance was at the National Institutions Building. Opened in 1930, this was the first major building of the Zionist enterprise. At the heart of new Jerusalem, it was designed to house the main institutions of the Zionist movement: the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayement L’Yisrael) and the United Israel Appeal (Keren HaYesod). We learned about the history of these institutions, the key roles they played in the establishment and strengthening of the state, and the work they continue to do to this day.
A further stop was also not from an earlier period, but it was a shame to pass the Ratisbonne Monastery without popping in for a look. Founded by a French Jew-turned-Catholic in the mid 19th century, the idea was to generate a better understanding between Christians and Jews, albeit with an ultimate objective of proselytising. Today, the proselytising has taken a backseat, and it is a place for Christians to come and study Hebrew and Jewish texts, within the environment of Jerusalem.
Our final stop of the day was at the original home of the famous art school, Betzalel. Named after the biblical designer of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), this was the place where under Boris Shatz a group of talented artists attempted to create a new Jewish national art. They did so by mixing traditional Jewish motifs with those of Assyria and Mesopotamia, also using the physical features of the Land of Israel as an inspiration. Although the main campus of the school has moved, it still maintains a presence at the site, and remains the leading art school in the country. The building is also now used as a sort of community centre for artists in Jerusalem which also houses exhibitions and has a delightful little cafe. Worth a visit if you are in the area!
We have been in Jerusalem a lot of late and it has been great to discover so many of its secrets. We won’t be back now for 6 weeks or so – expect more reporting from trips in the north and centre of the country in the upcoming updates.
Today was another catch-up trip, this time focusing on Jerusalem in the Roman and Byzantine periods, i.e. from the 1st to 7th centuries CE.
However, because of its location, we actually began the day at the site known as Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as King Solomon’s Quarry), just next to the Damascus Gate. It is a site I have passed several times but never visited; it looks singularly unimpressive from the street. On entering, however, you realise that the small opening widens out into a jaw-droppingly huge cavernous interior that was a quarry for the famous Jerusalem limestone from either the 1st or 2nd temple periods.
If it was indeed from the first temple period (this is disputed), then maybe King Solomon used these quarries to construct his temple, hence the site was named King Solomon’s quarry and became a popular site with Freemasons who identify their origins in the builders of his temple. A Jewish tradition also developed that this was the escape route of King Zedekiah from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.
Exiting the cave, we proceeded to the Damascus Gate (in Hebrew the Shechem, or Nablus Gate). This grand structure was constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent, but below, to the left, it is possible to see an arch belonging to a Roman gate from the 2nd century. There are also remains here of the Crusader gate.
Heading into the Old City, we arrived at the Church of Alexander Nevsky. Owned by the Russian Orthodox church and named for a major Russian hero, this site is also important as archaeological excavations prior to construction unearthed remains of an arch, steps and grand columns. Although the dating of these structures is disputed (Roman, Byzantine, or perhaps running through both periods) it seems that here was the grand entrance first to the pagan temple to Aphrodite, constructed by Hadrian, which was later replaced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, in the 4th century.
It was therefore only appropriate to continue to the modern day Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is no longer accessible through its original Byzantine entrance. We focused on the areas of the church that were constructed during the Byzantine period, visiting the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, located behind the burial tomb of Jesus; noting the arches built by the Byzantine emperor Monomachos as part of his reconstruction of the church following destruction by the Muslim rulers in the 11th century. We also descended to the chapel of St Helena, into the foundations of the original basilica structure, noting the foundation walls and hearing the story of pilgrim graffiti which is hidden behind the Armenian altar.
Exiting the church, we visited the cardo in the Jewish Quarter of the city. The remains here are from the Byzantine period; we used an enlarged version of the Madaba Map to learn about the main streets in Jerusalem during Roman-Byzantine rule (there were two cardo streets running north-south in the city) including different theories about where the city gates where in the different periods.
We concluded our day at the ruins of the grand Nea Church, constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and in fact the largest church to have ever been constructed in the Byzantine period, anywhere in the world. Today it is only possible to see remains of the apse, but the tale of the search for the remains of this church over the decades and its eventual discovery was quite the adventure.
So concluded our day with the Romans and the Byzantines!
While last week’s trip was focussed on the first buildings outside of the Old City walls by the Christian European powers, today we looked at the establishment of the first neighbourhoods of Jerusalem outside of the city walls – these were founded by Jews.
We began our day however at the old train station, recently refurbished and opened in the summer having been closed since 1998. I actually remember taking the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and exiting at this station on a family trip many years ago; it took a very long time as the train wound through the Jerusalem hills but there were lovely views. We learned about the history of the Jaffa to Jerusalem railway, opened in 1892 and the first to be built in Israel. The current line now goes to Malcha in the south-west of the city; in 2017 there should be a fast speed line connecting the centre of Tel Aviv to the centre of Jerusalem in just 30 minutes. Although whether it will be open by 2017 is another question!
A brief walk away was the St Andrew’s Church, belonging to the Church of Scotland. Set up in the 1930s as a memorial to the Scotsmen who died in the battle for Israel in WWI, it later became a memorial also to those who died during the years of the British Mandate and later in WWII. The compound also contains a guest house and has commanding views over Mt Zion and the west of the Old City.
We continued north, arriving at the famous Montefiore windmill in the neighbourhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. We heard the story of the famous Sir Moses Montefiore, the British philanthropist who funded this mill and the construction of the entire neighbourhood, the first outside of the Old City walls, in response to overcrowding and poor sanitation in Jerusalem. Although the sanitary conditions here were better, security was problematic, meaning that only the poor were willing to move and be at risk of looting from Arab marauders. We went through a walk in the neighbourhood, hearing about the history of the nearby Sultan’s Pool (most recently developed by Suleiman the Magnificent, although its origins lie in the second temple period) and then the expansion of building into what later became the adjoining neighbourhood of Yemin Moshe.
These areas were effectively slums and certainly after 1948 were not attractive places to live in – the Jordanian’s controlled the Old City walls turning them into dangerous places; stories were told of women being shot while hanging their washing on their roofs. Around twenty people were shot dead in these neighbourhoods from 1948-67, after which Israel controlled the Old City and the danger ceased.
At this point the Jerusalem municipality decided to redevelop the area, controversially paying off the inhabitants to leave, refurbishing and attempting to create an artists’ colony. Unfortunately very few artists could afford the new housing so most of the property was bought by wealthy families abroad who use it as a holiday home; this means the neighbourhood is quaint and beautiful but something of a ghost town.
We then had a brief interlude at the grand King David Hotel (sadly not going inside) where we heard the story of the famous attack by the Irgun on the British offices in the southern wing in 1946. The attack caused significant loss of life and debate rages about the extent to which the British were given warning; however the evidence suggests that they did indeed have sufficient warning to evacuate; unfortunately for a variety of reasons they chose not to do so.
Across the street from the King David Hotel is the YMCA building, a grand structure completed in the 1930s by the architect of the Empire State Building in New York. Although we did not have time to ascend the tower and enjoy the view over Jerusalem, we did learn about the symbolism of the architecture which is designed to promote the idea of peace between the three Abrahamic faiths in Jerusalem.
A short stroll down King David St took us into the area of Machane Yisrael, the second neighbourhood outside of the Old City walls. The initiative of Rabbi David Ben-Shimon, an immigrant from Morocco, this was a solution to secure some independence from the control of the Sephardi rabbinic council in the Old City. Not much remains of the neighbourhood but the grand central building has been lovingly restored into the Worldwide North Africa Jewish Heritage Centre.
Inside the centre attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the Maghreb with beautiful carvings and floor tiles. There is a small museum about the Jews in the area and also a large media centre for those who would like to research further. The centre organises many activities to promote the culture of North African Jews including the teaching of traditional liturgy and melodies.
We continued into the modern day town centre and to the third neighbourhood outside of the city walls, Nachalat Shiva. This neighbourhood was founded by seven young rabbis in their twenties (together with their families) who had been impressed by the sanitary benefits of living outside the city walls and decided that it was worth trying it themselves. After one of them dressed as an Arab woman to buy the land (at the time it was very difficult for Jews to buy land) they apportioned it between themselves and began to build homes.
Over time more and more people moved into the area; it became crowded and as a result had many small hiding places. The Irgun made it one of their centres of operation and as a result the British marked it for demolition. The order was never carried out but the area continued to be a slum until the Jerusalem municipality decided to conserve it in the 1980s. It is now full of trendy cafes and bars.
Our final stop was in the area of the Mamilla cemetery, an ancient burial ground dating back to the Crusader period (and possibly before) but really coming into its own in the Mamluk period which followed. We heard the stories behind some of the tombs (and the legends of the Lion’s cave) before visiting the Mamilla pool, a water source for the city from the Second Temple period.
From the cemetery we were afforded a view of the Palace Hotel, soon to become the new Waldorf in Jerusalem (with a magnificently restored original exterior), constructed by the Mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930s to compete with the splendour of the King David.
It was a fascinating day of stories and legends about the more recent history of Jerusalem, although with the winter approaching we were beginning to feel the chill. Next week we travel south to catch some sun in Eilat!
We returned to Jerusalem for a trip themed around the arrival of the European powers in the city. Over the course of the 19th century, for a variety of reasons, Jerusalem rose in importance in the Christian world and the international diplomatic struggle between the world powers began to play itself out over here with Russia (supporting the Orthodox church), France (supporting the Catholics) and Germany and the UK (supporting the Protestants) pushing for influence and control.
For the first time, a great deal of land began to be developed outside the city walls, by Jewish and Christian communities in parallel. This week’s trip was mainly focused on stories and buildings that came out of the Christian move outside the walls.
After having a brief introduction to the day at the grand Mahanaim house, built for a prominent Swiss banker and later housing the British High Commissioner, we admired the outside of the St Paul’s Church. The Anglican London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews had come to Jerusalem and had limited success with their target audience. Still, they had managed to persuade a certain amount of local Arabs to become Christian. This church, the first of its kind in its Jerusalem, was designed to allow Arab Christians to attend protestant services in their vernacular for the first time. As with the Mahanaim house, it is believed to have been designed by Conrad Schick (more on him later!).
We walked down the Shivtei Yisrael street, arriving at the grand exterior of the Italian hospital. The Italians arrived late in Jerusalem compared to their European neighbours, having been tied up by fighting in Libya, but they made up for it with the grandeur of this construction in the Renaissance style. Designed by the famed Barluzzi brothers, the younger of the two, Antonio, was so taken with Israel that he stayed, becoming the architect of many of the Catholic churches in the country.
Turning up Haneviim street, we paused at the Ort Orliesky College building. Of more interest than the building itself was what took place here prior to its construction. On this site was the grand camp of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited Israel at the end of the 19th century. The visit was a huge event, leading to large amounts of construction, repair and cleaning of Jerusalem and the country in general in order to give a good impression to the first time visitor. We heard about his meeting with Herzl (you may recall that we heard about his previous meeting in Mikve Yisrael a few weeks ago) and his patronage of Jerusalem churches which resulted from his trip.
Continuing up the street, we paused at the former site of the Marienstift Children’s Hospital, the first children’s hospital in the Middle East; remarkable as its Christian founder, Dr Max Sandreczky, treated children of all faiths with no ulterior motives. Many of the other hospitals in Jerusalem had been founded by proselytising Christian groups which made their use problematic for the mostly Jewish and Muslim residents.
Continuing the medical theme, we visited the site of the Rothschild Hospital (once it had moved outside of the Old City walls), which was later named the Rothschild Hadassah hospital and became the forerunner of the famous facility now located on Mt Scopus. Today it is the Hadassah college and many of the students seemed a bit bemused by our visit!
A little further up the street was the grand Tabor House (Beit Tavor), former residence of a legend among Jerusalem’s architects, cartographers and archaeologists, Dr Conrad Schick.
An aside: at this point in the course each of the participants is asked to guide a specific site during one of our trips, the idea being that we get practice in preparing and then delivering the story in front of a group. A few weeks ago I was informed that I was to guide at Beit Tavor, and having given some thought to the task at hand, I decided that I wanted to do something a little different.
Having asked a friend to lead the group into a seated area, I performed a costume change that Clark Kent would have been proud of, emerging to the seated masses in the guise of none other than Dr Schick himself!
I regaled the group with stories of my arrival to Jerusalem, my architectural philosophies and my archaeological adventures. Most exciting was the tale of my discovery of the famed Siloam Inscription! I’m pleased to say that the group received this well and it made it worth carrying the costume with me all day long!
We moved on from Beit Tavor to the nearby Ethiopian Church, also designed by the dear Dr Schick. We learned here about the Ethiopian tradition of their connection to King Solomon as well as some of their practices which are unique among other Christian groups. The church was beautiful and completely different from anything we had seen until this point. Well worth a visit.
After noting the former home of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, considered the pioneer of Modern Hebrew, which was located opposite the church, we made a brief stop at the Bnai Brith Library. We heard the controversial history of the library, located close to the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood while stocking a mixture of religious and secular books. Apparently some of the local haredi Jews would have spies around the library to catch people going in! The library was eventually designated the official national library of the future State of Israel; when the national library was relocated to be close to the Knesset, the building eventually became a yeshiva.
A brief historical interlude at the site of Nebi Akasha. Witnesses testify to this site in the 13th century although the building itself dates from the beginning of the 16th. Buried here are members of the Kamyari family, although we know little about them. In the 19th century a mosque was added to the site. Neither are in use at the moment; around them has grown the modern city of Jerusalem (the building would have been some distance from the city walls when constructed) but it is testimony to another portion of Jerusalem’s past.
Continuing on Haneviim, we paused by the home of William Holman Hunt, a British avant-garde artist who decided that to paint religious scenes of Israel, he needed to actually be here. Opposite his grand mansion was a small house that was briefly occupied by the famous Israeli poet Rachel, although she would have been there too late to meet her wealthy neighbour.
Our next stop was at the delightful Beit Ticho, home to one of Jerusalem’s first cafes (I can testify to the quality of their desserts!). We heard about the former inhabitants of the house, particularly the famous antiques forger Herman Shapira, and then the world-renowned optometrist Dr Ticho and his artistic wife Anna. The building is now owned by the Israel Museum and it is possible to enter for free and enjoy a small exhibition of Anna’s work together with a changing exhibition upstairs. And perhaps have a dessert on the way out…
Next to Beit Ticho is Beit HaRav, the former home Rav Kook, considered to be the founder of religious Zionism. Here was also his yeshiva, the Mercaz HaRav; there is now a small museum instead although sadly we did not have time to take a look – I’ll have to make a return visit.
We concluded our day in the area called the Russian Compound. The Russians were the major investors in Jerusalem of all the major powers during this period, partly because they had the majority of the pilgrims – around 20 000 a year! The Russian Compound was constructed to meet their needs offering hostels for men and women and a grand church. A later, grandiose building known as Sergei’s Courtyard was constructed to host important aristocrats; it has recently been returned to the Russian government and is undergoing refurbishment.
With the communist revolution the pilgrimages from Russia reduced significantly as did the funds flowing to the Orthodox Church institutions in Israel. Much of the land was sold off and the Russian compound was taken over eventually by the British and used as their governmental headquarters in Jerusalem. When Israel was later established, they bought the land from Russia (in oranges – money was short at the time!) and established there various local governmental organisations – the Jerusalem municipality is still in the area – as well as the Supreme Court before it moved to its current location.
Situated inside the Russian Compound is the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. The British converted one of the hostels into a prison – it is possible to visit the site where they have attempted to reconstruct prison life so that it is possible to understand the conditions at the time. Perhaps of most interest is the dramatic story of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani – these two men were sentenced to death by the British; in a final act of defiance they committed suicide. The story is a remarkable one, to the extent that the former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin requested to be buried next to them on the Mount of Olives, forfeiting his right to be interred at Mt Herzl.
Next week we return to Jerusalem to explore the Jewish exodus from the Old City walls and the British Mandate rule in Jerusalem.
We have visited sites in the Jewish Quarter before, as part of our tours of Jerusalem in the First Temple Period, the Second Temple Period, even the Crusader Period. Today, however, was focused on the more recent history of the quarter, from when Jews returned to live in the area in around 1400 after being expelled from the area surrounding Mt Zion.
Historically, Jewish communities have been centred around synagogues, and these formed a large part of our morning tour. We began at the Ramban Synagogue where we learned about the great Torah scholar and thinker, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman after whom it is named. Arriving in Jerusalem in the 13th century, shortly after it had been devastated by Mongol marauders, he helped re-establish the Jewish community here and we heard from letters he wrote on the subject. It is probably the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Jerusalem.
The other contender for that crown is the Synagogue of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, located in the complex known as the ‘Four Sephardi Synagogues’. Originally all separate structures, they were united into one in the mid 19th century, when an Egyptian invasion relaxed many of the restrictions imposed by the Ottomans on Jewish building. Also in the complex are the Central, Istanbul and Elijah the Prophet synagogues. From 1948-67, when the Jewish Quarter was under Jordanian control, these buildings were used as storehouses, warehouses, and fell into disrepair. They have now been restored and are impressive structures; they remain in regular use by the local and visiting Sephardi communities as their main hub in Jerusalem.
We continued to the ruins of the Tiferet Yisrael synagogue, which is currently being restored. As one of the tallest buildings in the Jewish Quarter, it is quickly blown up by the Jordanian army as they advanced in 1948, to prevent any potential height advantage for Israeli fighters. It should be open in a few years for visitors to marvel at its renewed glory.
Opposite Tiferet Yisrael was the small Karaite Centre of Jerusalem. We descended underground to visit their synagogue which they believe has been at that site since the 9th century. The Karaites are an interesting group of Jews who follow only the Bible and not the following commentaries or exegesis in the Oral Law. They are now few in number and the Jerusalem synagogue only functions as a place for prayer on special request; the majority of the community is currently based in Ramla (avid blog followers will recall that we paid them a visit a few months ago).
Our final synagogue visit was also to the most magnificent of those in the Jewish Quarter, the ‘Hurva’. Originally built by Ashkenazi Jews arriving from Europe in the 1700s, it was destroyed when they could not pay the large loans taken to fund the construction; in fact this led to the formal expulsion of all Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem (although several found ingenious ways of sticking around). Rebuilt around 100 years later, it was again destroyed in 1948, this time by the Jordanians who as with Tiferet Yisrael decided to destroy the large buildings in the area. It was eventually rebuilt and restored at great expense, reopening just a few years ago in 2007. Its interior is quite stunning as are the views possible from the dome’s exterior balcony.
After some respite for refreshments we paid a quick visit to the site of Jerusalem’s first hospital (you can’t enter it anymore but we saw the building) and then popped into the very interesting Old Yishuv Courtyard museum. This small but carefully maintained museum tells the story of the life of the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter under Ottoman and British rule with artefacts from their lives and rooms mocked up in traditional styles.
After a brief stop at a stunning viewpoint over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, we concluded the day at the memorial for those who fell in the battle for the Jewish Quarter in the 1948 War of Independence. As the area was at the time under siege, it was impossible to bury the dead in the tradition location of the Mount of Olives cemetery; therefore special dispensation was given to bury them in a mass grave, which is now the memorial. After Israel took back the area in 1967, they moved the bones to the Mount of Olives. We heard here about the heroic struggle to survive and hold the Jewish Quarter in the war, which ultimately failed in the face of superior numbers and experience on the part of the Jordanian army. Although a huge dent in morale, the loss of this area made the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 that much more euphoric.
Today began in a sombre atmosphere as we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official museum to the Shoah (the Holocaust). As the second most visited tourist site in Israel it is a very important place for us to know well. I have visited the new museum here several times but this was my first time going through with a guide, the amount of material can be quite overwhelming and I felt that being taken through the museum with explanations of the key exhibits really added to my experience.
The site was set up in the 1950s but the present museum structure dates only from 2005. It tells the story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews which culminated in the famous ‘Final Solution’ – the mass genocide that killed 6 million. It was as always a moving experience; each time I find myself flabbergasted by the fact that human beings were capable of doing such things to each other. It is really impressive that so many of the visitors to Israel come here – it is not exactly a fun way to spend your holiday. But it is important to try to understand what happened – on each visit I learn something new – so that we can try to prevent similar events in the future.
After the museum, we visited some of the many memorials and monuments that are around the site. We began at the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, a collection of trees and monuments dedicated to those non-Jews who endangered themselves to try and save the lives of Jews during the Shoah. Among them are Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands in Hungary, and Oscar Schindler, made famous by the Spielberg film.
Our guide explained how these individuals are researched and recognised – the committee in charge of doing so apparently recognises about 500 more people every year. Many have now passed away but their families are notified of the award.
We visited next the Valley of the Communities, an large space which recalls all the Jewish communities which fell under Nazi control during the war, many of which were wiped out. Organised in a rough geographical order, we wondered around marvelling at the amount and variety of these places, our guide told us some of the stories of the communities from before or during the war. For the first time I was able to locate the village from which my family came in Bavaria, Gunzenhausen. Fortunately, my grandmother and her family were all able to escape Germany before war broke out.
We also made sure to visit the Children’s Memorial, dedicated to the 1.5 million children who were murdered by the Nazis. These huge numbers are simply beyond our comprehension and the memorial tries to help the visitor come to terms with the size of this destruction while at the same time reminding us of the names of the individual children whose lives were brutally cut short.
Finishing at Yad Vashem, we ascended up the hill to the Mt Herzl cemetery. Here we paid our respects to some of the greats of Israeli history – the thinkers and activists Herzl and Jabotinsky; the prime ministers and presidents, military heroes such as Hannah Senesh; the defenders of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem in 1948; Yoni Netanyahu. Of particular interest was the relatively new memorial to the many Ethiopian Jews who died during the long walk to Sudan to be flown to Israel. Built in the style of an Ethiopian village, it is nice that these relatively recent arrivals to the country also have an important portion of the symbolic national cemetery.
We concluded our day with a visit to the Herzl museum. It quite cleverly tells the story of the pioneer of political Zionism through films and sets, trying to transport the visitor into the atmosphere of his life. The final part of the museum challenges the visitor to continue to try and shape Israel in Herzl’s vision – a country at peace within with its different communities and social groups making up the population; at peace without with its neighbours. Still very much a work in progress, but in Herzl’s words: “if you will it, it is no dream”!
An interesting trip today as we visited ‘institutions in Jerusalem’, based around the area of Givat Ram where you can find a variety of museums together with a large amount of government buildings and also a large campus for the Hebrew University.
We began our day at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Before entering we spent some time admiring the grand statue of a menorah outside it. The menorah (a seven-branched candelabrum) is an ancient Jewish motif, important because of its status in the temple. This statue was commissioned by the British government and gifted to Israel in 1956. It features a variety of motifs from Jewish history and our guide diligently explained its symbolism and history.
Our attention then turned to the Knesset building opposite us; in use since 1966. Interestingly, it is on the site of ancient Jewish catacombs from the period of the Second Temple. Entering, we took part in a guide tour, enjoying the art of the Chagall Hall (beautiful tapestries and mosaics) and learning about the history of the Knesset itself. As with many things in Israel, it is filled with symbolism and a connection to the past. It has 120 members, based on the number of people who sat in the Great Assembly, the Jewish governmental body which existed into the beginning of the period of the mishna.
Unfortunately Bibi had decided that he would not be able to meet us, so we walked through the beautiful Wohl Rose Garden to arrive at the Supreme Court. It is a relatively new building, opened only in 1992, housing five courts in which its 15 judges sit. The architecture of the building is filled with symbolism; a contrast of lines (representing law) with circles (representing justice). The building also hearkens back to ancient times; the entrance to each court is through a structure resembling the ancient Israelite city gates, as justice in the bible was carried out in the city gates, by the city elders. The courts themselves are designed as a basilica, the style of public building introduced by the Romans and later used in Byzantine churches and synagogues.
Our guide also explained the Israeli judicial system and how cases may end up in the Supreme Court. We visited a case in session although the discussion was based around a very technical legal point which I can’t claim to have understood! The court is free to enter and you can go without arranging it in advance and just wander around; it is well worth a visit.
Our final stop was at the Israel Museum, where we focussed on the wing dedicated to archaeology. This was our chance to review all that we had learned until now; together with our guide we whizzed through history in just over 2 hours: pre-history; the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods; the Bronze & Iron ages, the Hellenist and Roman periods. It was exhausting and thrilling; we saw in the flesh many exhibits that til now we had seen only in photographic or replica form. It was very rewarding to realise that I was able to identify many of the exhibits from afar, and also to now be able to fully appreciate them, having knowledge of their history and importance.
The Israel Museum’s collection is truly remarkable and in my opinion among the best in the world. However, it really is worth being guided through the exhibition; either by hiring a guide to take you around Jerusalem or going on one of the scheduled tours. This will help you appreciate quite how incredible the exhibits are.
We finished the day with a visit to the Herod exhibition (it closes in January, so check it out soon!). I had been before but having visited Herodion a couple of weeks previously it was much more rewarding.
Sadly we did not get to visit the rest of the museum but it is good to have reasons to return!
As we move more and more into the modern period today’s trip was focused around a group of more modern settlements and towns that lie along the south part of the central coastal plain. In English, between Tel Aviv and Ashdod. The idea was to tell some of the stories that led to the formation of the state through looking at some of the people and groups who helped lay the groundwork for it to happen.
Our first stop was just outside Holon, at Mikve Yisrael. Founded in the mid-19th century by a Frenchman called Carl Netter, this was the beginning of Israel’s modern-day agricultural revolution, at least for the Jews. He decided that there was a need for the Jews to learn how to work the land, and opened an agricultural school to teach them how to do so. The local Jews at the time were unconvinced (for the first couple of years he only had one pupil) but over the years the school gradually grew, particularly with the large waves of immigrants from Europe who were specifically keen to work the land.
In addition to playing this important role in early state building, the school was the site of a famous meeting between Theodore Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898. Herzl came here specifically to meet the Kaiser while he was visiting the region to try and persuade him to support the Zionist cause by petitioning the Ottoman Sultan. He was somewhat unsuccessful.
We visited various old buildings around the site including the synagogue, the old winery and the machine room. The school is still functioning so we also got to encounter some of the contemporary students. And there was quite a good film about the history of the site.
We journeyed south to Rishon Letzion (First to Zion), established in 1882 and now the fourth biggest city in Israel. The 17 families who arrived here from Russia did not know much about building a settlement and suffered a lot in a struggle for finding a local water source. In the end, thanks to support from Baron de Rothschild in Paris (his first support to the Zionist immigrants) they were able to dig a deep well to the groundwater. They were so excited to have found water that the slogan ‘we found water!’ is now a part of the city symbol.
Rishon (as it is often called) has a small museum about the city history and we visited the old synagogue, the site of the well (it is very deep!) and a few old homes. The city claims to be have invented the Israeli flag and also home to the creation of the national anthem (or at least setting it to music). It is the site of the first school to be taught entirely in Hebrew, and we had the pleasure of receiving a lesson from ‘David Yudelovitch’, the school’s founder!
We journeyed south to Ness Tziona, where we visited the home of the town’s founder, Reuben Lehrer. He was a wealthy Russian Jew who in 1883 traded his lands in Russia for this small and rather unappetising wasteland in the Land of Israel. After persuading 10 other families to join him (so that he had quorum for his prayers) he began to make the best of it and here were the first Jewish beekeepers in the modern period. Ness Tziona also claim to have invented the Israeli flag, so a bit of controversy there with their northern neighbours in Rishon. In addition to the original home, we were able to visit the old synagogue.
Southwards we continued to Rechovot, visiting the grand home of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel. Weizmann’s story is very impressive; he was a scientific mastermind who became wealthy through his patents, particularly for creating acetone through a biological method and the manufacture of synthetic rubber. He was also a tireless campaigner for the Zionist cause helping secure the 1917 Balfour Declaration, lobbying the British against their immigration restrictions and working hard to help get the UN to pass the partition plan in 1947. As we wondered through his home we heard stories about his life, and finished the visit by paying our respects at his grave.
Our final stop of the day was at the Ayalon Institute, located in Rehovot. I was very pleasantly surprised by the site, probably because I really like any stories to do with espionage or clandestine operations. Here, right next to a large British army base, the Hagana (the defence force for the Jews in Israel pre-state) built a large underground ammunition manufacturing facility, underneath a functioning kibbutz were most of the inhabitants were completely unaware of what was going on beneath them. In large thanks to this facility, the nascent IDF were able to have the ammunition required to fight in the War of Independence in 1948.
It was a great story of subterfuge and bravery and very interesting to descend into the underground facility. Well worth the visit!