A good friend of mine is a guide who lives on Mt Scopus, in Jerusalem. When I was visiting him recently he offered to show me some of the hidden secrets of the main campus of the Hebrew University, which is based there, and naturally I was happy to take him up on the offer!
I was genuinely surprised at the range of things there are to see on the campus, and warmly recommend it as a stop for those who think they have seen all that Jerusalem has to offer.
We began with a stroll through the botanical gardens. Unlike in the University of Tel Aviv, the gardens meld into the rest of the campus instead of being a separate entity. I liked that they were much more accessible.
A short walk then took us to the Cave of Nicanor. Discovered in around 1902, this is a set of Jewish tombs from the Second Temple Period. The fascinating thing is that an inscription was discovered in one of the caves referring to Nicanor of Alexandria who donated the doors to the temple. The story of Nicanor, and his difficult journey to bring the doors to Jerusalem, is detailed in the Talmud, and so it is amazing to see the story corroborated by archaeological evidence.
In contrast with the ancient period, nearby it is possible to find the tombs of two major Zionists – Menachem Ussishkin and Leon Pinsker. The plan had been to create the Zionist pantheon here, on Mt Scopus – combining the link with the ancient times (the tomb of Nicanor) and celebrating the modern success of the first Hebrew University. However, after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Mt Scopus was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem; an island in the middle of the Jordanian East. It was still possible to access the campus, but it was with difficulty, and so the Israeli leadership decided to create a new pantheon on Mt Herzl, which remains to this day. Unfortunately it left Ussishkin and Pinsker out on a bit of a limb!
Leaving the graves behind, we continued through the campus. A sad reminder of the terrorist attack on the campus in July 2002 is present in the Tilted Tree sculpture by Ran Morin. The tree is at an angle as if impacted by the blast.
Our next stop was in the impressive amphitheater. It was a nostalgic moment for me; the last time I was there was for a welcome ceremony when I made aliyah four years previously. This time it was a lot quieter, and we enjoyed the stunning view eastwards over the Judean desert.
We concluded with a quick visit in the main student centre, where we enjoyed some pictures of the opening ceremony of the university (quite the event back in 1925) and then popped into the beautiful synagogue, which has a lovely view over Jerusalem.
With a big thanks to Jeremy for showing me around!
A strange atmosphere today, a sense of nearing the end, as we began our penultimate tour of the course. Today’s trip was dedicated to the settlement of the Jordan Valley (or specifically the area around the Sea of Galilee), with a diversion via the Harod spring which we had not managed to visit previously.
On the one hand, a palpable sense of relief in the air – we have nearly made it! On the other, tension and concern as the final exams approach. And a mix of nostalgia – we have gone through a lot together.
Our day began, as mentioned, at the Harod Spring, located on the slopes of the Gilboa mountain. We visited the house built by Yehoshua Hankin, who was responsible for purchasing a great deal of the land that eventually became part of Israel – around 1000 square kilometres (that’s around 250 000 acres), including the majority of the Jezreel and Harod valleys. The house has recently been restored and has a short film about the life of Hankin – the film is a bit dated but the story is very impressive.
We then descended to the Harod spring itself, the site of the biblical story where Gideon selected his warriors based on their drinking style, before going out to vanquish the marauding Midianites.
Leaving the biblical period behind us, we drove east to the site of ‘Old Gesher’, which until 1948 was the Gesher kibbutz. Gesher means bridge and here are three bridges over the Jordan river, with one dating to the Roman period (with Mamluk repairs on top). The border with Jordan runs right down the middle of the river and we descended to the river (under the watchful eye of the nearby Jordanian border position) to check out the bridges and hear about the battle for the site in 1948.
Nearby are the ruins of the Naharayim hydroelectric plant, the first such structure in the Middle East and a remarkable feat of engineering for the time. Built across the border of what was then the Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, it was an example of the cooperation between the early Zionists and King Abdullah of Jordan; sadly this did not last past the 1948 war and ever since it has been lying in ruins. The electricity company have built a small interactive museum about the plant; I had low expectations but it really was rather good.
From Gesher, we headed north to the Kinneret ‘courtyard’. Here the World Zionist Organisation established a training farm at the beginning of the 20th century, to help all the young and eager pioneers learn how to farm the land before going out to set up for themselves. The passionate and ideological young socialists who arrived here formed the backbone of what was to be the future state; indeed it was here that institutions such as the kibbutz; institutions such as the Hagana, Hamashbir and the Labour Union first sprouted.
One of the most famous inhabitants is Rachel Bluwstein (normally just referred to as Rachel or Rachel the Poet), a young pioneer who led a short and tragic life, leaving behind here a large amount of beautiful poems, many of which have become part of the Israeli literary and indeed musical canon.
Speaking of the kibbutz, our next stop was slightly further south at Umm Juni. In 1910 a small group of socialist ideologues arrived here, having been offered the land by the WZO. Remarkably, through their revolutionary communal living model, they were able to make a profit in the first year. And so the first kibbutz was born, established just next to the area called Umm Juni, and named Deganya.
We headed back north, to the site known as the Motor House. The building housed a pump that irrigated the surrounding fields, but of more interest was the story of the Yemenite immigrants who were housed here after moving to Israel in around 1912. They were eventually moved on in order to allow graduates of the Kinneret farm to establish a new communal settlement on the land, and a significant proportion of the group were not happy to leave. The story only became public knowledge in the past 15 years or so and caused quite a big deal of controversy in Israel.
We walked from the Motor House to the shore of the Sea of Galilee and our final site for the day, the Kinneret Cemetery. In a beautiful shaded setting next to Israel’s largest freshwater lake is housed the pantheon of Labour Zionists, the graves of Berl Katznelson, Rachel, Moses Hess, Nachman Syrkin, to name just a few. Together with these are some tragic stories associated with the struggle of the pioneers to adjust to their new environment; or on a completely different note, the grave of Naomi Shemer, the singer of ‘Jerusalem of Gold’, who was born at Kinneret.
We began our drive home to Tel Aviv, and in addition to the other emotions of the morning, we all began to feel a certain amount of nostalgia. Just one more tour remains, and it should be quite a fun one. What is the destination? You will have to wait until next week to find out!
Today’s tour was dedicated to various sites along the southern coastal plain, culminating in a jump into the capital of the Negev desert, Beersheva. A long day, as we move forward in a final push towards the final exams and ensure that we fit in all the necessary sites in the time we have remaining.
Our day began at the quaint town of Mazkeret Batya, founded in the late 19th century by Baron Rothschild and named for his mother. We began our visit in the cemetery which also houses the reinterred remains of the great Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the forerunners of the Zionist movement (and who pre-dates Herzl in his work for a Jewish state).
We continued into the centre of the old town, stopping at the museum, viewing some of the old buildings and hearing the stories of their residents, culminating at a visit to the Shmuel Mohilever museum. The museum is small but does a good job of recounting the story of a very impressive man, and was the highlight of our trip to Mazkeret Batya.
We then headed south to the coast, and to the city of Ashdod. Here we began our visit at the ironically named Museum of Philistine Culture. But we quickly discovered that the modern association with the word Philistine is most inappropriate – these were a most cultured people who brought many interesting customs and craftwork to the region, with Ashdod being one of their biggest cities.
The museum is small but extremely well done. We enjoyed the opportunity to reenact Samson’s destruction of the Philistine temple, and various other interactive exhibits. We concluded the visit with some tasting of ‘Philistine food’ and dressing up in ‘Philistine costumes’. The latter activities are targeted at children but I can assure you that adults are equally able to enjoy themselves!
We headed further out towards the coast, to the impressive remains of the Ashdod Yam fortress. Dated to the Ummayid period in the 7th century, it seems that it was constructed to help protect local residents from sea pirates who would launch raids in order to kidnap people for the slave trade.
Our final stop in Ashdod was at the visitors’ centre at the port. Built in the 60s, and rendering the ports at Tel Aviv and Jaffa irrelevant, Ashdod port is now a key part of Israel’s economy. The visitors’ centre was quite fun with all sorts of interactive quizzes, and we were then driven around the port area to marvel at the huge ships and their accompanying machinery.
We drove south to Asheklon, and a visit to the Rutenberg Power Station. This huge facility provides about 20% of the electricity for Israel and the Palestinian territories. We drove around the site and learned also about the history of electricity in Israel – Rutenberg (after whom the site is named) had the vision to electrify the country and succeeded in doing so – a hugely impressive feat that helped drag the area into the 20th century.
We then traveled south to Beer Sheva, the capital of the Negev desert and actually the geographical centre of the country. We first visited the relatively recently opened Abraham’s Well site, where a 3D film that tells the story of Abraham (who first settled in the area of Beer Sheva, according to the Bible); on the film’s completion it is possible to visit an ancient well which may perhaps be connected to the one Abraham dug on arrival.
We continued with a wonder through the historical centre of the city (although it is not so old – the city was only reestablished in 1900 under the Ottomans). We heard the stories of the difficult battle for the city between the British and the Turks in 1917, and visited both the British military cemetery and the memorial for the Turkish fallen, together with a quite magnificent mosque which was constructed early in the 20th century.
With the setting sun, we finished the day at the Monument to the Negev Brigade, a unit of the Palmach who were instrumental in protecting the vital water pipeline that supplied the southern Jewish settlements in the 1940s, and also in securing the Negev all the way down to Eilat in 1948.
The monument commands an impressive view over the Negev and the southern parts of the Shfela, and Mt Hebron. The symbolism employed is both impressive and meaningful, the brutalist architecture jutting out from the peaceful countryside as a reminder of the losses in the battles for this area. A moving conclusion to a long but as always fascinating day.
Today was the second of our tours of Tel Aviv. The first dealt largely with the establishment of the city; this second trip was more focused on its ensuing development.
Our day began by the Tel Aviv Art Museum, in an area with many key cultural buildings (the opera, the Kamari theatre, the court house and the library, to name but a few). We learned about the development of these cultural institutions and the rationale for their current location.
While in the area, we popped south into the area of Sarona, a former German Templer colony much like the ones in Haifa and Jerusalem. The area is currently being refurbished and should be opened in within the next year – expect restaurants and cafes in quaint old buildings.
We then visited the old train station of Jaffa, known as the Tachana. Refurbished and reopened a few years ago, replete with designer boutiques, fancy cafes and swanky bars, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. So much so, that the other end of the line in Jerusalem recently underwent a similar overhaul and is likewise proving extremely popular.
From the train station, we travelled north along the coast to the memorial to the illegal immigration to Israel (known as the ha’apala) during the British mandate, located at the end of Bograshov street in an area called London Park. I must have walked down past it over a hundred times and never noticed it, yet another example of how it is possible to walk around one’s home city with one’s eyes almost shut! The memorial, built in the shape of a boat, tells the story of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe who tried to move to Israel despite the British prohibition on doing so.
From here, we headed into town and to Rabin Square. Stopping at the memorial to Yitzchak Rabin, we talked about his assassination in 1995 and the impact on Israeli society. Our guide offered us a few ideas as to how to present the site and its story to visitors, which gave some useful food for thought.
Continuing north, we headed to the old Tel Aviv port for a well-earned lunch break. After hearing the story of the development of the port in the 1930s and 40s, we walked north, crossing the Yarkon River and finding ourselves at Tel Kudadi, remains of a Canaanite settlement just next to the old lighthouse. Once more it seems that wherever you go in this country you are walking amidst ancient history!
Our final stop was at the relatively recently opened Israeli Museum also known as the Yitzchak Rabin Centre. The centre cleverly uses the life story of Yitzchak Rabin in parallel to the State of Israel in order to take the visitor through the history of the state. Since his youth as a young pioneer, Rabin was integrally involved in the state’s history, and was a major influence on its destiny, so the way the museum is built seems appropriate, and is a moving memorial to one of Israel’s greatest figures.
A moving conclusion to a great day in and around my home city. I look forward to showing people around Tel Aviv and telling its stories!
Once more we traveled to Jerusalem for today’s tour, with the focus on the city as part of the wars of 1948 (when it was split) and 1967 (when it was unified).
Our day began at the Greek Orthodox monastery of San Simon. This is believed to be the site of the home of Saint Simeon, the priest who performs the redemption ceremony for Jesus as described in the Gospel of Luke, and prophesies his future greatness.
Of more relevance to today’s visit, we learned that this was the site of a major battle in the 1948 war. There were four concentrations of Jews in south Jerusalem at the time: Ramat Rachel kibbutz, Mekor Haim, Talpiot and Arnona. The control of the Katamon neighbourhood around the monastery by the Arabs meant that these neighbourhoods were cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem and effectively under siege. Taking Katamon would enable Jewish control of the whole western part of the city.
The battle, which took place in April 1948, was long and ferocious. Ninety percent of the Israeli force was wounded, several mortally so. At one point they were about to give up and withdraw, but the Arab force beat them to it. Through stoicism, heroism and quite a bit of luck (these themes repeated themselves throughout the war), the battle was won and the southern Jewish neighbourhoods had their siege lifted.
We continued south to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, where the relief was short-lived. Only a few days after the Battle of San Simon the kibbutz was surrounded by Jordanian and Egyptian troops and subjected to an immense bombardment. The kibbutz members held on bravely for three days but eventually had to evacuate. Israel did not want to give up the kibbutz, and the battle continued, with the site changing hands three times before eventually being held by the Israeli troops.
While at Ramat Rachel, we also explored the archaeological excavations. Researchers have discovered remains of a vast palace complex from the 8th century BCE (the First Temple Period) including impressive irrigated gardens. The site continued to be an important administrative centre into the 3rd century BCE.
On route to our final stop for the day, we drove along parts of the ‘City Line’, the border between Israel and Jordan for 19 years between 1948 and 1967. It is crazy to think that there was a physical border fence along the middle of the city for so long. Although it was mostly quiet, every now and again Jordanian snipers would shoot over the fence causing several Israeli deaths and even more injuries.
Our last site was at Ammunition Hill, the memorial site for all soldiers who died in the battle for Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. There was an excellent film here about the battle for the city; the capture of the Old City was a very emotional moment for Israelis and Jews around the world, having been forbidden entry to their holiest site for 19 years, and the film conveyed this well.
Ammunition Hill was the site of a particularly difficult battle as the Israeli troops pushed east in an attempt to reach Mount Scopus, which had been an Israeli enclave within Jordanian territory since 1948. An intelligence error meant that the Israeli force was underprepared and under-resourced; after a gruelling 4 and a half hour battle over a very small area, and many lives lost, the hill was taken, paving the way for the eventual capture of the whole city.
With this, our series of tours focused on Israel’s wars has come to a close, together with the accompanying tragic stories of promising young lives cut short and remarkable bravery. In 2014, it is so easy to take Israel’s existence for granted; these tours have served as a reminder as to how close it came to extinction on so many occasions. Truly an extraordinary tale.
Last week’s tour was dedicated to the battle for the road to Jerusalem in 1948. We finished the day learning how the siege of Jerusalem was finally broken, a significant victory for the nascent Israeli state. However, the south of the country had been cut off completely by the Egyptian army. With Jerusalem now accessible and resources freed up, the attention began to turn southwards. Likewise, we would now journey south for a tour on the theme of the south of Israel in 1948.
We began the day at the Ad Halom Bridge, formerly known as Jisr Isdud, located next to Ashdod. This was the northernmost point reached by the advancing Egyptian armies, only 34km south of Tel Aviv. Fortunately the Israelis had managed to blow up the bridge, preventing further advancement, and we heard how a mixture of Israeli attacks (ironically complete failures, but psychologically damaging) combined with poor Egyptian intelligence meant that they progressed no further, instead opting to travel eastwards and cut off the south of the country from the centre. As such, the bridge was renamed ‘Ad Halom’, a very literary way of saying ‘up to here’ – a reference to the fact that the Egyptians progressed no further north.
We heard the story of the battles here, together with several acts of heroic individual bravery. This was also the site of the first mission of the nascent Israeli Air Force, if four planes could be called an airforce! The country has come a long way since 1948…
We continued south to the original site of Kibbutz Nitzanim. The Egyptians had not given the kibbutz too much trouble on their push north but with the decision to entrench they returned to clear their lines. The defendants of the kibbutz were hugely outnumbered and did not even have enough guns for one each; their communications device also failed and they were cut off from Israeli HQ – they had no idea if their SOS had been received and if back-up was on the way. They did their best to hold on heroically but eventually surrendered.
This surrender was pilloried at the time but once the facts became clear after the war, those involved in the battle were recognised for their bravery. The site is now also the site of the Women of Valour Centre, a memorial to all female soldiers who have died in battle. This site was chosen as in the last minute evacuation of women and children, 10 women refused to leave, insisting on taking their part in the defence of their home. Three of them were killed by Egyptian fire.
We journeyed further south, although back in time chronologically, to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. Sadly passing by the sign for the bee & honey experience (they make a lot of honey on the kibbutz), we visited the museum of the kibbutz where we heard the story of the battle here in 1948. Unlike at Nitzanim, the Egyptians made a point of conquering the kibbutz on their way north, as it occupied a strategic position on the coastal road.
The Israelis bravely held out for a few days but eventually fled in the face of overwhelming Egyptian superiority in numbers and weaponry. We heard of some of the acts of heroism while visiting the cemetery for those who died in the war. Eventually the IDF took back the kibbutz in its push south, and it became the effective border with the Gaza Strip (which was controlled by Egypt after 1948).
The kibbutz is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. The museum also contains information on life in the ghetto and details of the revolt.
Our final stop of the day was at Kibbutz Negba, which became the Israeli southern front against the Egyptian army. After spreading east from Ashdod, they had reached this area, but did not manage to conquer Negba. As we again sat in the military cemetery, we heard how the kibbutz remarkably held out in the face of ferocious attacks, being vastly outnumbered and with inferior weaponry. It was really quite remarkable.
Here we learned about Operation Yoav, named for one of Negba’s fallen. It was this operation, launched after the Jerusalem siege was broken, that finally broke through the Egyptian lines into the Negev. The decisive battle took place a few kilometres away from Negba.
With the Egyptian army now surrounded, the Israelis opened talks about a ceasefire and withdrawal; 90 days later the Egyptians acquiesced and left; the largest of the Arab armies that had invaded Israel in 1948 had been repelled, and the south had been freed.
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.
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.