A few days after the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, Knesset member and former prime minister David Ben-Gurion called for the government to demolish the walls surrounding the Old City. He was speaking at a rally for members Rafi, the political party he had founded in 1965. In a voice vibrant with passion, he stressed that the wall – built by the Turks – was not Jewish, and with its destruction the Holy City would be united for all to see.
His listeners were stupefied. But after the moment that it took to absorb what Ben-Gurion had proposed, they broke into stormy applause.
In his book “One Jerusalem,” Teddy Kollek recalls the incident but writes that he never spoke to Ben-Gurion about his idea. Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem at the time, believed that he understood the rationale behind it, but found the idea rather bizarre for historical, aesthetic and cultural reasons.
Fortunately, the walls are still there, and they are impressive: Just over four kilometers in length, they are 12 meters high, studded with towers and topped with crenellations. Atop the walls are ramparts (fortified walkways) that visitors can tread for wonderful views of the city both inside and outside the walls.
Most popular with tourists is the southern portion of the ramparts that begins behind David’s Tower and ends at Mount Zion, a walk that we have taken often, and even written about in the past. Looking for something different, we decided to go in the opposite direction last week, and strolled the ramparts from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate.
Our guide was Gura Berger, spokesperson for the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI) that operates the ramparts, along with the (unusually clean) restrooms in the Old City, the Ophel Archeological Gardens and Zedekiah’s Cave (near Damascus Gate).
Our tour began with a plaza, actually the roof on one of the 35 towers built by Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent when he restored the walls of the Old City. He began his repairs around the year 1537, twenty years after the Turks conquered the Holy Land from the Mamlukes. In most places the Sultan’s engineers followed the line of far older walls, for the city has been surrounded off and on for at least 2,000 years.
Long slits in the tower walls gave archers the opportunity to shoot at any enemy attempting to invade the city. The more important positions were large enough so that an archer could stand on either side of the slit, thus covering the entire area below.
Soldiers also had access to parapets built into towers like this one. Their floors contain machicolations, openings from which soldiers could dump boiling oil or hot tar on enemy forces approaching the gate.
All of which were totally unnecessary, as no one attacked the city during the entire 400-year period of Turkish rule. And in 1917, during World War I, Jerusalem surrendered to the British without a fight. However, after the division of Jerusalem in 1948, and until the city’s reunification in 1967, Jordanian soldiers sniped at Jewish neighborhoods from high atop these very ramparts.
From this portion of the ramparts you are high above the Old City’s Christian Quarter and encounter sights from an entirely new angle: red rafters typical of houses in the Quarter, a variety of lovely gardens, an unusual stone chimney with a weird resemblance to a minaret, and Armenian tile decorations on one of the homes.
Although the Crusaders established a Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1099, Catholics fled to Acre when Saladin conquered the city in 1187. It wasn’t until 1847 that Pope Pius the 19th reinstated the Jerusalem Patriarchate, in the long white building that stretches all the way to the corner. Among the enterprises operating inside its walls is Knights Palace, a guesthouse constructed in the 1880’s originally as a dormitory for seminary students and decorated with Crusader figures, symbols, mosaics and paintings.
As the building is also home to the Patriarch, a lovely chapel, hundreds of religious personnel and a school, rampart walkers invariably find children playing basketball down below, and nuns in the gardens or hanging up laundry.
Turning the corner, IDF Square and the early 20th century buildings along Jaffa Road come into view – including Jerusalem’s first City Hall. Constructed in 1930 with money from Barclay’s Bank, the rounded building still features jagged holes made from Jordanian bullets during the years in which Jerusalem was divided.
That green patch below, part of the Builders of the Wall Garden, contains the base of a tower. Legend has it that King David buried Goliath’s head on this site – giving rise to the name “Goliath’s Tower.” It is also called Tancred’s Tower, for the Crusader who helped Godfrey of Bouillon attack the city from this direction on July 15, 1099. Tancred and his troops camped nearby and, 100 years later, Crusaders built a tower-studded fortress here and named it in his honor.
Surprising to find in the Christian Quarter, perhaps, a stone mosque fits perfectly into its location next to the walls. Called Kamra – a Moslem woman’s name that is the feminine form of “moon” in Arabic – it is topped by a very tall, decorative crescent.
Further down, outside the walls and across the street, are buildings constructed by the French in the late 19th century. Le Hȏpital Saint-Louis (we call it the French Hospital) was designed in Baroque Renaissance style and houses terminal patients.
Next door, Notre Dame de Jerusalem, the largest single building constructed in Jerusalem before World War I, played an important part during the War of Independence. Early in the war, the Jordanian Legion tried to conquer the complex as part of a plan to move into the heart of New Jerusalem. In a fierce battle between Jewish forces – including a number of teenage volunteers – and the Legion, the Arab advance was halted..
This part of the walk offers unique views of East Jerusalem, Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, Builders of the Wall Garden and the Light Rail, which runs for much of its route along the border between Jordan and Israel until the reunification. Hard to imagine, but during those 19 years, the road and tracks below were only masses of barbed wire in a forbidding No-Man’s Land.
The huge Terra Sancta complex on the other side of the walkway houses the offices of the Franciscan Order responsible for the Holy Sites in the Middle East, along with a printing press, educational institutions and the stunning St. Savior Church designed by famous architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1924.
The Moslem Quarter that comes into view is incredibly crowded, and every roof is topped with a satellite dish. Clay pipes in unusual formations on one roof are meant to provide natural air conditioning. Called mashrubiye in Arabic, they permit women to sit outside without being seen, offering them a bit of fresh air.
Protruding from the wall below are golden henbane flowers which contain strong chemicals like scopolamine. A hallucinogenic that can kill you if you get too much of it, it is said to be good for making spies “sing.” Golden henbane, which grows in the cracks of walls and old ruins, flowers through May.
Before descending at Damascus Gate – the most beautiful of Old City gates – we had a view of its dazzling decorations at a most unusual angle.
Berger calls this jaunt an historical urban “trek” because the stones are sometimes uneven, the walkway can be very narrow, and there are some tricky turns. It is not suitable for strollers, walkers or wheelchairs. Babies should be carried in slings or other carriers. And watch small children carefully.
A free app offers a running explanation of the ramparts called Jerusalem Audio Tours.
During the Passover holiday week:
Regular entrance fee to the ramparts drops from NIS 18 (with discounts for seniors, kids, etc.) to NIS 10 a person, and at all times a ticket is good for two days.
Adults and children over the age of nine can rappel on the walls near IDF Square after their ramparts walk. Price for both: NIS 25.
You are invited to a thrilling trek through otherwise inaccessible passages under the floor of Zedekiah’s Cave (Solomon’s Quarry). Price: NIS 69 with the possibility of rappelling on the way out.
For more information call PAMI offices at 02-6277550.