One of the Old City of Jerusalem’s liveliest streets is actually a small plaza called Omar iben Al-Khatab Square, named for the second Caliph of the Islamic world. It runs from just inside Jaffa Gate to the beginning of the Armenian Quarter at Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road, and bursts with both ancient and relatively modern historical sites.
Brilliant, sensitive, tolerant and an administrative whiz, Omar visited Jerusalem soon after Muslim Arabs conquered the Holy City in 638. Omar revered many of the Old Testament’s most significant personalities, and greatly honored Judaism’s holy sites – including the peak on which Solomon erected the magnificent First Temple.
Thus when he ascended to the Temple Mount and found it overflowing with trash, Omar was enraged. He immediately ordered the rubbish removed — and, say some, he helped clear it out with his own hands.
At one point Jerusalem Bishop Sophronius invited the Caliph to join him for prayers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Omar is said to have refused, explaining that were he to accept, Muslims might immediately ravish this most important of Christian sites and replace it with a mosque dedicated to Islam. He then proceeded to pray outside the church — exactly where a mosque named for the Caliph is located today.
Jaffa Gate is one of seven open gates in the Old City walls that were restored by Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. Originally made of wood but later covered with metal to prevent fires, the doors were closed in the evening and reopened only after sunrise the next day. A little opening in the right hand door is a “pishpash” in local jargon, a postern used for emergency exits and entrances. A large mezuzah is fastened to the right hand side of the gate
Just inside the gate, behind an iron fence, are two tombs intriguingly decorated with stone turbans. Although there are no names on the tombs, they apparently contain the earthly remains of the two architects who planned the city walls.
Local tradition maintains that an enraged Suleiman had the two executed when he learned that, despite his orders, they had left David’s Tomb and Mount Zion outside of the enclosed city. According to another legend, Suleiman ordered them beheaded so that the glorious walls of Jerusalem would never be reproduced. And some say that the two were assassinated because they knew the city’s secrets. Once dead, of course, they wouldn’t be able to report its weaknesses to any dastardly enemies.
Further into the square, the Imperial Hotel doesn’t look like much. But visitors gazing from a distance can see why, in the late 19th century, it was the grandest place of lodging in the city. In the alley between the massive columns that frame the entrance stands a a stumpy pillar topped by a Greek Orthodox flag. Among the Latin letters on the fourth row are “LEG X”. That’s because the Tenth Roman Legion camped here during the Roman-Jewish revolt in the 1st century, and after their victory as well.
Nearby, a handsome edifice houses the Franciscan Christian Information Center. Erected in 1858 to accommodate the Imperial Austrian Post Office 11 years after the Austrians opened a consulate in the Holy Land, it was purchased by the Franciscans in 1965. Inside, the historic post office’s colorful original sign is on view.
Across the street stands the Jerusalem Citadel, far and away the oldest and most exciting historical site in Omar iben Al-Khatab Square. In 1917, after the Holy City surrendered to the British, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby stood on the Citadel steps and declared Jerusalem to be under English rule.
The foundations for Jerusalem’s citadel were built about a thousand years after the era of King David by the Hasmonean (Maccabee dynasty) rulers of Israel. They erected a defensive tower and a city wall; remains of the wall were discovered during excavations. King Herod constructed a palace next to the Hasmonean city wall and added three towers, one of which still stands. Later, during the Great Revolt of 66, Jewish defenders holed up here when backed to the wall by the Romans.
Today, the citadel houses the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, an enterprise suitably located at the gateway to the Old City. The only museum in the world that deals exclusively with the history of Jerusalem, it spans the colorful millennia of the city’s history with a light and unusual touch. Besides the wonderfully exciting displays, its buildings and grounds are themselves historical sites to be explored. A few years ago the museum added a Night Spectacular, whose dazzling sound and light spectacular is a feast for the senses.
When Christ Church appeared across the street, it was the first Protestant sanctuary in the Middle East. The church was built from 1842-1849 by the London Society for the Promotion of Jews to Christianity for the specific purpose of drawing Jews into the Christian fold.
Since the Turks wouldn’t let Christians use bells to call parishioners to worship, the church didn’t even have a belfry. However after the Crimean War (1853-1856) left the Turks in debt to the English, the Anglicans added a modest bell tower and dared to ring the bell for prayers. Eventually the Church of the Holy Sepulchre followed suit and soon afterwards bells could be heard all over Jerusalem.
Despite a typically Protestant lack of embellishment, Christ Church is a magnificent sanctuary. The design combines a touch of English beauty (rich, dark, wooden ceilings and tables) with Middle Eastern stone walls and medieval vaulted arches.
An unusual wooden screen covers most of the wall behind the communion table. Designed to remind onlookers of the Holy Ark which, in synagogues, contains the Five Books of Moses, it is divided into four panels. The Ten Commandments (in Hebrew) are written in the two middle panels; on either side are the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed — both in Hebrew script.
Other decorations include a stunning trio of stained glass windows which face the entrance. Installed when the church was expanded in 1913, the middle window represents the Christian Trinity. The words are in Hebrew and the dominant figure is either a tree or a vine which only vaguely looks like a cross.
A little over a decade ago, Christ Church opened the Christian Heritage Center, which illustrates the history of Christian Zionism in Jerusalem through historic documents, medieval bibles and contemporary models of the city. Also open to the public is a 2,000-year-old water reservoir that leads to an ancient tunnel. A cafeteria services visitors and tourists staying overnight in the pleasant guesthouse.
The furthest site in the square is the police station, built in 1834 and used as a lockup since its construction. Among the prisoners held here during the British Mandate were members of the Jewish underground who had committed the heinous crime of blowing the shofar at the Western Wall. In 1931, the British had decided that the Muslims’ ownership rights to the Temple Mount also encompassed the Western Wall area and forbade Jews from blowing the shofar at this holy site.
But the ceremony is an integral part of the High Holidays, and the Jews could hardly take this lying down. So every year following the ban, Etzel and Irgun members blew the ‘Tekia Gedola’ to mark the end of the fast., and ended up at the prison, or kishle.
In recent excavations, archaeologists discovered remains under the kishle dating back 2,600 years. They include walls from the First Temple Period as well as later findings that could very well be linked to King Herod’s Palace.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a photographer and licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.