Two well-known Jewish investors are planning to build a hotel and luxury housing on one of the most important sites in Christianity — the Hill of Evil Counsel — and archaeologists warn the plan could endanger centuries of Jerusalem’s history.
American financier and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and David Sofer, a London-based Israeli businessman, recently purchased a 110-year lease for the roughly one-hectare (2.5-acre) site from the Greek Orthodox Church. Initial drawings, presented to the Jerusalem planning authorities, provide for more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of a hotel, residential apartments and undefined “public buildings,” leaving little room for green space.
The hill, situated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor just south of the Old City, is where Christians believe Jewish High Priest Caiaphas and his advisers decided to betray Jesus to the Romans.
Muslims associate the hilltop with Saladin’s general Abu Tor (Father of the Bull) who, according to legend, rode into battle against the Crusaders from the hill on the back of a white bull. He is believed to be buried in a shrine that still stands in the neighborhood. About a century ago, the Greek Orthodox Church cemented its claim to the hill by building a high wall that left the shrine just outside.
One of the few undeveloped areas in the capital, the site affords sweeping views of the Old City, the new city, the descent to the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab to the east.
The developers are seeking a special permit to bypass a prohibition on residential building contained in planning regulations, which the late former mayor Teddy Kollek advanced to protect from excessive construction in the Old City basin and the surrounding historic mountain ridges. The regulations do allow for a hotel on the site.
The Jerusalem Municipality calls this the Jewish part of the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood, Givat Hanania, after Caiaphus’s father-in-law. First-century CE Jewish historian Josephus Flavius recorded that Hanania was buried on this hill and had a great monument erected nearby. Josephus also recorded that the Roman general Pompey pitched his camp on the site when he conquered the city in the Siege of Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
Because of the historic importance of the site, archaeologists want a thorough excavation to be carried out before any planning permits are given. The only area to have been excavated to date is a small, early-20th century church and the adjacent remains of a Byzantine church, along with two subterranean cisterns, one of which was converted into a church at an uncertain date. The developers have said they will not touch this area.
Construction elements in the cisterns suggest a human presence from the Second Temple period onwards, while a carved rocky outcrop elsewhere on the site may have been used for Canaanite rites.
Tamir Nir, deputy mayor and chair of the municipal preservation committee, said the site is so important that it should be an archaeological park open to the public.
Archaeologist Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who is currently co-directing a dig on Mount Zion, thinks the landscape should be preserved.
“Around the Old City, you have various places connected with the Gospels, but they’ve all been built upon. There are very few sites like this that are open, available and from which you can get a broad view of the Old City of Jerusalem,” he said.
‘I think it’s important that one can look across and see Mount Zion, where the House of Caiaphas was situated, and the room where tradition says the Last Supper took place’
“Archaeologists will say ‘Here’s a site, we’ll excavate it, we’ll extract information, and then modern construction can take place.’ But in this case, it’s a different matter,” said Gibson. “I think it’s important that one can look across and see Mount Zion, where the House of Caiaphas was situated, and the room where tradition says the Last Supper took place, and then further to the left where Herod’s Palace was, with the praetorium, where the trial of Jesus took place…”
Archaeologist Gabriel Barkay, who heads the Temple Mount Sifting Project, said, “There is no doubt that there are ancient remains here. Some of them are known to us; most of them are as yet unknown.”
He noted that the site sits on the Highway of the Patriarchs, which connected Jerusalem with Bethlehem and Hebron, and that it was probably one of a series of stopping points for Byzantine-era pilgrims traveling between holy sites.
Non-Greek Orthodox churches prefer not to go on the record against one another, although the Franciscans, the official custodians of the Catholic holy places, have produced a video about the construction threat to the hill.
The move by the Patriarchate is expected to deepen tensions within the Greek Orthodox Church between the Greek-born upper hierarchy and the Palestinians below, who resent what they see as the “sale” of church land.
The crippling costs of maintaining extensive church property across Jerusalem and Israel are said to be bleeding Greek Orthodox coffers dry — a situation not improved by the Greek economic crisis. A similar process to sell a lease to the site in the 1980s backfired when, for reasons that are unclear, the church got cold feet, broke a contract with a developer, and was successfully sued for millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Jewish residents of Abu Tor, who hope to link up with Arab residents from elsewhere in the Old City basin, fear the creation of a gated community of luxury housing for wealthy families from overseas, which will choke the old, narrow streets during the Passover and Sukkot holidays, when owners visit, but will be a ghost development for the rest of the year. They have created a website about the history of the hill and a petition to save it.
“Abu Tor is the only one of the city’s historic neighborhoods to have neither an up-to-date plan nor a preservation plan,” said Sue Surkes, who is coordinating the neighborhood campaign. (Full disclosure: Surkes is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.) “We’re fighting one attempt after another by developers to seek ‘special permits’ for buildings which do not reflect the special fabric of Abu Tor.”
Jerusalem is short of affordable housing, she added. “This new development will only benefit the investors and those who can afford to stay in the hotel or buy luxury apartments — in short, those who have the money to ‘own’ the view, which truly belongs to this and future generations of the public in Jerusalem, Israel and all over the world.”
The lawyers of the developers, the Jerusalem firm Reshef and Shiff, did not respond to a Times of Israel’s request for comment about their clients’ plans to develop the site.