Israel travels

At night, Jerusalem the golden becomes Jerusalem the magical

Dozens of historic and magnificent sites, the Old City walls prominent among them, are artistically lit from dusk to dawn

Kidron at night (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Kidron at night (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One fateful night — or so it is said — Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent awoke covered in a cold sweat. He had dreamed that while he was walking in an open field, a pair of hungry lions pounced upon him and he was greedily devoured.

When asked what the dream meant, Suleiman’s adviser responded by suggesting that the Sultan quickly perform a good deed. And so, in 1538, Suleiman began restoration of Jerusalem’s ruined city wall. Impressive during the day, the wall is dazzling at night.

Thanks to a municipal project put into effect at the end of the 20th century, dozens of the world’s most historic and magnificent sites, the Old City walls prominent among them, are artistically lit from Jerusalem dusk to Jerusalem dawn.

Night at the Old City walls (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Night at the Old City walls (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Another of the most beautiful is in the Russian Compound. Inaugurated in 1872, the grandiose Russian Cathedral of the Trinity is a stirring spectacle. This church is owned by “Red Russians,” church officials who were faithful to the Communist regime. During the Cold War, Red Russian Orthodox priests came to Israel – and left — at an awfully rapid pace. To this day many believe that the continually changing clergy were working for the KGB.

Also lit up is Notre Dame de Jerusalem, with an imposing stone facade and rounded turrets. Located outside the Old City walls, it was built in 1884 by the Catholic Order that pioneered penitential pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Notre Dame under the night lights (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Notre Dame under the night lights (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During the 1948 War of Independence, Israeli defenders on the Notre Dame ramparts managed to halt the Arab Legion advance into western Jerusalem. Following the war, and until Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, Israeli soldiers guarded the city from posts on the roof of Notre Dame, directly opposite Jordanian soldiers positioned on the Old City walls.

No other site in Jerusalem is as laden with symbols as the magnificent Jerusalem YMCA, a glowing structure on King David Street. Reflected on its walls, ceilings, stones and pillars are manifestations of the world’s three greatest faiths. The architect was Arthur Louis Harmon, whose firm designed New York’s world-famous Empire State Building.

A glass window over the entrance is decorated with an olive branch. In order to keep this symbol of peace from being shattered during the War of Independence, the window was removed each time the Arabs started shooting. One day, a shell flew through the hole where the window had been and hit the ceiling. Fortunately it didn’t explode and the damage was later repaired.

Perhaps the most spiritual sites to see are along the Promenade, outside the eastern end of the Old City walls. From here you can view the Kidron Valley, mentioned by name 11 times in the Scriptures. Jewish and Christian traditions intermingle in this wadi, where Israelite kings, princes, priests and prophets are presumably buried, and where Jesus was wont to walk.

The grandiose Russian Cathedral of the Trinity (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The grandiose Russian Cathedral of the Trinity (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Zechariah’s Tomb is the only pyramid-topped structure in the valley. Carved out of the slope’s hard rock, and completely detached from the mountainside, it is over 10 meters high and dates back to the end of the Second Temple period. As time went on, the prophet’s tomb became a pilgrimage site.

One year Jerusalem suffered from a terrible drought. Legend has it that the city’s Arabs prayed to Allah, to no avail. They then sent a delegation to Jerusalem’s Jews, warning them that if they couldn’t make it rain, they would be in deep trouble!

After fasting for three days, the Jews made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Zechariah. Throwing themselves upon the ground they prayed. Then, while singing psalms, they circled the tomb seven times. By evening the sky was black. Heavy rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, fell on the Holy City. The Jews were saved, the city’s cisterns filled with water, and the sanctity of Zechariah’s tomb was reaffirmed.

Next to Zechariah’s tomb lights shine through the Hezir family burial complex. It housed the remains of a distinguished family of priests mentioned by name in the Bible. Christians also call this the Tomb of St. James for, according to tradition, after the crucifixion Jesus’s cousin James hid from the Romans in the Hezir family tomb.

The most magnificent structure in the Kidron Valley is Yad Avshalom, or Monument to Absalom. A lofty 22 meters in height, it was hewn out of the rock and is completely separate from the slope behind it. Columns and capitals decorate the massive lower part of the monument, which is distinguished by a round top ending in a long, thin point. The shrine dates back to the first century B.C.E – nearly a thousand years after Absalom rebelled against his father and was run through with a javelin by the king’s captain.

In ancient times it was customary to erect a monument in memory of your departed parents. If you had no offspring, however, you might have to put one up for yourself. While the Bible notes that Absalom fathered three sons and a daughter, they must have passed away while still young. For it says in the Bible: “During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.’ He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.” [2 Samuel 18:18]. Tradition places that monument here, identifying the Kidron valley with the King’s valley.

Just above the Valley on the Mount of Olives, a stunning Basilica of the Agony (All Nations) gleams in the night. Designed by famous architect Antonio Barluzzi, the sanctuary’s phenomenal golden mosaic and imposing facade combine to make the church exterior a Jerusalem landmark

Barluzzi also designed the beautifully lit Italian Hospital, in nearby Musrara. Likened to Florence’s 14-the century Vecchio Palace, this fabulous Italian Renaissance building now houses the offices of Israel’s Education Ministry.

Jerusalem the Golden is transformed after the sun goes down, when she becomes Jerusalem the Magical, Jerusalem the Uplifting. It is at night, even more so than during the day, that you truly understand the unrelenting pull of this mysterious, amazing city.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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