Israel travels: Jerusalem Day

Between east and west: Jerusalem’s No-Man’s Land

In November of ’48, Moshe Dayan and his Jordanian counterpart Abdullah a-Tal marked up a map. They didn’t intend to divide the city in two

Notre Dame and Jerusalem's Light Train (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
Notre Dame and Jerusalem's Light Train (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

One day in 1954, a patient leaning out of the window of Jerusalem’s French Hospital coughed so hard that her false teeth flew out of her mouth and landed on the ground outside. Today, they would have landed on bustling Paratroopers’ Road, the byway that runs between the Municipality of Jerusalem and the Old City Walls. But, at the time, there was nothing there but a no-man’s land covered with twisted barbed wire, scorched armored vehicles, concrete barriers, and land mines. To top it off, Jordanian snipers stood at the ready atop the Old City ramparts.

Undaunted, one of the nuns working at the hospital volunteered to retrieve the dentures. After painstaking preparation, and with the good will of Israel, Jordan, and the United Nations, several officers accompanied the nun into No-Man’s Land. Incredibly, the lost teeth were discovered among the weeds, refuse, and barbed wires — and returned to their owner.

Jerusalem’s No-Man’s Land was born in November of 1948, when Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli forces in Jerusalem, met with his Jordanian counterpart Abdullah a-Tal. Sitting together on the rough and uneven floor of a deserted house in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, they marked out their respective positions: Israel’s in red and those of Jordan in green.

Neither Dayan nor a-Tal intended the map to be anything but temporary and unofficial, nor did they mean to divide Jerusalem in two. Still, when the war finally ended in 1949, the rough lines on this map were accepted as the final ceasefire lines in Jerusalem. And the area between them became No-Man’s Land — in Hebrew, shetach hahefker.

Mandelbaum Gate as the Labor Court, before it became a yeshiva (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mandelbaum Gate as the Labor Court, before it became a yeshiva (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jerusalem was reunited on June 7, 1967, the third day of the Six Day War. No-Man’s Land was dismantled. This year, Jerusalem Day falls, according to the Hebrew calendar, on May 8.  You can mark the anniversary with a virtual tour (or a real one, if you are in Israel!) along a portion of the former No-Man’s Land that begins with Israel Defense Forces Square and ends at Mandelbaum Gate.

Located across from the Old City walls, on the corner of Jaffa Road, IDF Square was the site of a Turkish police station, until the British conquered the country in 1917. The armies that defeated the Turks were led by General Edmund Allenby, and the square was renamed in his honor a few years later.

During Israel’s Kilshon (pitchfork) Campaign immediately after the British evacuated Jerusalem on May 14, 1948, bitter battles raged around the square. When they ended, Israel controlled the area up to the walls, but these remained in Jordanian hands.

Constructed in 1930 with money from Barclay’s Bank, the rounded building which dominates IDF Square was the site of Jerusalem’s first City Hall. Jagged holes scarring the façade were made by Jordanian bullets during the years in which Jerusalem was divided. Despite the danger, Jerusalem’s mayors consistently refused to move the Municipality to a safer location.

French Hospital (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
French Hospital (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

Jerusalem’s French Hospital of St. Louis, found just a few meters down Paratroopers’ Road,  is one of the most magnificent buildings in the city. Founded in the mid-19th century by the Sisters of Saint Joseph, it was originally a much smaller facility located inside the Old City. But when French count Marie Paul A. de Piellat visited the hospital in 1874, he was appalled by its unsanitary conditions and, in 1881, established this splendid facility outside the walls.

Count de Piellat returned to the Holy City a few years later. This time he brought with him a thousand French Catholic pilgrims, a group organized by the Assumptionist Order that pioneered penitential pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Pilgrims disembarked at Haifa Port and, lugging an enormous wooden cross on their shoulders, walked all the way to Jerusalem. Since there weren’t enough lodgings in the city to accommodate such a large group, the pilgrims made do with tents erected on a plot that the Count owned below the French Hospital.

During their visit they couldn’t help but notice that the nearby Russian Compound, with its magnificent buildings, had an unobstructed view of the Old City. As soon as the pilgrims returned to France they took up a collection, and, in 1884, construction began on the enormous Notre Dame Monastery and Guesthouse situated next to the hospital. The French Consul was present at the groundbreaking ceremonies, turning this into a national enterprise which, coincidentally, blocked the Russian view. Called Notre Dame de France, this was the largest single building constructed in Jerusalem before World War I and could house 1,600 pilgrims in its 410 rooms.

After the division of Jerusalem in 1948, far fewer pilgrims were in need of lodgings — especially adjacent to a No-Man’s Land — and the building was offered to the Hebrew University. Later, at the request of the Pope, Israel handed ownership over to the Vatican in return for enough money to build student dormitories near its new campus in West Jerusalem.

Directly across from both French-built structures stands an unadorned gate. This is the only opening in the walls that was not built or restored in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1889, French Catholic clergy asked reigning sultan Abdul Hamid II to create an entirely new entrance into the Old City, so that it would be easier to pass between Notre Dame outside the walls and the Christian Quarter within. Ironically, until the Six Day War, this passageway between the old city and the new was blocked up — and the Jordanian “New Gate Outpost” was established on top.

Beit Turjeman today (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Turjeman today (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

The road between Old and New Jerusalem curves north and runs along the edge of Musrara, a  neighborhood that once held poverty-stricken new immigrants from North Africa. Many of these hapless arrivals lived in an ugly building called shikun mefunim or “evacuees’ block,” constructed like a fortress and built hastily out of concrete, instead of the lovely Jerusalem stone required by city regulations. Tiny windows were intended to make it difficult for Jordanian snipers to kill or maim the inhabitants during the division of the city. Firing ports under the roof were manned, when necessary, by the IDF.

Stunning Beit Turjeman, nearby, was built in 1932 by a Christian Arab architect.  During the War of Independence it was taken over by the IDF, and remained an Israeli position until the Six Day War. Afterwards, although badly damaged, it was transformed into a museum dedicated to the unification of Jerusalem. Several decades ago, that museum closed. Beit Turjeman is now a private, contemporary art museum, with exhibits relating to universal social and political issues.

Despite its name, Mandelbaum Gate just down the street is not a gate. Rather, it is a building that served as the Israeli checkpoint for people and convoys passing into Jordan when the city was divided. After the reunification of the city, Israel’s Labor Court was housed inside; more recently, several floors were added and it was transformed into a yeshiva.

Sundial across from Mandelbaum Gate (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sundial across from Mandelbaum Gate (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

A sundial in the center of the road marks the actual plaza on which people crossed from Jordan to Israel and back. In 1927 Rabbi Simha Mandelbaum built a gorgeous house here, but it was blown up by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence. It was this former residence that gave Mandelbaum Crossing its name.

Like the nun-and-denture story, a few events during those difficult years of division had happy endings. Remember the College Frères we mentioned, located across from IDF Square? Young boys playing in the schoolyard often kicked soccer balls into No-Man’s Land. In December of 1965, Israel was asked to return several dozen balls to the school as a Christmas gift. Israel immediately agreed, and, as UN officials looked on, an Israeli officer marched through the minefields of No-Man’s Land while Jordanian soldiers called “go left” or “go right” to keep him from stepping on a mine. Two days after Christmas, 28 balls were handed over to the school at a jubilant celebration.


Aviva Bar-Am is a travel correspondent and the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.


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