Jerusalem’s Tower of David was never built to be accessible.
The ancient citadel located near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City dates back to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, with earlier towers constructed by Herod, the early Muslims and the Crusaders, all to safeguard the city.
Its five guard towers, as well as the winding, narrow pathways, steep, narrow staircases, uneven stones and narrow tunnels, were all constructed as part of this defensive fortification, but when turned into a modern museum, those details made it impossible to navigate for anyone with disabilities.
The entire citadel, which has functioned as a museum since 1989, is currently undergoing a massive renovation, and as part of those changes has now been made almost completely accessible.
Neither Herod, nor any of his latter successors, including Sultan Saladin or Suleiman the Magnificent, would recognize their former fortress.
Two elevators have been installed into the ancient fortress, creating access to the upper parts of the citadel along with other changes that make it easier to visit the museum, regardless of physical limitation.
Creating accessibility in one of Israel’s largest and oldest archaeological sites is a project that museum director Eilat Lieber has been working on for the last decade.
It wasn’t a challenge that Lieber was forced to undertake; while all public places in Israel are required by law to be accessible to people with disabilities, historical sites are exempt.
She knew that an archaeological space like the citadel would be nearly impossible to alter, given the importance of the site.
“It was more important that the stones stayed the same instead of creating access to important sites,” said Lieber. “We didn’t need to become accessible but I decided we were going to. We just had to find creative solutions.”
The Tower of David Museum has always pushed at the boundaries of creativity; it has hosted all-night rock concerts and holds a popular sound-and-light show on the walls of the citadel, as well as setting up a ropes course complete with zip lines and climbing walls and virtual reality viewing experiences for some exhibits.
Yet inserting elevators and better access for the archaic, venerable rooms and floors of the citadel seemed like an impossible task.
Lieber, however, was looking at heritage buildings around the world, watching what they were doing in order to create solutions to improve their accessibility.
Her biggest obstacle was with the Israel Antiquities Authority, one of the museum’s most important partners.
“They’re very, very conservative,” said Lieber. “There were many options being suggested by the architect, but for the Antiquities Authority, the main problem is how it looks.”
The citadel is not just a museum, commented Amit Reem, Jerusalem Regional Archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“It’s first and foremost one of the most important archaeological findings and any touch on every stone is significant,” said Reem. “Despite that, we were open to the subject and the discussion that brought the renovation about.”
The two, new elevators were the biggest part of that discussion.
One is built from glass and set outside, in the inner courtyard of the citadel, not touching the ancient stones but bringing visitors from the main exhibition level of the museum to the upper levels. The other elevator is on the other side of the fortress, near the main entrance, offering access to the upper-floor galleries.
Every archaeological consideration was taken into account, said Lieber. The floating glass elevator, for example, can be removed, if necessary, without affecting the surrounding structures.
The elevator on the other side of the museum was placed indoors, as an exterior elevator on that side of the fortress would have been visible from outside the citadel’s walls, featuring too prominently in the facade of the Old City, and changing the iconic line of rooftops.
In order to install that elevator, however, an ancient vaulted ceiling had to be dismantled and reinstalled to make room for the elevator.
The initial plan called for three elevators, with the third taking visitors up to the citadel’s highest viewpoint, but the museum didn’t receive permission for that elevator.
Instead, the museum, which has long used technological tools to recreate ancient experiences, is commissioning a 360-degree viewing tool to bring the views to those unable to use the few stairs to the top.
Overall, it was a renovation whose time had come, said Reem.
The museum was stuck in the 1980s, he said, when it first opened and needed to be adjusted to fit the needs of tourists and visitors from this century.
“We’re moved by the accessibility that’s been created, as all kinds of populations can get close to these archaeological findings now,” he said.
The accessibility project is part of the renewal of the museum, a $50 million plan that is being led by the Clore Israel Foundation together with the support of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the Patrick and Lina Drahi Foundation, The American Friends of Museums in Israel and Keren HaYesod.
The citadel’s renewal and conservation project of the Tower of David Museum will double the current area of the museum to 20,000 square meters (more than 215,000 square feet) with a new sunken entrance visitor center, café, additional public facilities as well as 10 new galleries and additional exhibition spaces. The entire renovation is expected to be completed in 2023.
The accessibility aspect of the renovation project was full of functional issues, as well as laws and political demands, said Yotam Cohen-Sagi, the project’s lead architect from Kimmel Eshkolot Architects.
Each and every aspect of the renovation was complex, said Cohen-Sagi.
“Many times you reach the final project and you feel you had to make a lot of compromises but somehow, with this, we can look around and say we did what needed to happen,” he said.
The renovation has taken at least six years, said Cohen-Sagi, but timing wasn’t the main issue, particularly when considering how long the citadel has existed.
“If it took another two months, it’s no big deal,” he said. “We can’t bring along our own sense of pressure when this thing is going to stand for a long, long time.”
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel