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Israel Travels

Get into the trenches of Israeli history at the revamped Mt. Zion supply tunnel

When Jordanian snipers threatened supply lines before Israel unified Jerusalem, IDF engineers built a secret trench now renovated and open to visitors after lying dormant for years

  • A view of the Mount Zion tunnel and the ascent on the Benny Marshak stairway. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view of the Mount Zion tunnel and the ascent on the Benny Marshak stairway. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A view of Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim neighborhood from Mount Zion. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view of Jerusalem's Mishkenot Sha'ananim neighborhood from Mount Zion. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A view from the Old City ramparts. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view from the Old City ramparts. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The restores Mount Zion tunnel just below the ground of the Jerusalem University College, also known as the Institute of Holy Land Studies. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The restores Mount Zion tunnel just below the ground of the Jerusalem University College, also known as the Institute of Holy Land Studies. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A photo of the view inside the ramparts of Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A photo of the view inside the ramparts of Jerusalem's Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Biblical terms for the city of Jerusalem are etched into the new roof of the Mount Zion tunnel, allowing sunlight to stream through and illuminate them in gold. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Biblical terms for the city of Jerusalem are etched into the new roof of the Mount Zion tunnel, allowing sunlight to stream through and illuminate them in gold. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An entrance and exit point to the newly restored Mount Zion tunnel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An entrance and exit point to the newly restored Mount Zion tunnel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Entering the newly restored Mount Zion tunnel from the top point near the Jerusalem University College. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Entering the newly restored Mount Zion tunnel from the top point near the Jerusalem University College. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Descending the steps in the Mount Zion tunnel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Descending the steps in the Mount Zion tunnel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Between Israel’s independence in 1948 and the conclusion of the 1967 Six Day War, there were 19 years when part of Jerusalem was under Israeli control, and another part — including the Old City and the Western Wall — was occupied by Jordan.

Jerusalem was divided by a boundary rigged with mines, and demarcated by barbed wire and frightening signs that read: “Danger! Do not cross!” This area was known as No Man’s Land.

Shortly after the entirety of Jerusalem came under Israeli control and the city was reunified in 1967, almost every vestige of the hated division was quickly cleared away. When the task was complete, only one remnant remained: an ugly hole on the slopes of Mount Zion, “decorated” here and there with large pieces of tin.

For over 50 years, Jerusalemites watched as this eyesore filled up with garbage and debris, seemingly destined to remain an indefinite blemish on Mount Zion. This was unfortunate, for not only is Mount Zion of major historical and religious importance to both Jews and Christians, but the hole was actually the entrance to a historic underground trench constructed by the Israel Defense Forces in 1948, and had been a key asset prior to the Six Day War.

Last year, there was a flourish of activity at the site, and, on Wednesday, the restored Mount Zion portion of the tunnel was officially opened to the public. A lovely little semicircular tiered seating area at the entrance provides a venue for tour guides to speak about the site’s history before heading in — or simply for visitors to rest and enjoy the view of the city.

Funded by the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the project cost NIS 2.5 million ($780,000) and is a fitting tribute to the ingenuity of the Combat Engineering Corps, or CEC.

Descending the steps in the Mount Zion tunnel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The CEC, which consisted at first of Jewish veterans from the British Royal Engineers, was formed at the very beginning of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and has participated in every Israeli conflict since then.

Last week we walked the ramparts from the Jaffa Gate to the Zion Gate — which were once filled with Jordanian soldiers — together with Gura Berger, spokesperson for the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI). Berger suggested that on this jaunt we pretend to be Jordanian snipers in the time prior to Jerusalem’s unification, and pointed out where bored Jordanian soldiers had carved graffiti into the stone.

At the time, Jordan occupied the Old City within the walls, while Mount Zion — located only a few meters further south and completely isolated from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem — was held by Israel.

When he was a child in the early 1960s, Berger’s husband studied at a school located directly across from the ramparts. From their classroom, located safely out of range of the guns, the pupils could easily see sacks of sand on the ramparts and the soldiers at the ready.

Illustrative: A platoon of Arab Legion soldiers on the ramparts of Jerusalem’s Old City, 1948. (Public domain)

With Jordanians taking potshots at any type of military or medical convoy, it was impossible to transfer supplies and equipment from the rest of Israeli-held Jerusalem to Mount Zion, or to transport casualties from there into Israeli territory.

The answer was to construct a trench that descended from below an aqueduct in the 19th-century Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood, crossed the valley, and moved up inside the slopes of Mount Zion. Its walls were made of cement, and it was partially covered by a tin roof topped by a layer of dirt — steep, narrow, and full of twists and turns, the trench had to be hidden from sight.

As we trod the ramparts, climbing up and down a few of the 37 different towers built into the walls and examining fortifications, we could see how easy it would have been for Jordanian snipers to hit Israeli targets.

A photo of the view inside the ramparts of Jerusalem’s Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The towers provided protection for the Jordanian troops and were perfect for getting organized before starting a shooting spree. But while we stopped several times to search for the tunnel on Mount Zion, no matter where we stood on the ramparts it was impossible to spot.

When we reached the southeast corner and turned towards Zion Gate, we got a glimpse of a box hanging incongruously out of a window on the other side of the Hinnom Valley. The tunnel, unfortunately, had not been capable of transporting large quantities of supplies quickly enough for the army’s needs.

To solve this problem, CEC engineer Uriel Hefetz designed a cable car to supplement the tunnel. It ran from today’s Mount Zion Hotel and ended up at the Israeli position inside the grounds of the Jerusalem University College, also known as the Institute of Holy Land Studies, on the mountain.

A view from the Old City ramparts. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

(Hefetz is well known for his bravery during the War of Independence, but his heroism didn’t end there. Fifty-one years old when Israel was attacked on multiple fronts on Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — at the outset of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Hefetz immediately drove up to the Syrian front. There, he spent three weeks evacuating wounded soldiers from the battlefield and saved the life of at least one soldier, who was critically injured. Hefetz extracted the soldier from a damaged tank and brought him to safety.)

Like the tunnel, the cable car was never discovered by the Jordanians. It operated at night and was lowered into the valley during the day. Along with the car, the cable itself is still visible from the corner of the ramparts, housed in a wonderful museum inside the Mount Zion Hotel, which is now temporarily closed for repairs.

Our plan was to walk through the tunnel from the top to the bottom, which opens up onto Hativat Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Brigade) street — a road that runs below and along the Old City walls. This is the only portion that remains from the original trench. The rest disappeared long ago.

Just outside the Zion Gate is a wall most likely dating back to the Hasmonean era 2,000 years ago. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

After descending at the Zion Gate and walking through it, we headed for the college. We still could spot no sign of the trench — but we did get to see an exciting historical Jewish sight. Part of the wall to the left of the entrance almost certainly dates back to the period of the Hasmoneans — Jewish kings and priests who ruled the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago.

Finally, after climbing down several dozen steps right below the institute, we spied the opening to the tunnel.

Moshe Shapiro, an expert in the preservation of historic sites, is the architect responsible for restoring the Mount Zion tunnel. While he made only minimal alterations to the original, there is one significant change.

Originally, Shapiro says, the dirt that covered the tin roofing and hid the tunnel prevented any light from filtering through, and all activity inside the tunnel took place in darkness.

The restores Mount Zion tunnel just below the ground of the Jerusalem University College, also known as the Institute of Holy Land Studies. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Over the years, the dirt was washed away and light peeped through the cracks that had appeared in the tin. During the restoration, Shapiro decided to enhance this lighting effect by using corroded steel for the roof. Not only does this deliver the impression of rusty tin, he notes, but it actually prevents corrosion.

Into the steel rooftop Shapiro carved the words Levanon, Carmel, City of Peace and dozens of the 70 other terms the Bible uses to describe the Holy City of Jerusalem. When the sun sets, the words appear to have been written in gold.

Biblical terms for the city of Jerusalem are etched into the new roof of the Mount Zion tunnel, allowing sunlight to stream through and illuminate them in gold. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The restored tunnel is a wonderful tribute to the Israel Defense Forces’ ingenuity and the city’s modern history. It is open to the public daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., free of charge. To walk the tunnel visitors can start at the top, below the college, or begin at the bottom on Hativat Yerushalayim Street and work their way up.

Either way, the return trip would involve taking the adjacent flight of stairs named for Benny Marshak, an officer in the covert Palmach fighting force set up by the Jews of British Mandate Palestine. Marshak participated in the Israeli conquest of Mount Zion on May 18, 1948, and the subsequent entry of Jewish forces into the Old City. (The unit was forced to retreat soon afterward when reinforcements failed to arrive.)

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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