Israel travels

Haman’s hat: Life in the Jerusalem Triangle

Where Jaffa Road meets King George Street meets Zion Square lies a hub that is the heart of commercial action outside the walls of the Old City

Ben Yehuda Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ben Yehuda Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

It has three corners, all of major historical importance. And it looks like Haman’s Hat. The “Triangle” (hameshulash, in Hebrew) was developed during the British rule of Palestine (1920-1948) and is the center of commercial action outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

One corner is found at the junction of Jaffa Road and King George Street, famous as the X Intersection. Jerusalem’s Light Train runs along Jaffa Road to the ungodly suspension bridge at the entrance to the city — it took at least a decade to complete. Until work on the Train got as far as Jaffa Road and King George Street a few years ago, you could cross this particular intersection on the diagonal. In fact, this was the first X-shaped junction in the country, created on the day that King George Street was paved.

Not long afterwards, a policeman began directing traffic from a round, covered platform in the middle of the intersection. In the 1950s, Jerusalem’s first traffic lights were installed on these very streets.

On the corner building at the bottom of King George Street, a large sign informs onlookers that King George the Fifth Avenue was officially declared open on December 9, 1924. The festive inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, District Governor Sir Ronald Storrs, and Jerusalem Mayor Ragheb Bey El Nashashibi.

At the time there was nothing here at all, so a makeshift gate (an arch with two rectangular “doors”) was erected over the future avenue to the delight of the hundreds who had gathered here to watch. The banner stretching across the arch read: King George V Avenue in English and Arabic and King George the Fifth Street in Hebrew.

King George Street sign (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
King George Street sign (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

After Israel became a State, some of the capital’s street names were changed. The municipality suggested replacing King George with King David, but the idea was vehemently opposed by Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Israel’s second president. Ben-Tzvi is said to have reminded other leaders that George the Fifth was king during the Balfour Declaration, and had always been a good friend to the Jews (as opposed to George the Sixth, the monarch who reigned when the infamous British White Paper limited immigration to Palestine).

The buildings on each of the four corners are all only one story high, and topped by red-tiled roofs. True, they are mostly rundown and shabby, but they are also far more beautiful than anything else in the immediate vicinity. Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these are the oldest structures in this area, and are slated for destruction, so enjoy the sight while you can.

Up the road, the Ne’eman Bakery stands on the corner of Histadruth Street and King George Street. It replaces one of Jerusalem’s most famous establishments, the tiny, exclusive restaurant known as Fink’s Bar. Especially popular with the British, and later with well-to-do English-speaking tourists, Fink’s Bar opened in 1936 and, until it closed in 2006, was “the” place to eat if you were anybody important. (A very homespun humus eatery called “Pinati”, dating back to the 1970s, is still there – and flourishing.) Fink’s was also known for its dark interior, created by heavy curtains on the windows and a dark wooden door.

Talitha Kumi (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Talitha Kumi (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Further up King George Street, a decorative “entrance” on the sidewalk was once part of the stunning Talitha Kumi Complex, a German orphanage built by famed missionary/architect Conrad Schick, dating back to the 1860s. The phrase talitha kumi is from the New Testament, in which Jesus resurrects a little girl named Talita and tells her to “arise!” (kumi!)

Surrounded by a stone wall, the elegant three-story Talitha Kumi complex  was brutally torn down a little over a century later to make way for Jerusalem’s first department store: Hamashbir LeTzarhan. Located directly behind the surrealistic stone gateway, and recently sold to a pharmacy chain, the building is devoid of any redeeming features.

The Hiatt Garden is located at the tip of the triangle, across from the top of Ben Yehuda Street. Today a tiny park, it started out as an enormous pit.

It all began in 1925, when an American Zionist group, hoping to build a modern hotel, purchased a plot along newly inaugurated King George Street.   Foundations were dug by Jewish laborers – until the money ran out.

On Black Saturday in 1946, when the British rounded up Jewish leaders suspected of harboring “illegal” defensive weapons, they held hundreds of Jerusalem prisoners in what locals still call Shiber Pit (named for the original owner of the plot, George Shiber).

Shiber Pit (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Shiber Pit (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

As time went by, the pit filled up with garbage – an eyesore that annoyed members of the Knesset (New Israeli Parliament) whose chambers were next door. The site was then transformed into a little park, called Gan Menorah for the huge candelabrum standing on a platform in its midst; today, the park features, instead, a large bronze Venetian Horse given by the Slovenian Republic.

Ben Yehuda Street stretches all the way to Jaffa Road, and ends at Zion Square, the third vertex in the Triangle. The first pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, it was also the site of a vicious bomb attack in 1948.

It happened on February 22, during the early months of the Israeli War of Independence. One Arab terrorist and two deserters from the British Mandatory forces drove to the corner of Ben Yehuda and Ben Hillel Streets. The three were dressed in British uniforms and, in what may have been the first car bombing in history (and the first of numerous bombings on the Triangle over the next decades) had passed easily through British and Jewish checkpoints.

Inside the vehicles they were driving were bombs loaded with explosives. The three lit the explosives and fled, leaving behind four demolished buildings, shattered buildings and rooftops, and – depending on whose report you read – more than a 100 dead and wounded.

Zion Square, at the bottom of Ben Yehuda, was designed by the British. By 1924, when the three streets that made up the Triangle were complete, Zion Square had become the heart of Jerusalem’s downtown area.

Hanukkah at Zion Square (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Hanukkah at Zion Square (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Today the tall Kikar (Square) Zion Hotel stands on the original site of the Zion Cinema, the movie theater that gave the Square its name. The cinema began operating just over a century ago inside a large wooden shed, screening silent movies to a fascinated audience. A few years later, a new owner named the hut “Zion Cinema.”

But Zion Cinema collapsed in 1920, to be replaced by a 600-seat movie house that hosted the city’s first opera performances. Closed in 1972, it was torn down five years later. Today’s high rise holds both the hotel and, facing the square, a branch of one of the country’s banks.

In my mind, the most interesting structure standing on the leg connecting Zion Square and the X Intersection is the Ron Hotel. At least, that’s what it was called when I stayed there in 1964, with a United Synagogue Youth group. I remember the bedbugs very well, and the noisy, smelly buses that ran down Jaffa Road.

Ron Hotel (today known as the Jerusalem Hostel) (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ron Hotel (today known as the Jerusalem Hostel) (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When founded in 1926 as the Tel Aviv Hotel, it was apparently very stylish, and the exterior is quite lovely: not only does it boast splendid windows, but ornamental pillars grace the entrance. Sculpted lion heads help hold up the central balcony.

History was made on this very balcony on August 3, 1948 by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Over the previous five years, Begin had headed the Irgun, a radical underground movement intent on pushing the British out of Palestine. Now, standing on the balcony of what is, today, the Jerusalem Hostel, Begin announced that he was disbanding the Irgun, and that his soldiers were joining the Israel Defense Forces.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel.

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