Israel travels

HaTahana: ‘The steam engine is coming!’

The first train to Jerusalem was slow — very slow — but today, the original depot has become a junkyard full of history

Gerd Rothschild mural at HaTahana (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Gerd Rothschild mural at HaTahana (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sir Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land seven different times, often accompanied by his wife Judith. His took his first trip there in 1827; his last visit was 48 years later, at the age of 91. It would have become increasingly difficult to travel from Jaffa port up the Jerusalem hills by carriage as he got older. Perhaps that’s why he became the first to propose a train that would run from the coast to the Holy City.

Others took him up on the idea later on, but it was Jerusalem entrepreneur Yosef Navon who finally got the project moving. However, although he managed to get a franchise from the ruling Turks to build the railroad, Navon ran out of funds before he could finish the project. In the end, he transferred the franchise to a French company — Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongements — which completed the tracks in 1892. On the day that the first train reached Jerusalem, newspaper headlines loudly proclaimed: “The steam engine is coming!”

The first trains were agonizingly slow. Indeed, newspapers commented on their pace by joking about passengers who needed a pit stop: they claimed you could jump off and climb back on the train without missing a beat.

During the First World War, the British who conquered Palestine in 1917 took over operation of the train; in the Second World War railroad use was limited to the British army. The historic train from Jaffa to the Holy City of Jerusalem and back stopped running after Israel gained her independence, and the railroad was closed off by the military.

Little by little, the abandoned train station became a storehouse for the Israeli army, which amassed so many weapons and vehicles that the Collection Museum (Museum HaOsef) was opened in the backyard. Slowly but surely, the train station that had been so ceremoniously inaugurated in 1892, and which had transported thousands upon thousands of travelers to and from Jerusalem for over half a century, became a fenced off area of crumbling old buildings.

Wedding photo shoot at HaTahana  (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Wedding photo shoot at HaTahana (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Eventually, someone would have built yet another high rise on the site had not recently re-elected Mayor Ron Huldai happened in for a look in 2004, taken things in hand, and turned a junkyard full of history into a delightful tourist attraction. Called HaTahana (the Station), the site – a wonderful combination of restored historic buildings, shops, plazas and restaurants — has even replaced Jaffa as the place for taking pre-wedding photos.

The original depot contained a cashier’s counter, station offices and a private waiting room. The green ticket window is still there, along with a sign on the wall above a little café. All that’s left of the sign are the words salle de atten[te] class — so we can’t be sure which particular “class” of people hung out here waiting for the train. A shop operates in one of the station’s rooms, while another features a wonderful old movie filled with historic moments from the early 20th century.

You may wonder why the train station wasn’t built adjacent to the port, which would seem to have been the logical spot. Workers at the port may have threatened to strike if travelers arriving by sea could get onto the train without having to drive to the station in one of their carts. Or, perhaps, the reason could have been the strained relationship between the Turks who ruled Israel at the time, and the French. During the British era, a little train took passengers through the streets from port to station and back.

Near the main building, an elongated structure with numerous doors served as the station’s freight terminal. The way the doors were constructed, and the length of the building, made it easy for freight trains to stop alongside and unload directly into the terminal.

HaTahana Station (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
HaTahana Station (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Perhaps the most famous passenger on this train was Theodore Herzl, whose ride between Jaffa and Jerusalem was said to have had a lasting effect on the Land of Israel. Looking out the window, or so they say, he expressed his disappointment with the desolate landscape and wished that someone would plant some trees! Three years later, in 1901, the Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (Jewish National Fund) was founded at the fifth Zionist congress in Basle with Herzl’s blessing. And within a few short decades forests were flourishing in the Holy Land.

An area adjacent to the tracks was owned by the Wieland family, German Templers from Jerusalem who moved here soon after the onset of the railroad. The location was perfect for the Wielands, who needed a train to transport the tiles and bricks that they manufactured in their factory to Jerusalem.

HaTahana villa chandelier (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
HaTahana villa chandelier (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Their fabulous villa was constructed in 1902. Almost everything both inside and outside the big, white house was manufactured here in the factory, from the tiled floors and the staircase to lovely railings leading to the second story. Tiles on the roof were produced in France, while the other buildings were topped only by cement tiles from the factory. A jewelry store operates inside the villa, where visitors can view the stunning chandelier, gorgeous painted ceiling, and fireplace. And if asked, the shopkeepers will pick up some of the jewelry displays on the walls to show the family photos underneath.

The factory was nearby. Built in 1905, it produced a wide variety of products from roofing tiles to irrigation pipes, balustrades, window frames and balcony posts. Today the second story features a variety of photographic and theatrical exhibits. A water pump imported from the Motherland can be seen on the side of the building.

A former factory shop at HaTahana (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A former factory shop at HaTahana (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Like other Germans, the Wielands were expelled from the country by the British as enemy aliens during the First World War, and only returned in 1922. Two years later they built the factory store, consisting of one large showroom. A lovely family garden flourished in the area between the shop and the villa. All the rest of the buildings served as storerooms, and are filled today with designer shops.

During World War II, another generation of Wielands was deported, again as enemy aliens, to Australia. The British appropriated the complex and turned it into a large army supply base. A long building with several rooms, originally used by the Wielands for storage, became an entertainment district for British soldiers featuring nightclubs, canteens and pubs.

This becomes apparent inside a clothing store where one wall boasts the fresco of a “mad” pianist, and another features dancing girls. Paintings like these, found throughout all the workshops and stores in this storeroom area, were created by Gerd Rothschild, a German Jew who immigrated with his mother before the Second World War. After studying applied graphics at the Bezalel School of Art and Design in Jerusalem, he joined the British army and was given the job of cook. Soon, however, his talent was discovered, and Rothschild was made official mural maker for the army in the entire Middle East.

HaTahana restaurants and ficus tree (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
HaTahana restaurants and ficus tree (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Further into the complex are two restaurants, an enormous tree and restrooms. At one time, this was a garden for the enjoyment of Wieland factory workers. Then, after the Brits took over the railroad station, they built showers and bathrooms for their soldiers. The restrooms, albeit renovated, remain from those early days, while the shower became a restaurant. All that water may be the reason why the huge ficus tree growing here has flourished, right in the middle of it all.


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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