Israel travels

Let there be Light Rail

Jerusalem’s ultra-modern crosstown train offers passengers a smooth ride and a rich tour of the Holy City. Next stop: thousands of years of history

Illustrative: The Jerusalem Light Rail passing the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Illustrative: The Jerusalem Light Rail passing the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two years ago, soon after the Light Rail began operating in Jerusalem, I found myself sitting next to a tourist from Jamaica. After asking me all kinds of questions about the sites visible from the windows, she told me that she was taking the train from one end to the other to get a feel for the Holy City.

She certainly had the right idea. For while the Light Rail in other cities is mainly a vehicle for transportation, the Jerusalem version provides riders with a window into thousands of years of the city’s rich and turbulent history.

The train begins in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev. But the main historical sites are along a route from the Ammunition Hill Station to its final stop at Mount Herzl.

One of the fiercest battles of the 1967 Six Day War was fought at Ammunition Hill, where the British established a school for policemen during their mandate in Palestine. Natural and man-made burial caves on the adjacent height were utilized for storing great stocks of ammunition, which is how it became known as Ammunition Hill.

Ammunition Hill (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ammunition Hill (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

After the British left the country in 1948, Jordanian forces conquered Ammunition Hill and turned it into a highly fortified military position. Their fortifications were awesome, including tremendously well-protected bunkers, intricate communication trenches, heavy machine guns, and the best of the Jordanian Legion — a highly-trained Bedouin company. So you can imagine how difficult it was for Israel to conquer the site during the battles to liberate Jerusalem.

The heroic paratroopers who fought there are commemorated in a popular Israeli song, and today Ammunition Hill is a National Memorial Site which hosts the central Jerusalem Day ceremony for soldiers who fell fighting for the city in the Six Day War.

Shimon Hatzaddik Station, next on the line, is named for its proximity to the tomb of a Jewish High Priest during the time of the Second Temple. Many are the stories and legends around Shimon Hatzaddik, but he is most famous for his maxim that the world stands on three things: “Torah, divine worship, and acts of loving kindness” (Pirkei Avoth 1:2).

Shimon Hatzaddik tomb celebrations (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Shimon Hatzaddik tomb celebrations (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

From 1948 to 1967 (War of Independence to the Six-Day War) most of the route followed by the Light Rail was actually the hostile border between Jordan and Israel. The train stops next to large, grey, unattractive apartment buildings with tiny barred windows at the next station, Shivtei Yisrael. This is the edge of the Musrara neighborhood, whose windows faced the unfriendly border. The windows were designed to offer as much light as possible while protecting inhabitants from flying shells.

Next stop: Damascus Gate — which isn’t visible from the train but is the most elaborate of all the Old City gates. Then you head up the hill right next to the Old City walls, restored by Turkish ruler Suleiman the Great in 1538. As you are still on the former Jerusalem/Jordanian border, the tracks run over what was, for 19 years, a mass of barbed wire in a forbidding No-Man’s Land.

From the train, there is a wonderful view of Notre Dame de Jerusalem, a stunning monastery and guesthouse topped by a towering statue. Construction on these imposing stone walls and round turrets began in 1884, when French Catholics began thronging to the Holy City.

The monastery was severely damaged during heavy fighting in 1948, in a battle that prevented the Arab Legion from invading western Jerusalem. Until 1967, Israeli soldiers guarded Jerusalem from the rooftops of Notre Dame, directly across from Jordanian positions on the Walls. Charmingly restored in later years, Notre Dame once again functions as a hotel for Catholic pilgrims.

At the top of the hill, the train passes IDF Square, and a rounded building full of holes. When Jerusalem’s first City Hall was constructed in 1930, the money came from Barclay’s Bank. The bank’s offices were located in the rounded section of the solid stone building before you, while the Municipality was around the other side. Jagged holes scarring the façade are the result of shells fired by Jordanian soldiers during the War of Independence and the Six Day War; in the 19 intervening years, Jordanian snipers added even more bullet wounds to the face of the building. Despite restoration, the holes were left as they were to remind onlookers of the city’s travails when Jerusalem was divided.

Safra Square Light Rail stop (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Safra Square Light Rail stop (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The train turns the corner and stops at Safra Square Station, home of the Jerusalem Municipality. City Hall is a six-story modern edifice, but lovely old buildings behind the Station date back to the 19th and early 20th century. They have been beautifully restored and incorporated into the municipal complex.

Immediately across from this Station, the buildings at #17 and #19 Jaffa Road sparkle in the sun. Constructed and owned by the Armenian Church, with decorative balconies and graceful arches, they were built around 1900; later, a third, less elegant story was added to #19. You can see the emblem of the Armenian Patriarchate above most of the doors.

As you whiz onto the next stop, look left to see the building with tall, narrow windows erected in 1939. Originally the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which helped finance the Zionist movement, it now belongs to Bank Leumi.

Bank Leumi (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Bank Leumi (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Next door, the Central Post Office was also constructed during the British Mandate. Note how its bland exterior is offset by a row of black basalt stones from the Golan Heights. Inside, however, colonial England shines through, including floors of black and green marble, high ceilings and chandeliers.

Splendidly restored structures line Jaffa Road, some of them well over a hundred years old. And the sidewalks, empty for a decade prior to the advent of the Light Rail, now burst with shoppers, diners, and tourists. The train continues on to Davidka Station, where a newly revamped plaza features a monument to one of Israel’s noisiest weapons. Invented by engineer David Leibowitz, the weapon was a home-made mortar fashioned from pipes and called the Davidka.

A Davidka was brought to Jerusalem during the War of Independence and proved crucial in the Israeli capture of Mount Zion, Katamon, and the Allenby camp. The inscription on the monument is from the Bible: “I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.” (Kings 2: 19:34)

Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Next stop is at the Mahane Yehuda Market, originally an open air Arab bazaar, and later a sadly neglected Jerusalem market. Renovated a few years ago, it is on the must-see list for every visitor to the city. Locals flock to the market as well, for its fresh produce and ambiance and, lately, for its exciting nightlife.

Anyone walking through crowded Mahane Yehuda Market rubs shoulders (literally) with people from all walks of life and nationalities. On any given day, musicians play their instruments, ultra-Orthodox men preach to bystanders, and people ask you for alms.

Now the train passes the stunningly restored Old Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, near Haturim Station, with the Central Bus Station the stop after that. Soon afterwards, the train ascends the Strings Bridge, held up by cables and inaugurated in 2008 at the city’s entrance.

Mount Herzl (photo credit: Naama Bar-Am)
Mount Herzl (photo credit: Naama Bar-Am)

Finally, the train stops at Mount Herzl Station, from which riders can tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, view the graves of Leaders of the Nation, and walk through the country’s main military cemetery.  Before heading back on the train, travelers can also take in the production at the Herzl Museum. Uplifting in the extreme, it answers the question: What would Theodor Herzl think if he could see Israel as the country is, today?


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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