Forty-six-year-old Yitzhak Penso was one of the first Jews killed in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. Penso had joined the Haganah at the age of 16, during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt against the British and the Jews in Palestine. During the Second World War he enlisted in the British Army and took part in battles in Libya, Egypt, and Italy – and survived. But on December 3, 1947, he was slaughtered by an Arab horde while attempting to rescue Jewish goods in the still-burning shops of the Mamilla Commercial Center.
Mamilla was a tiny neighborhood located on the seam that connects Old and New Jerusalem. Its incredible story of destruction, division, unification and renewal begins at Jaffa Gate where, in the early 1900’s, dozens of shops, consulates, banks and guesthouses completely covered the area from just outside the gate to today’s IDF Square.
At the time, this was also the city’s Central Station. Here camel convoys dropped off all manner of supplies, carriages came and went with passengers, and wagons moved food and goods from place to place.
Most of the original structures in Mamilla were built in the mid 1880’s by both Jews and Arabs as houses, shops and offices that served as an extension of the crowded commercial center next to Jaffa Gate.
By the time the British came along, Mamilla already featured a vast variety of commercial enterprises: workshops, notions’ stores, gourmet restaurants, fancy dress shops, residences, a large hotel, and the first Cadillac dealership in the Middle East. Businesses flourished.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations approved a plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The country’s Arabs were incensed, swearing to prevent its formation with the last drop of their blood.
Almost immediately, the Arab High Committee called for a three-day Arab strike to begin on December 2. That day, hundreds of enraged Arabs swarmed out of the Jaffa and Damascus Gates on a march into downtown (Jewish) Jerusalem. Before they reached their goal, however, shots fired in the air by members of the Hagana caused them to halt – and to move backwards into Mamilla. Screaming slogans and armed with knives and iron bars, they began looting and ransacking Jewish shops. Then they set them on fire.
In the violence that continued for two more days, Mamilla was almost completely demolished. And what wasn’t destroyed during the riots was devastated during the War of Independence to follow.
When the war ended, Mamilla found itself on the border, directly across from Jordanian snipers. Most of the neighborhood was located in Israeli territory, while a fair portion became part of the city’s No-Man’s Land filled with mines, barricades and barbed wire. Destitute new immigrants were settled, or settled themselves, in the ruins of shops and buildings that had been abandoned by the Arabs.
After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and the eye-sore that was No-Man’s Land was removed, plans began to form for rehabilitation of the ravaged Mamilla neighborhood. Decades of conflict between architects and planners ended when the first stage of the Alrov Mamilla Avenue opened in 2007. An open-air mall, it was designed by architect Moshe Safdie, and developed by the Alrov Group.
Almost everything that once stood in the original commercial center was gutted, mainly to make it possible to build a parking lot underneath the mall. A few of the facades remain, while some of the rest were taken apart and put back almost exactly as they were. All of the insides have been redone; some of the older-looking stone facades are actually brand-new.
Of three stunning buildings still standing in the mall, the most beautiful is a three-storied structure sporting a crenellated roof and built by Herbert Edgar Clark in 1898. It is faced with a Mameluke-type red and white stone design with oriental-style doors and windows. Even the balcony floors are lovely, made of Italian marble from Carrera, with intricate railings.
Clark was nine when his family moved to Palestine as part of the devoutly Protestant group that settled the American Colony in Jaffa. The Colony failed, and most of its members returned to their native Maine. But the Clarks remained, and Herbert’s sister married Rollo Floyd – the entrepreneur who established a carriage service between Jaffa and Jerusalem. At some point Clark began managing the regional branch of Thomas Cook, which was the largest and most famous travel agency in the world.
Clark’s lovely dwelling – slated for demolition in early plans – was, instead, restored.
A staircase ascends to the Mamilla Café, one of the restaurants in the Mamilla Hotel that opened in 2009 as an integral part of the Alrov project. Boutique in concept, with chic, ultra-modern rooms, the Mamilla hotel’s design is a tantalizing combination of old-fashioned and new – just like the commercial center itself.
The building that contains a Steimatzky bookstore today was constructed by German immigrant Yehuda Stern in 1870. Later, it became known as Herzl House, for when Theodor Herzl travelled to Palestine in 1898, this is where he spent most of his nights.
His visit was timed for the week when Kaiser Wilhelm II also planned to be in Jerusalem, as Herzl wanted to enlist the German emperor’s support for a Jewish homeland. Most of the arrangements for both of their trips were taken care of by Herbert Edgar Clark.
When plans to rehabilitate Mamilla included the destruction of Herzl House, a public outcry turned things around. So each brick in the entire exterior of the building was marked, removed, and returned – to a site only a slight distance from its original venue.
Towering above the mall is the St. Vincent de Paul Convent and Hospice, the first building to appear on this side of Mamilla Avenue. It is run by the Daughters (Sisters) of Charity, an order of mainly French nuns founded by St. Vincent de Paul on November 29, 1633. Following their arrival in the Holy Land in 1886, the sisters moved into the Christian Quarter and treated patients living inside the Old City. They also worked with the leper colony in nearby Silwan.
Construction began on St. Vincent’s in 1886, and in 1892, as soon as it was ready, the nuns moved into the western portion of the convent. With completion of the facade and the rest of the building a few years later, the sisters were able to open an orphanage. Finally, in 1911, a basilica-style church was added to the complex.
Clergy at St. Vincent’s showed excellent business acumen: they put up a row of stores in front of the church and convent, and rented them out to help them finance their charitable works. The shops, one story high and rented out to both Jews and Arabs, still remain.
The mall boasts an unusually excellent finish, notably lacking in most Jerusalem construction. The facades are standardized and beautifully designed, and even the manholes are fairly pretty. Adding to the mall’s attractions are an exciting variety of high-quality comic and serious sculptures, which are replaced by new ones every few months.
From sing-alongs to an open museum on Independence day, Mamilla hosts all kinds of events. An all-around smashing success, Mamilla Mall unites Old and New Jerusalem – just as it did in the past.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, private tour guide in Israel.
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