Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
While constructing Jerusalem’s Highway 1 in 1997, the powers-that-be added a decorative aqueduct and plaza to the area at the top of Sultan Suleiman Street — just west of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Sometime afterwards, peddlers who had blocked the streets of the Old City were concentrated, under strict marketing guidelines, in the plaza officially known as Pearls’ Lane.
Over the years the site deteriorated, with undesirable elements joining the legitimate peddlers and garbage covering every empty space. It was a place you avoided when walking in East Jerusalem.
In 2015 Benny Sasi, director of the East Jerusalem Development Company (PAMI), toured the walls with assistant director Israel Yefet. They took a good look at Pearls’ lane, and decided that the site deserved a complete overhaul. Together with an Arab-speaking staffer, Yefet began asking people walking to and from Damascus Gate their ideas for an entirely different plaza.
With funds made available by the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, Yefet oversaw a complete makeover, from new pumps for the aqueduct to wheelchair accessibility for passersby. And in June of this year, the site officially reopened. Dubbed Palms’ Plaza by PAMI, the once filthy, neglected and even dangerous park now boasts gardens, walkways, a flowing aqueduct and ever -changing colored fountains that are lit up at night. Best of all, residents (and visitors, as well) do their best to keep the site meticulously clean.
Palms’ Plaza is only one of several exciting sites along Sultan Suleiman Street, a byway that runs along the northern wall and reaches to its northeastern corner. Lined by bedrock on both sides, the street was paved over a Crusader-era moat during the Ottoman Empire’s rule in Palestine and named for its last and longest-reigning Turkish sultan.
Suleiman had several unofficial titles. To the Europeans who were in awe of the sultan’s military prowess – he personally led armies that conquered much of Europe before being halted at the battle of Vienna in 1529 – he was known both as Suleiman the Magnificent and Suleiman the Great. His Turkish subjects respected him more for his far-reaching legislative reforms, and labelled him the Lawmaker.
What he did for Jerusalem, however, should have granted him the title of Suleiman the Contractor, for he completely overhauled the aqueduct that brought water into the city, repaired the old markets and built new bazaars, cleaned out the reservoirs, and restored the Dome of the Rock. But most importantly, he undertook the massive task of rebuilding, beautifying and fortifying Jerusalem’s walls, towers and gates.
Damascus Gate and a disappearing dog
One of them, Damascus Gate, is both the most impressive, and the most ornamental, of the Old City’s seven open gates. Located immediately east of Palms’ Plaza, it features wide steps and a square that is constantly filled with people.
But although it is nearly half a century old, Damascus Gate is really just a newcomer compared to the historic side gate and Roman Plaza located below.
In 132 C.E., Jews all over the Land of Israel rebelled against Roman rule. Known as the Bar Kochba Revolt, it was crushed by Roman Emperor Hadrian three years later. To celebrate, Hadrian built a free-standing victory arch consisting of a magnificent middle portal, with identical, less ostentatious entrances to the city on either side. One of the smaller entrances remains almost intact, and is found below and to the left of Damascus Gate.
A pillar topped by a statue of Emperor Hadrian stood on a plaza just inside the ancient entrance. Distances to different parts of the country were measured from this pillar, which appears together with the plaza on the famous 6th century Madaba map discovered in Jordan. The pillar is the source of the Arabic name for Damascus Gate – Bab el Amud – Gate of the Pillar.
Today the plaza is called the Roman Square. Excavated in 1982, it features a little museum dedicated to the history of Damascus Gate and run by PAMI. The original stone floor is still there, along with maps, explanations, and a variety of Roman era antiquities. Over the past decades it has been opened and closed to visitors several times. At the moment only groups that make arrangements in advance can visit the site.
One of the city’s most exciting tourist sites is located right next to Damascus Gate. But it may never have come to light were it not for Dr. James Turner Barclay, a minister of the Scottsville Disciples of Christ in Virginia. Dr. Barclay arrived in Jerusalem in 1851 with his wife and three children, hell-bent on converting the city’s Jews and Muslims to Christianity. But he found that Muslims had been warned of a death penalty upon conversion. And any Jews who took up the cross faced total ostracism by their community.
With time to spare, Barclay and his dog took long walks outside the city walls. And it was on one of these strolls along Suleiman Street, in 1854, that his dog disappeared.
Eventually, Barclay made out a faint bark. Following the sound, he discovered a very small opening in the wall that was ordinarily hidden by masses of garbage but had been uncovered that year during unusually strong rainfall.
In order not to alert the Turkish authorities, Barclay waited until dark and then, with two friends, ventured into an enormous cavern over 9,000 square meters in size. Created by natural forces, it had served as a quarry for centuries and, quite possibly, was even used by the laborers who built Solomon’s Temple three millennia ago.
Deep inside the cave, there is a barely flowing spring. Legend has it that its waters are the tears shed by King Zedekiah as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
Not only have Zedekiah’s cave and its quarries been stunningly restored for visitors, but these days the cave hosts musical events once or twice each month. Hundreds of artistically placed candles create an enchanting atmosphere for the concerts that, together with the cave’s acoustics, offer a magical sound and ambience.
Down near the end of the street, the white limestone walls of the John D. Rockefeller Archeological Museum shine brightly in the Jerusalem sun. Inaugurated in 1938, with a stunning six-sided roof, the museum features thousands of artifacts excavated in the region during the British Mandate in Palestine (1920-1948).
Rockefeller Museum was designed by British architect Austen St. Barbe Harrison. A student of Byzantine and Islamic architecture, Harrison did a fabulous job of blending eastern and western design, incorporating long halls with arched openings, Armenian tiles, gorgeous sculptures and reflecting pools.
Burj al-Laqlaq or, in English, Stork’s Tower, stands at the northeastern corner of the Old City walls. As Israel is a major migratory path for birds it is likely that the tower got its name from the storks who used to rest here during their migrations. Among the decorations on the tower is a totally incongruous Star of David, almost certainly taken from another site.
Before 1948, when the Old City walls marked the Jordanian border, hip hostess Kati Antonious would serve fancy moonlit dinners on the stone rooftop of the massive square tower. Kati was married to George, private secretary to the most important Muslim cleric in Jerusalem. The couple lived a lavish lifestyle, and their salon was universally envied. Indeed, everyone who was anyone on the international scene, from Arab sheiks to politicians and poets visited their home – and continued to do so even after Kati lost her husband in 1942.
From 1948-1967, the whole area was an ugly no-man’s land filled with barbed wire. But following the Six-Day War, when the two parts of Jerusalem were reunited, Jews and Arabs haggled together each Friday at the Sheep Market next to Stork’s Tower. All week long they met at the coffee shops and hummus stands across from Damascus Gate. Indeed, we ourselves were regulars at the crowded watermelon booths in summer.
For a long, long time, all this intermingling came to a standstill. With the opening of the new plaza, however, and decorative lights in front of businesses that have, again, begun to develop, there is hope that those halcyon days of peace and prosperity will return.
Zedekiah’s cave is open Saturday to Thursday, 9:00-17:00. Tickets are NIS 18 for adults and NIS 10 for children and adult seniors. It is not wheelchair accessible and will be difficult for people using walkers.
Groups interested in visiting the Roman Square should see the PAMI website: www.pami.co.il/en. The telephone number is 972 2 6277550.
The Rockefeller Museum is open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10:00-15:00, and Saturday from 10:00 to 14:00. Entrance is free but there is parking only on Saturdays. It is not wheelchair accessible. Phone: 972 2 628-2251.
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. All rights reserved.