Tower of David renewal seeks to reinstate ancient citadel as Old City beacon

Jerusalem fortress, some of it 2,500-years-old, is completing a $40 million renovation, bringing city’s historic ‘lighthouse’ into 21st century

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The Patrick and Lina Entrance Pavilion at the renovated Tower of David Museum, slated to open in late 2022 (Courtesy Kimmel Eshkolot Architects)
The Patrick and Lina Entrance Pavilion at the renovated Tower of David Museum, slated to open in late 2022 (Courtesy Kimmel Eshkolot Architects)

There are portions of Jerusalem’s ancient Tower of David Museum that date as far back as 2,500 years, with sections that were regularly renovated and constructed over the centuries, depending on the period and its ruler.

Now the formidable fortress is undergoing a $40 million renewal project, making the museum complex accessible for the first time in its history, along with a new entrance pavilion and a state-of-the-art permanent exhibition.

The entire project is slated to be completed by late 2022.

After years of entering the museum from the eastern side of the citadel, closer to an entrance of the Old City shuk, the entrance will be moved to the western side of the citadel, directly across from Jaffa Gate.

The Tower of David, located in the walled citadel, was known for thousands of years as the “lighthouse” of the city, guiding pilgrims approaching Jerusalem from the west, known as the first Jerusalem landmark on the horizon.

Visitors would walk in its direction, arriving at the Jaffa Gate, known as such because it was approached from the west, from the city of Jaffa. The gate was also known as David’s Gate, because of its location next to the Tower of David.

The site of the new Patrick and Lina Drahi entrance pavilion at the Tower of David Museum. (Courtesy: Ricky Rachman)

The new entrance pavilion will allow comfortable access from the western neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the eastern side beyond the Old City walls — to the Citadel, the Museum and the Old City, reinstating the status of the Tower of David as the entry point to the Old City.

The pavilion, part of the overall plans designed by Kimmel Eshkolot Architects, will be a 1,000-meter (3,281-foot) sunken steel, stone and glass building dug 17 meters (56 feet) below ground, between the ancient walls of the citadel and the Old City.

The new entrance, called the Patrick and Lina Drahi entrance pavilion (funded by the Drahi family, the founder of the European media group Altice and owner of the Sotheby’s auction house), will include a coffee shop and gift store, a shaded seating area open to the public and museum visitors, and easily accessible to parking lots and a planned light rail stop near Jaffa Gate.

Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, currently undergoing a $40 million renewal project slated to be completed in late 2022. (Courtesy: Yuval Yosef)

The entire renewal project is being led by funding from the Clore Israel Foundation as well as from the Municipality of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, and the Ministry of Tourism.

“Everyone’s joining in on this,” said museum director Eilat Lieber. “It’s a complicated project, given how unique this place is and trying to think ahead to what it will look like in 30 years. There’s always this tension of how much to push and that it’s a joint effort. ”

The entire excavation of the citadel was carried out as an archaeological excavation in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, offering an opportunity for archaeologists to reexamine and learn more about this Old City symbol.

The Antiquities Authority has been digging for about a year and a half, with several major findings, including an Arabic inscription in secondary use that belonged to one of the great Ayyubid rulers of Jerusalem.

The dig has also marked a span of some 3,000 years in the pieces they’ve uncovered, and with the discovery of an entire ancient drainage system of the citadel, according to IAA field director Noam Silverberg.

Holding history — and a set of ancient teeth — at the Tower of David Museum, where engineering, architectural and archaeological renovations are taking place. (Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

From an architectural perspective, the citadel renovation offered a tremendous opportunity to work with a massive space measuring 12 dunams (3 acres), larger even than the Temple Mount complex, commented Yotam Cohen-Sagi, the project’s lead architect from Kimmel Eshkolot Architects.

“I couldn’t believe there was this kind of big space in the dense Old City,” said Cohen-Sagi. “It’s a huge area of massive urban importance, and it sits on the edge of the Old City, within the Old City walls. People just don’t get its significance.”

Cohen-Sagi has worked on other historic renovations, including the Old City’s Davidson Center outside the Western Wall, and found that his background in historic preservation helped tremendously.

Overlooking the Tower of David Museum (Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

“The museum was in great shape when it was opened in the 1980s, maybe the country’s best project in terms of who carried it out,” he said. “Our job in the citadel was to make it accessible, suitable for the crowd that’s coming and getting older and to finally address the need for wheelchair accessibility.”

Sustainable building and construction were also taken into account during the renovation project, using natural materials, reusing existing paving, with a new glass facade facing the high walls of the citadel, and offering constant shade.

That said, the “unbelievably thick walls” built by the Mamluks and Ottomans are the basis of the citadel’s climate control, said Cohen-Sagi, offering constant, passive sustainability.

Other aspects of the project include the modernization of the exhibition rooms, often accessed by outside metal stairs. Now there is a new elevator that accesses much of the museum, as well as underfloor heating and air cooling systems.

“It’s been a crazy effort to make this all work here in an ancient citadel,” said Cohen-Sagi. “But we’re doing it.”

The Tower of David Museum is offering a behind-the-scenes tour in English of the renewal, restoration and new accessibility projects. Friday, March 4, 10 a.m., click here for more information and ticket purchase.

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