In 1967, Israel began preparing for the Six-Day War. At the time, Jerusalem was a divided city, and the country’s leaders realized that they lacked information about Jordanian positions on the ramparts atop the Old City walls. But how to lure the Jordanian soldiers out of hiding so the IDF could see where they were stationed?
Officers came up with a creative solution: they arranged for a shapely Israeli girl to stand on a balcony in the Mamilla neighborhood, across from the Old City walls, and to provocatively remove her clothing. As Jordanian soldiers emerged in a rush to get a good view, Israeli forces were able to photograph their positions.
Assuming that this was but one of a multitude of Israeli legends, a guide told the story during a tour. To his astonishment, a woman in the group declared that every word of the tale was true. She should know, she said, because she was the girl whose job it had been to lure the soldiers out of hiding.
Soldiers are no longer stationed on the ramparts (fortified walkways) patrolling the walls. In fact, today tourists and native Jerusalemites stroll freely atop the Old City walls for a first-hand view of both Old and New Jerusalem.
There are several possible ramparts routes. Our favorite is the section between Jaffa Gate and Zion Gate – a short walk, but an exciting one. Because it offers an excellent view of Mamilla, you can imagine that you are one of the soldiers ogling that curvaceous Israeli girl.
The ramparts were constructed in 1538 during Suleiman the Magnificent’s restoration of the ancient walls. At the top there is a sort of plaza with a view of the kishle, from the Turkish word for “barracks”. During the Ottoman period it served as a jail and today it is a police station.
Incredibly, remains from King Herod’s magnificent 2,000-year-old palace were discovered under the kishle – along with even more ancient finds. But that’s another story…
Several dozen fortified towers jut out from the ramparts at regular intervals of 80-100 meters, more or less the range of an arrow. Because the city walls were very thick, it was impossible for a guard on the walkway to view what was happening immediately below unless he leaned over a breach in the ramparts. From these little towers, however, which were higher than the walls, they could get a much better look.
Ramparts walkers find themselves strolling between two walls. The stone wall to the left was built by soldiers of the Jordanian Arab Legion after Jerusalem was divided in 1948. Combined with the older city wall on the right, it formed a communication trench between various military positions. Until the reunification of the Jerusalem in 1967, fortifications also included a metal roof and a thick overlying layer of sand.
From the first tower and those to come, the view of New Jerusalem is tremendous. The King David Hotel is unmistakable; so are the strange domes of Kfar David, a posh development situated on top of what was once the neighborhood of Mamilla (the Mamilla Mall is across the road).
In its heyday Mamilla was Jerusalem’s main business district, and during the roaring twenties bordellos and casinos stood shoulder to shoulder with the neighborhood’s exclusive shops. But because Mamilla was so very close to the Old City, it was particularly vulnerable to attacks by hostile Arabs. On November 29, 1947, the night that Jews celebrated the United Nations decision to partition Palestine, Arab rioters and looters engulfed Mamilla. The British police made no effort to intervene, but fortunately for Mamilla the mobs dispersed when several Haganah squads came to the rescue.
From 1948 to 1967, the 19 years during which the city was divided, Jordanian soldiers sniped at Jewish neighborhoods from high atop these very ramparts. The once-prosperous Mamilla, already partially destroyed in the riots, quickly turned into a slum.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, after a massive overhaul and with the appearance of a fashionable residential area, it was returned to its former glory.
Soon the Armenian Theological Seminary comes into view on the left. Behind the seminary, a grey dome with a cross tops the Armenian Cathedral of St. James. This is the Armenian Quarter.
Life in the Armenian Quarter revolves around church institutions and residents here live behind locked gates. This not only separates the Armenians from all their neighbors, but also keeps them safe at night. Within the complex there are about 2,000 people, perhaps the only monastery compound in the world with a grocery store, nursery school, and entertainment!
Sultan’s Pool, part of the Hinnom Valley which served as a natural border between the tribes of Benjamin and of Judah, can be seen down below. On the other side of the valley are the red-roofed houses of Yemin Moshe. To their left stand the newly restored historic windmill and the elongated buildings of Mishkenot Sha’ananim – built in 1860 as the first Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City.
Several Christian cemeteries are located on Mount Zion, but the one closest to the ramparts belongs to the Catholics. Buried within is Irishman Christopher Costigan, who sailed from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea in 1835. While researching holy sites near the Dead Sea, he contracted malaria and was brought to the Franciscan Convent on Mount Zion. A tongue of land that protrudes into the southern portion of the Dead Sea is called Cape Costigan, after the young explorer who died of his illness at the age of 25.
During the Byzantine period many Christian traditions arose, among them the belief that Mary wasn’t dead and instead lay deep in eternal sleep. Mary’s crypt was believed to have been on Mount Zion.
German emperor Wilhelm II visited Israel in 1898, and the Turkish Sultan presented him with a plot of land on Mount Zion in order to build a Catholic church. Splendid, massive Dormition Abbey, begun in 1906 and completed in 1910, was erected by the German Benedictine Order over the Byzantine church which housed Mary’s crypt.
Next to the impressive Abbey stands a unique clock tower. From this particular vantage point it is easy to pretend that you are looking at the face of a Prussian soldier, complete with helmet, eyes and nose. Some say that if you happen to view it at just the right angle at night, the clock looks exactly like the Emperor Wilhelm himself.
This part of the ramparts ends at Zion Gate, which features both a plaque and numerous bullet holes. These bear witness to a successful Israeli attempt to reach the besieged and beleaguered Jewish residents of the Old City on May 18, 1948.
Unfortunately, however, most of the soldiers were withdrawn, and the handful of Jewish defenders that remained could not hold out against the might of the Jordanian army. On May 28, 1948, the Jewish Quarter was forced to capitulate to the Jordanian Legion.
This article is adapted from Aviva Bar-Am’s book Jerusalem EasyWalks. All rights reserved.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.