Immediately after the United Nations’ decision to partition Palestine, at the end of November, 1947, the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s walled Old City came under Arab siege. When the British evacuated Jerusalem on May 14, 1948, the Quarter was still cut off from the outside world — and under heavy Arab attack as well. The situation was catastrophic, and Jewish residents of the Old City were frantic with desperation.
David Shaltiel, Commander of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, came up with a strategy for getting troops into the Jewish Quarter. Shaltiel was convinced that a small opening covered with an iron grate near the back entrance to David’s Citadel was a passageway leading into the very heart of the tower. He intended to send several armored vehicles filled with soldiers up to Jaffa Gate and, while troops shot at Jordanians defending the Old City, sappers would blow off the grill covering the opening. Infantry would then dash into the Old City.
At the same time, a second force would attack Arab-held Mount Zion, located right outside the walls. However, this was meant only as a diversion, giving the main thrust an opportunity to complete its mission.
Troops trying to enter the Citadel on the night of May 17 were, unfortunately, soon discovered, and bombarded with grenades and shells. As casualties mounted, the Jews were forced to retreat. In the end, the only operation that succeeded that night was the conquest of Mount Zion.
Heading the diversionary force together with the late David (Dado) Elazar was Uri Ben Ari, a strapping Palmach commander born in Germany who, at eight years old, had witnessed Nazi thugs beating his war-hero father and who had received a thrashing himself. Five years later, he and his father had watched helplessly as Nazis burned their Torah scrolls and set their synagogue on fire during Kristallnacht. And Ben Ari had sworn that one day he would be old enough to fight.
As Ben Ari and his men climbed Mount Zion, taking position after position, he was flooded with memories of Germany – and of his father, who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Ignoring orders to cause a diversion only, his unit continued on, until the troops had conquered Mount Zion.
Soldiers were stationed outside of the Old City’s Zion Gate, chained but undefended, after their unexpected capture of the mountain. So Shaltiel decided to seize the opportunity and push through into the Jewish Quarter. Bone-weary troops, having had no rest for days, were ordered to break through the gate and advance 200 meters through the Old city’s enemy territory to be welcomed by their Jewish brethren.
At 3:30 in the morning of May 19, 1948, practically asleep on their feet, Palmach soldiers succeeded in breaching the gate and reaching the joyful residents of the Jewish Quarter. However, that same day thousands of newly arrived Jordanian Legionnaires began shelling Jewish neighborhoods outside of the Old City. The troops who had broken into the Old City and reached the Jewish Quarter were withdrawn and the promised reinforcements never materialized.
Less than two weeks later, on May 28, the Jewish Quarter surrendered to the Jordanian legion. Jerusalem was torn in half, and would remain divided for the next 19 years. But Mount Zion, of vast religious significance, has remained in Jewish hands from that time to this. Indeed, it is fairly bursting with important sites.
According to a widely accepted Christian tradition, Jesus’ mother Mary fell into eternal sleep at a site on Mount Zion. Franciscans built a chapel on the holy spot during the 14th century; the contemporary complex of church and monastery was erected by the German Benedictine Order at the beginning of the 20th century, with funds donated by German Emperor Wilhelm II.
Called Dormition Abbey, its ornamental cone-topped church and unique tower are visible from many parts of the city. Beautiful mosaics decorate the upper hall, while brilliant blue stained-glass windows add a stunning color to the interior of the church. The basement crypt holds a life-size statue of Mary lying in eternal rest. Made of cherry tree wood and ivory, the impressive figure is bathed in the glow of burning wax candles.
Few structures combine the ancient with the new as successfully as the dazzling Church of St. Peter on the mountain’s eastern slopes. Erected in 1931, the church is an amazing blend of contemporary lines, primitive art, and antiquity. All have been brilliantly fused together to create a superbly designed masterpiece which makes it far more than an ordinary house of worship.
Beneath the church are a series of carved-out chambers from the Second Temple period. Since Catholic tradition positions the palace of Caiaphas on this very site, it seems to follow that Jesus may have been imprisoned in one of these very same underground crypts. A stone trail into the Kidron Valley may date back to that same era. Many Christians believe that Jesus followed this path down to Gethsemane on Holy Thursday night.
A two-story building on Mount Zion, probably erected by the Crusaders, houses King David’s Tomb and the Cenacle. According to Christians tradition, the Cenacle, located on the top floor, is the site of the Last Supper – the Passover Seder that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
The bottom floor houses the site of King David’s Tomb, a tradition dating back at least to the Middle Ages. Worshipers can be found there at all hours, praying next to a sarcophagus covered with a decorative cloth. The tomb, whose contents and age have never been scientifically analyzed, has been partitioned so that part of it is located in the section allocated to men, and the rest in the portion allotted to women.
For nearly 400 years, the entrance into what is the present day’s men’s section was completely covered with beautiful, hand-painted, ceramic tiles. On December 19, 2012, a haredi vandal shattered the tiles. His reason: he was hoping that worshiping at King David’s tomb would bring him a mate, and he believed that the Muslim-made tiles were blocking his prayers. They were not restored, so what you see now is the Mameluke entrance built into what is most likely the original Crusader arch.
The David’s Tomb/Cenacle complex is under the control of Israel’s Ministry of Interior, with access to all. Nevertheless, the Vatican would dearly like have a freer hand in deciding when to conduct ceremonies, for currently these have to be coordinated with security authorities and are very limited in scope. The very idea of Christians holding mass above their heads has outraged Orthodox Jews in Israel, leading to demonstrations and the defamation of area churches – including a recent fire at the Greek Orthodox Seminary.
Fears of a Catholic take-over have also caused Orthodox Jews to increase their presence at the site, and today the complex hosts a yeshiva along with a make-shift synagogue. Often, in the men’s section, you will find someone playing a violin during prayers. On Saturday nights the place really comes to life, as Hassidic boys and men dance in circles.
If you still aren’t convinced that Mount Zion is of the most important places in the Holy City, this may help: less than a decade ago, archeologists exposed a wall along the southern slopes that was erected during the Byzantine period in Jerusalem (4-7th centuries). The archeologists had undertaken the dig as part of the Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority’s project to create a promenade that would preserve the area around the Old City walls for posterity.
Later, and to everyone’s delight, the archeologists also discovered a second wall, from the reign of the Hasmoneans (Maccabee family) 2,000 years ago. According to archeologist Yehiel Zelinger, director of excavations, it is possible that Byzantine builders had no idea that the Hasmonean wall existed – but nevertheless constructed their fortifications along the exact same route. And that’s not all: recently, an even more ancient wall has been uncovered – this time dating back to the First Temple Period.
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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