When it comes to Jerusalem architecture, the details make the difference
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When it comes to Jerusalem architecture, the details make the difference

Gates, fences, signs and inscriptions -- in the Holy City, everything can tell a story if you look closely

  • The keystone above the entrance to this Jerusalem home marks the former owner of the property David Yellin, and his contributions to the development of the modern Hebrew language. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The keystone above the entrance to this Jerusalem home marks the former owner of the property David Yellin, and his contributions to the development of the modern Hebrew language. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A verse from Psalms inscribed above a home entranceway on Yaakov Meir street in Geula. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A verse from Psalms inscribed above a home entranceway on Yaakov Meir street in Geula. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Carved stone-and-marble lace adorns St. George's Cathedral. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Carved stone-and-marble lace adorns St. George's Cathedral. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Lamel School in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Lamel School in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Gethsemane Church, and the intricate, decorative fence in front of the entrance (insert). (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Gethsemane Church, and the intricate, decorative fence in front of the entrance (insert). (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The gate of The Claremont residence in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The gate of The Claremont residence in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A keystone above the entrance to 14 Hafetz Hayim street in Jerusalem, dating to the early 20th century, with pro-Turkish symbols. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A keystone above the entrance to 14 Hafetz Hayim street in Jerusalem, dating to the early 20th century, with pro-Turkish symbols. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The monogram above the entrance to 84 Jaffa road in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The monogram above the entrance to 84 Jaffa road in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The entrance to the Ecole Biblique, or St. Etienne’s Church. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The entrance to the Ecole Biblique, or St. Etienne’s Church. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Inspired by architect David Kroyanker’s latest and very comprehensive book – Jerusalem Design, God is in the Details – the Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently came up with an exciting new exhibit about the Holy City. Called Jerusalem in Detail, it offers a fantastic look at the city’s rich weave of cultures.

We enjoyed the exhibit immensely, especially since Shmuel has always had an eye for detail.  But we also understood that there was an urgency about its creation. Indeed, exhibit curator Dan Handel notes that Jerusalem has an extremely poor record of preservation, unlike the city of Tel Aviv. And although the ceramics, sculptures and exquisite features in the photographs on display have been around for a long time, many will undoubtedly disappear over the next few decades.

We were frustrated, however, with one portion of the exhibit. We didn’t recognize some of the details we looked at, and very few of them were photographed in their natural habitat. That inspired us to send Shmuel all over Jerusalem, where he took pictures of details in the city that people simply don’t notice and photos that show exactly where they can be found, if they look hard enough. Here are but a few:

The Claremont, 19 Balfour street

Israel’s prime ministers and their families reside at 3 Balfour street in Jerusalem, located within the city’s exclusive Talbieh neighborhood. But over the years plenty of other important people have lived on the street as well. One of them was Zalman Shazar, who was Minister of Education at the time and eventually became our third president.

The Claremont, former home of Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second Prime Minister. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Another was Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second Prime Minister. He made his home in a building whose gate pompously features the words: The Claremont, suggesting that it was a hotel (it wasn’t). Because the sign is the exact color of the gate itself – blue – it is easy to miss.

The gate of The Claremont residence in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Kattan House, 84 Jaffa road

During the 1920s and 30s, an Arab contracting company built a number of houses in Jerusalem. The head of the company, which was called Kattan and Sons, was a Christian Arab named Ibrahim Kattan.

84 Jaffa road in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Although few people even notice it, and it has darkened considerably over the years, a lovely monogram and curlicue design are found above the entrance to the house at 84 Jaffa road. The monogram reads I & SK and, we assume, bears the company’s initials.

The monogram above the entrance to 84 Jaffa road in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Ecole Biblique, St. Etienne’s Church, 83 Nablus road

Nearly two decades after wedding Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II in 421, rumors that she had been unfaithful to her husband forced Empress Eudocia to flee for her life.  Theodosius dispatched an assassin after his consort, who slew several of her companions before brave Eudocia managed to kill the assailant with her own hands. In the end Theodosius took a different approach, and sent his spouse into exile in the Holy Land with more than enough money to keep her in comfort.

One of her finest projects was the creation of a grand monastic complex dedicated to St. Stephen, an early Christian who was dragged out of Damascus Gate and stoned to death nearby on orders of the Sanhedrin. St. Stephen’s tomb had been recently been discovered by a parish priest near Beit Shemesh, and Eudocia was able to have the martyr’s relics re-interred in her new sanctuary. Shortly before her death she asked to be buried beneath the atrium of St. Stephen’s Church, so that a procession of monks on its way to mass would walk over her tomb.

Ecole Biblique, or St. Etienne’s Church, named for St. Stephen, at 83 Nablus road. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1882, the scholarly French Dominican Order decided to establish a monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to St. Stephen (Etienne, in French). The Order purchased four adjacent plots just outside Damascus Gate, and when preparing the land uncovered the walls of Eudocia’s ancient basilica.

St. Stephen’s Church was reconstructed according to the exact dimensions of the original by following its walls, mosaic floors, and extending a step leading to the altar that was discovered in situ. Today the complex includes L’Ecole Biblique (The School of Biblical and Archeological Studies), a prestigious facility was the very first research institute of its kind in the entire Middle East.  

The entrance to the Ecole Biblique, or St. Etienne’s Church. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Hidden behind the trees is an unusual bell tower. In his book, Kroyanker writes that it is built in Assyrian style (the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.)

Entrance to house at 14 Hafetz Hayim street

Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen, born in 1838, was one of Lithuania’s most renowned Jewish scholars. His nickname was Hafetz Haim, which was the name of his first book, a volume that dealt with slander and gossip. Hafetz Hayim Street, of course, was named for this great rabbi.

The entrance to 14 Hafetz Hayim st. in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Rarely does a Jewish household engrave Muslim symbols on its keystone. However the entrance to one house on the street, built in 1909 when the Turkish Empire still ruled Palestine, features just such a keystone. It is engraved with the star and crescent that symbolized the Turkish Empire in the 19th century and eventually Islam itself.

The unusual keystone reflected the strong pro-Turkish atmosphere that prevailed among some in Jews in the Holy Land at the time, for in 1908 a reformist group in Turkey had successfully rebelled against the country’s authoritarian regime and replaced it with a constitutional government.

A keystone above the entrance to 14 Hafetz Hayim street in Jerusalem, dating to the early 20th century, with pro-Turkish symbols. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Lamel School, 13 Yeshayahu street

Established as a memorial to Austrian-Jewish nobleman Simon Von Lamel in 1853, the original school was located inside the Old City walls. It moved to its present premises exactly 50 years later,  when there was absolutely nothing here, and was designed by Theodore Sandel, a Christian architect from Jerusalem’s German Colony.

The Lamel School in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Lamel School was the first progressive Jewish educational facility in the country. Notice the encircled Star of David under its upper windows, and a clock on which time is represented by letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The lintel above the door to the school contains a carving of a palm tree shading a well – a decoration typical of the Middle East. Carved into the background is a view of the Old City.

A decorative palm tree above the entrance to the Lamel School. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

House of David Yellin, 2 Press street

Jerusalem-born David Yellin was one of the first people to support Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in his obstinate struggle to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. Yellin lived across the street from Lamel School, where for a time he served as vice principal.

The former home of early Hebrew language pioneer David Yellin. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Although an important member of the staff at a teachers’ seminary, he quit in 1914 after a dispute on the language of instruction: Classes were in German, and Yellin insisted that they be taught in Hebrew. Some years later Yellin became director of that same seminary, which today bears his name. The word “Levanon” is engraved above the door of his home: in 1878 Yellin wrote articles for HaLevanon, the first Hebrew-language newspaper.

The word ‘Levanon’ above the entrance to David Yellin’s home. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Damascus Gate Machicolation

Damascus Gate is the hub of East Jerusalem commerce and its open air market offers everything from shoestrings to grape leaves. Called Sha’ar Schem in Hebrew, the gate faces north and the road that in the past led directly to Nablus (Schem) and Damascus. During the Byzantine period this was known as St. Stephen’s Gate for, according to Christian tradition, the martyr Stephen was dragged out of the city through this gate and stoned to death somewhere on the other side of today’s road.  

The Damascus Gate, an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In order to prevent enemy armies from entering through the gate, five different parapets were built into the walls and towers. Their floors contain machicolations, openings from which soldiers could dump boiling oil or hot tar on an enemy invader beneath the walls.  

A machicolation, or opening defenders of the gate could use to fight off attacking invaders. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Gethsemane (Church of all Nations), Kidron Valley

Possibly it is because the entrance to Gethsemane is from the side. Or perhaps the reason lies in the brilliance of the church’s mosaic façade and its stunning pillars. But visitors standing in front often pay little attention to the long fence in front of the church. And that is really a shame, for it is filled with wonderfully intricate detail and that includes a multitude of tiny figures.

The Gethsemane Church, and the intricate, decorative fence in front of the entrance (insert). (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Batei Rand (Rand Houses), downtown Jerusalem

When Hassidic rabbi Mendel Rand founded a little neighborhood in 1910, he offered the homes rent free to Torah scholars. The keystone above the entrance is intriguing, for it features not only the Hebrew date of the neighborhood’s construction, but the Hebrew letter “shin.” It’s anybody’s guess what the letter stands for, as some believe it is meant as the first letter of the word for gate (sha’ar), others assume it represents one of the many names of God (shadai), or perhaps it is the first letter of the most famous of Jewish prayers, the Shema Yisrael (Hear O Israel).

A mysterious letter shin above the entrance to the Rand Houses in downtown Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

St. George’s Cathedral, 20 Nablus road

St. George was born to a second-century Christian family from the town of Lydda, the capital of Israel’s southern district in the Byzantine era. George grew up to be a Roman soldier who made war in foreign lands. According to legend, he was riding through a small Libyan village one day when he spotted a beautiful princess walking sadly to a dragonlair. The dragon demanded human sacrifices and, tragically, the princess had drawn the shortest straw. After making the sign of the cross George whipped out his lance, wounded the savage animal, and beheaded the sorry beast with a single blow of his sword. The grateful villagers were so impressed with this bravery that they all converted to Christianity.

St. George’s Cathedral’s design was inspired by English architecture of the Middle Ages. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Despite his seeming invincibility, St. George met with a glorious martyrdom after refusing to renounce his religion. Sometime in the thirteenth century, St.George was declared patron saint of England. St. George’s Day is celebrated every year on April 23, and the warrior’s cross is an integral part of the Union Jack.

Dedicated to the celebrated martyr, St. George’s Cathedral would fit easily into the traditional English countryside. Designed in the fashion of a fourteenth to fifteenth-century English university, the compound clearly resembles Oxford’s New College. It is located only a few hundred meters from the Old City’s Damascus  Gate and is surrounded by a wall. Vaulted arcades dominate the courtyard. These arched walkways, and  the windows of the cathedral, are adorned with carved stone-and-marble lace  that architects call “tracery.”

Carved stone-and-marble lace adorns St. George’s Cathedral. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

12 B’nai Brith street

The keystones on a number of houses built at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th boast a beautiful rolled scroll motif. One, at 12 B’nai Brith street, is especially beautiful.

A rolled scroll motif at 12 B’nai Brith street. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

B’nai Brith street was named for the oldest Jewish organization in the world. It was founded in 1843 by Henry Jones and 11 other German-Jewish immigrants gathered in a café on New York’s Lower East Side in order to better the condition of the country’s new Jewish immigrants. Today B’nai Brith advocates for Israel and provides humanitarian assistance to Jewish and non-Jewish communities all over the world.

Jaffa Gate, Old City walls

Tiled signs are common in Jerusalem, most of them dating back to the British Mandate. One sign announcing Jaffa Gate, which is in terrible shape, is found along a most interesting wall. Well above the sign, which is barely noticeable, are two slanted lines. These are what remain from a house that was attached to the wall until removed by the British to create more space in the area.

A beaten tiled sign announcing the Jaffa Gate Old City entrance. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Gate at 7-9 Yaakov Meir street in Geula

When a couple gets married in a Jewish wedding, the last words uttered by the groom before he stomps on a wine glass to end the ceremony are from a verse in Psalms that begins “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.” The verse is inscribed on keystones and gates in Jewish religious neighborhoods like Geula, established Mea Shearim, which was established at the end of the 1920s.

A verse from Psalms inscribed above a home entranceway on Yaakov Meir street in Geula. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

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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