Before he died, Jacob gathered his sons together and told them what would happen to their progeny in future.
A few got nicknames. He dubbed Issachar a rawboned donkey, for example, and Dan a “viper along the path.”
But he called his son Judah a “lion cub,” an epithet that stuck from that day to this. Indeed, not only did the Lion of Judah symbolize the Kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem for millennia, but in 1950 the Jerusalem municipality adopted an upright lion as its official symbol.
Surprisingly, however, the dozens of lions spread throughout today’s Jerusalem bear no relation at all to the official emblem. Sure, the stalwart Lion of Judah is featured on manholes, and on the exterior walls of municipal buildings.
But the rest of the city’s royal beasts have their own distinct personas, probably because most have been around since the late 19th and early 20th centuries – before Israel was declared a state. They can be found all over Jerusalem, sometimes in the most surprising places.
Menachem Begin – a guerrilla leader who later became an Israeli prime minister – was one of the most eloquent public speakers of his time.
When he stood on the balcony of the Tel Aviv hotel (later the Ron and today the Jerusalem Hostel) on the capital’s Jaffa Road in August of 1948, thousands crowded into nearby Zion Square to hear him talk.
So mesmerized were his listeners that few paid attention to the sculpted lions holding up the balcony from which he spoke.
A number of lions are attached to the dazzling Basilica of All Nations, located above the Kidron Valley and inaugurated in 1924.
But while you can’t miss the phenomenal golden mosaic and imposing facade that combine to make the church exterior a Jerusalem landmark, lion-shaped spigots on both sides of the building are far less obvious.
The Young Men’s Christian Association on King David Street is, indisputably, the most magnificent YMCA in the world. However, finding the winged lion representing St. Mark among the dozens of symbols reflected on its walls, ceilings, stones and pillars is quite a challenge.
All four evangelists are carved into two columns in the arched entrance to the building which, constructed in 1933, is filled with manifestations of the world’s three great faiths.
But most of the city’s lions are out there in full view, like those in front of the splendid bank at #64 Jaffa Road. Locals call the building the House of the Messiah. That’s because it was bought (or built?
No one knows for sure) in 1908 by Mashiah (Messiah) Borochov, whose first name is a common one among Jews from Bukhara. The entrance is flanked by twin pillars connected by decorative ironwork that features the date of construction.
Topping the pillars are two proud lions – or there were, until two years ago when one of the statues was stolen.
A second pair of lions guards a branch of the police department, near the Mahane Yehuda Market on Jaffa Road. The building, originally one story high, was constructed in the early 19th century as part of a chain of fortresses along the Jaffa-Jerusalem highway.
In 1863, British consul Noel Temple Moor added another floor, along with lovely gardens and the two lions. Unfortunately, during very recent renovations one of the beasts lost its jaw.
Experts disagree on whether the lions were sculpted by a Jewish artist, Simha Shlomo Diskin Yanover, or were imported from Italy.
Many believe that Yanover was responsible both for these statues and for the lions that guarded the House of the Messiah.
An extremely impressive statue tops the massive, V-shaped edifice in the very center of the city. Known to locals as the Generali Building, the structure was erected by the Assicurazioni Generali insurance company, an Italian enterprise founded in 1831. A hundred years later, in honor of its birthday, the company decided to establish a branch in Jerusalem.
Although the building itself is unusual, Generali’s most striking attraction is the winged lion, representing St. Mark. One paw rests on an open book – perhaps the Gospel according to Mark.
Passersby are often surprised to find crowned lions guarding the entrance to Debre Genet, an Ethiopian monastic compound on Ethiopia Street completed in 1893 by Menelik II. But the Bible hints at their origins. It seems that when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem some 3,000 or so years ago, the couple got along like a house on fire. Indeed, a passage in Kings relates that before the queen left she was granted “all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty.”
According to Ethiopian tradition, one of the gifts he gave was the couple’s baby boy, called Menelik (king’s son). The prince was destined to become the forefather of an illustrious imperial dynasty whose symbol is the Lion of Judah.
Lions are also featured on Bank Leumi, across from the Municipality and founded in London in 1902 as the Anglo Palestine Company. The first Zionist bank in the world, it was instrumental in purchasing land and houses in Palestine.
A year after its establishment, the bank opened a branch in Jaffa and in the 1930s it decided it needed its main office in Jerusalem. Jewish German architect Erich Mendelsohn, renowned for his expertise in the Bauhaus (International) style that shunned ornamentation and stressed functionality, was asked to design the building. The bank, completed in 1939, does have some saving graces, however. One is that the heavy metal doors are embossed with an impressive lion relief.
The rampant beast sculpted onto the exterior of the Mount Zion Hotel’s Cable Car Museum on Hebron Road resembles the municipal emblem more than any other lion in the city. Yet the building housing the hotel predates the State of Israel by more than a hundred years.
When the Crusader Order of St. John was founded in the 11th century, it was affiliated with a hospital in Jerusalem that treated poor, sick and injured pilgrims to the Holy Land. So when Jerusalem was rampant with eye disease in the 1880s, a British duke who was a member of the Order decided to alleviate the situation.
St John’s Ophthalmic Hospital was erected on Hebron Road directly across from Mount Zion and above the Hinnom Valley. Patients were treated there until World War One, when the Turks controlling Palestine converted it into a warehouse. The British who conquered the country in 1917 turned it back into a hospital.
Israel conquered much of Mount Zion early in the War of Independence, but Jordan held the adjacent, walled Old City. As a result there was no safe way to get supplies and troops up the mountain or to evacuate the wounded. To solve the problem, innovative engineer Uriel Hefetz came up with the idea for a cable car across the valley that was used for a short time in 1948. The lion engraved on the wall of the museum was probably taken from the Duke’s coat of arms.
In the forward to a book called The Lion Fountain in Jerusalem, the late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl writes about his visit to the city in 1984. He greatly admired what our little country had managed to accomplish. And he promised then mayor Teddy Kollek a gift that would symbolize “all things living, the joy of life.” Thus was born the idea for a fountain as the image of living water in a country situated on the edge of the desert.
Professor Gernot Rumpf was charged with designing the project, which was carried out by the Jerusalem Foundation. The result was a Tree of Life with a dove of peace on its crest, and delightful lions in a variety of shapes and with varied personalities, all spouting water.
Since its inauguration at the Blumfield Park (near the Cinematheque) in 1989, the Lion Fountain has been a place where people of diverse religions and cultures meet together while children frolic on and around the lions, stroke the cubs and try to feed the bronze doves.
Children once played, as well, on 80 life-size and multi-colored lions that were displayed in Safra (Municipal) Square before being auctioned off for charity in 2003.
The project was the brainchild of artist Aliza Olmert, the wife of then Jerusalem mayor, Ehud Olmert.
Today the lions are found in all parts of Jerusalem, from IDF Square to gardens in French Hill, the Talpiot neighborhood and the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.
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.