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Photo by: SHMUEL BAR-AM
Authentic Romema
By AVIVA BAR-AM
01/25/2010
A tour of the first Jerusalem neighborhood to be established during the British Mandate.
 

No doubt you have heard, perhaps more than once, how the Turkish surrendered Jerusalem to a British army cook in 1917. But did you know that there were actually four surrenders, and not just one?

Three of these historic events took place on more or less the exact spot, at the time an open field on the highest hill in Jerusalem. Today situated in the very heart of Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood, it is called Kikar Allenby for the British general under whose command Palestine was captured from the Turks during World War  I.

Although the newer houses in Romema, built after the establishment of the State of Israel, are drab and lack character, nearly a dozen of the stunning original buildings still stand and have been artfully preserved.

For a fascinating one- to two-hour tour, amble along the earliest streets of Romema, the first Jerusalem neighborhood to be established during the British Mandate. Each structure has its own charm, and many feature elements found in the loveliest of homes of ritzy Talbiyeh.

Begin your outing on Jaffa Road outside the city’s bustling Central Bus Station. Completed in 2001, the station replaced one that began operating in the same location during the 1960s after moving from its original spot in the center of town.

When plans for the new bus station were announced, Romema residents were less than thrilled with its grandiose design, fearing it would become an urban eyesore like its Tel Aviv counterpart. As a result, that portion of the bus station facing Romema proper is far more modest than the front.

Exit the bus station on Jaffa, turn left and stop in front of the green gate (a sign on the wall reads ’Architects’). Located on the southern edge of Romema, the three-story structure was built by wealthy Arab Haj Muhammad, who owned quarries in nearby Lifta and served as a judge in the city’s Muslim courts.

Cross the road to better view the side of the house. The exterior is decorated with bluish Armenian tiles, possibly the creations of David Ohanessian, whose works are found on many of that period’s most magnificent buildings.

Note the pink and white color of the stones on the corners of the building and above the windows. Then go through the gate to view the ornamental railings, several of which feature leaf-shaped adornments. You will see more tiles above the door and under the windows. An Arabic inscription from the Koran reads: ’Everything of yours that is good comes from God.’ Today a Jewish family resides in the house.

Continue to the corner and turn left up Rehov Moriah. Then climb a few steps to reach Kikar Allenby. It is here that the first Turkish surrender of Jerusalem took place. While there are many versions to this tale, my favorite follows.

In the wee hours of December 9, 1917, two British army cooks from the 60th London Division left their Jerusalem base in search of fresh eggs and vegetables for their commander. Less than six weeks had passed since Commonwealth troops had breached the Turkish lines in Israel for the first time and conquered Beersheba; earlier that very morning the British had captured Jerusalem from the Turks, as well.

As the cooks walked through a deserted field on an exposed hill, they were accosted by a number of residents anxious to surrender the city. Among them were four policemen, several youths, the Jerusalem mayor Hussein Selim el-Husseini and a photographer from the American Colony.

Upon sighting British soldiers, the Jerusalemites lifted their arms. They held a white sheet that had been hastily torn off one of the beds at the American Colony’s hospital. Attached to a broom handle, the sheet was the Jerusalemites’ makeshift flag of truce. The mayor then handed the cook and his aide a tender of capitulation, explaining that the Turks had fled the city.

When the soldiers returned to base, they told their commander what had happened. He was so upset that the ’ceremony’ had taken place without him, that he ordered the mayor to return to the hill, and conducted a second surrender. However, that officer’s commander was furious that he hadn’t been present at either surrender, so he held a third ceremony on the same spot.

But General Sir Edmund Allenby, commander in chief of the British-Anzac Egyptian Expeditionary Force, was unimpressed by the three surrenders. On December 11, 1917, he entered the Old City of Jerusalem and conducted yet another capitulation ceremony. Unfortunately, the mayor was unable to attend — he is said to have contracted pneumonia after standing on the exposed hill for the three previous ceremonies and to have died soon afterward.

Ignoring the location and circumstances of the fourth and final surrender, soldiers of the 60th London Division decided to erect a three-meter-high monument near the original site in 1920. The inscription around the base reads: ’Near this spot, the Holy City was surrendered to the 60th London Division, 9th December 1917.

Note the date: not the official 11th of December, but the ninth. Walk into the square and look closely at the monument: It features etched silhouettes of Crusader knights who, like the British soldiers, conquered Jerusalem.

FOUNDED IN 1921 around the square, Romema was a private initiative built entirely with private funding — unlike many other Jerusalem neighborhoods. It also differed in its distinct lack of planning, which explains the area’s absence of parks and homogeneity.

The neighborhood’s name was taken from Psalms (118:16): ’The Lord’s right hand is lifted high (romem)....’. Indeed, at the time this was the highest hill in Jerusalem, at 810 to 830 meters above sea level.

Most of the original streets were named for the Hebrew newspapers in print at the time. They included Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Hatzvi, Ariel, Ha’or, Torah Mitzion and Moriah.

Romema was intended as a splendid neighborhood of 24 houses, far from the noise of the town and situated between the Arab villages of Lifta and Sheikh Bader. Yet in the end, apparently for lack of money, just over a dozen beautiful buildings were constructed.

The initiator of the Romema project was attorney Yom-Tov Hamon, an expert in Ottoman law and land ownership issues, who was often asked to arbitrate disputes between Arab landowners in the region. When there was a disagreement about ownership of the land on this hill, Hamon decreed that the plot should be sold, thus making it available for a Jewish neighborhood.

One of the houses around the square is called Allenby 2. In the 1950s two floors were added to the former one-story building, which still boasts lovely window frames and a magnificent entrance. For the past 15 years it has served as a guesthouse conveniently located near the Central Bus Station. Walk inside to view the original entrance with its beautiful columns. The rooms are small but picturesque and full of charm.

Across the street, the house at No. 2 Rehov Hatzvi was built by lawyer Aharon Mani in 1925. Pass the entrance, so that you can feast your eyes on the magnificent porch and its lovely staircase, then note how beautifully it fits on the corner.

Continue down the street to No. 4 Rehov Hatzvi, where hotelier and businessman Yehiel Amdurski built an elegant domain. Constructed out of red stone brought from quarries in Hebron, it features two covered balconies held up by columns with decorative capitals. Walk over to the closest balcony and look up at the ceilings to view exquisite tiles. Move into the parking lot to see this house from the side. Everything about it, from the portico to the windows to the rounded faade, is magnificent.

Next door, the dwelling at No. 6 Rehov Hatzvi belonged to the Hefetz family from Bukhara. What makes this house different from its neighbors are its blue and white tiles with a windmill design, brought here after a trip to Holland.

Continue on Rehov Hatzvi to the corner, then turn right onto Rehov Hame’asef and almost immediately take a right onto Rehov Ariel. You can’t miss No. 8 Rehov Ariel, with its colonnades and a gable above the door. The date of construction (1923) and the name of the architect (A. Balog) are engraved in large letters (and numbers) on the wall.

Go through the gate and head for the windows. Adorable people-shaped shutter holders on the bottom are collectors’ items today. Brought to this country by Templers, the iron holders are known by their Yiddish name, menchelach.

Next door and up the street, the house at No. 6 Rehov Ariel also features columns and a gable. Don’t pass by without getting a look at the ornamental gate.

ACROSS THE street, No. 3 Ariel was the home of Moldova-born Rabbi Yehuda Fishman-Maimon. One of the first houses to be built in Romema, it boasts a unique faade. Look for the Star of David that is engraved in stone above the entrance. The year 1922 and the name Yehuda are decoratively written inside and around the Star of David as part of a famous phrase from the midrashim: ’Jerusalem will be settled and the cities of Yehuda built up.’

Fishman-Maimon was one of the founders of the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi, and a signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Enter the large building and climb the stairs. Following the fall of the Second Temple, sages of the period declared that every new building must carry a reminder of that destruction: an unpainted area measuring one cubit by one cubit (46 cm. by 46 cm.). Many religious Jews take this edict literally and leave an unplastered or black square on their walls. The picture you see embedded into the wall of Fishman-Maimon’s residence — ceramic tiles showing the River of Babylon, harps and weeping willows — measures exactly one cubit by one cubit!

At the end of Rehov Ariel turn left onto Rehov Ha’or and continue onto Rehov Ha’adrichal (the architect). The unusual street name refers to German-born architect Richard Kaufmann, who designed over 150 of Israel’s towns, farming communities and garden neighborhoods, but not a single building in Romema.

The first house on your left has disappeared in a mass of modern construction. It was built by Altar Levine, a pioneer in the insurance industry who loved art and books, and wrote poems under the pseudonym of Asaf Halevi.

Levine was found hanging on a palm tree in the yard of his home in 1933, with nary a word of explanation. A solution to the mystery of his sudden demise may have been found in 1991, when a forgotten journal in an Istanbul library contends that Levine was a Jewish spy.

According to the journal, written by a Turkish commander in Jerusalem, Levine assisted the British during World War I and helped bring about the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Possibly, some say, Levine’s death was an act of revenge carried out long after the war’s end.

Head for the corner of Rehov Ha’adrichal and Rehov Hamon to view the stunning residence of Romema’s founder (Yom-Tov Hamon), which is under renovation. Its exterior is a feast for the eyes, featuring decorative balconies, a pyramid-shaped metal top and a roof lined with little pillars.

Facing the building from Rehov Hamon, look right to view the tall water tower built by the British at the beginning of their mandate in Palestine. As this was the highest point in Jerusalem at the time, water from the adjacent pool was directed into pipes all over the city.

Follow Rehov Hamon to the corner and turn left onto Rehov Ha’or. The grandiose structure at No. 2 Rehov Ha’or, today a meeting place and library for Russian-speaking Israelis, features stunning capital-topped columns and rounded balconies.

You are back at No. 2 Allenby and the square. Turn left onto Rehov Torah Mitzion to see an enormous shikun — a long, monotonous apartment block. The newest of ’Old Romema’’s buildings, it was erected in 1945 mainly to help rabbis who survived the Holocaust. Nevertheless, refugees and other needy people moved in and today dozens of families reside in the structure.

Romema stayed small, bordered by Arab villages that launched sporadic attacks. It was only after the War of Independence that new buildings with little character were added as the neighborhood expanded.

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