In 1954, a patient leaning out of the window of Jerusalem’s French Hospital sneezed, coughed or yawned so hard that her false teeth flew out of her mouth and landed on the ground outside. While today they would have ended up on bustling Paratroopers’ Way, at the time there was nothing here but a no-man’s land covered with twisted barbed wire, scorched armored vehicles, concrete barriers and land mines. To top it off, Jordanian snipers stood at the ready atop the Old City ramparts.
Undaunted, one of the nuns from the hospital volunteered to retrieve the dentures. After painstaking preparation, and with the good will of Israel, Jordan and the United Nations, the chairman of the United Nation’s Mixed Armistice Committee held up a white flag and accompanied the nun into No-Man’s Land. Incredibly, the lost teeth were discovered among the weeds, refuse and barbed wires and returned to their owner.
Jerusalem’s No-Man’s Land was born in November of 1948, when Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli forces in Jerusalem, met with his Jordanian counterpart Abdullah a-Tal. Sitting together on the rough and uneven floor of a deserted house in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, they marked out their respective positions: Israel’s in red and those of Jordan in green.
Neither Dayan nor a-Tal intended the map to be anything but temporary and unofficial, nor did they mean to divide Jerusalem in two. Yet in the end the rough lines on this map were accepted as the final ceasefire lines in Jerusalem. And the area between them became No-Man’s Land — in Hebrew, shetah hahefker.
Forty years ago this month, Jerusalem was reunited. Celebrate with a walk along a portion of the former No-Man’s Land that begins and ends where new and old Jerusalem meet: IDF Square (Kikar Tzahal).
If you stand on the steps leading to the modern Municipality you will be facing the Old City of Jerusalem, whose walls were built by Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. The building behind it is a Franciscan school, College Freres, erected on the base of a tower named for Goliath because of an early (and quite impossible) tradition that this is where David placed Goliath’s head after their battle.
During Israel’s Kilshon (pitchfork) Campaign immediately after the British evacuated Jerusalem on May 14, 1948, bitter battles raged around this square. They ended with Israeli control of the area up to the city wall, which remained in Jordanian hands. On the night of May 18, Lehi forces made an unsuccessful attempt to break through the wall next to the square with 250 kilograms worth of explosives.
Fix your gaze on the rounded facade of a building near the steps. Actually the backside of the original Jerusalem municipal building that was erected in 1930, the structure is marred by jagged holes made by Jordanian bullets from 1948-1967. Despite the danger, Jerusalem’s mayors consistently refused to move City Hall to a safer location.
Cross the street and begin your descent down Paratroopers’ Way. On your left, you will see the French Hospital of St. Louis. The hospital was founded in the mid-19th century inside the Old City by the Sisters of Saint Joseph. But when French count Marie Paul A. de Piellat visited the hospital in 1874 he was appalled by its unsanitary conditions and in 1881 established this stunning, modern facility outside the walls.
Eight years after his previous visit, Count de Piellat returned to the Holy City. This time he brought with him a thousand French Catholic pilgrims, a group organized by the Assumptionist Order that pioneered penitential pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Pilgrims disembarked at Haifa Port and, lugging an enormous wooden cross on their shoulders, they walked all the way to Jerusalem. Since there weren’t enough lodgings in the city to accommodate so many people, the pilgrims made do with tents erected on a plot owned by the Count next to the French Hospital.
During their visit they couldn’t help but notice that the nearby Russian Compound, with its magnificent buildings, had an unobstructed view of the Old City. As soon as the pilgrims returned to France they took up a collection, and in 1884 construction began on the enormous Notre Dame Monastery and Guesthouse you see before you. The French Consul was present at the groundbreaking ceremonies, turning this into a national enterprise which, coincidentally, blocked the Russian view. Called Notre Dame de France, this was the largest single building constructed in Jerusalem before World War I and could house 1,600 pilgrims in its 410 rooms. It was run by Assumptionist Fathers.
After the division of Jerusalem, far fewer pilgrims were in need of lodgings. The Assumptionist Fathers offered it to the Hebrew University but later, at the request of the Pope, Israel handed ownership over to the Vatican in return for enough money to build the student dormitories known as shikunei ha’elef. Since it was no longer under French ownership, Notre Dame de France became Notre Dame de Jerusalem.
Directly across from the French ’compound’ stands an unadorned gate — the only opening in the walls that was not built or restored by Suleiman. In 1889 French Catholic clergy asked reigning sultan Abdul Hamid II to create a new entrance into the Old City so that it would be easier to pass between Notre Dame and the Christian Quarter. During the 19 years of the city’s division, New Gate was blocked up and the Jordanian ’New Gate Outpost’ was established on top.
Look for Ayin Het Street, on the other side of the road. The letter Ayin in Hebrew corresponds to the number 70 while Het is eight — and refers to the 1948 Arab massacre of 78 Israelis traveling in a convoy to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. It was on the stone floor of a house on this street that Moshe Dayan held the fateful meeting with Abdallah a-Tal.
The jammed parking lot on your left, at the curve in the road, was part of No-Man’s Land until 1967. Almost immediately after the war, Arab farmers set up stands here to sell freshly grown watermelons. Jewish Jerusalemites, including hubby and myself, were among their best customers.
Cross the street and walk next to the tunnel running under IDF Square. The main road is known locally as Highway One but at different points has other names: Peace Road, Engineering Corps Road and Haim Bar Lev Boulevard. Hard to believe that for 19 years it was just a field filled with barbed wire, refuse and mines! When you reach the next intersection look right to see a mosque called Sa’id and Sa’ad, built at the end of the 19th century and named for two very early Moslems. Nearby, the large, bland East Jerusalem YMCA is currently undergoing renovations.
You are now on the edge of Musrara/Morasha, a neighborhood of poverty-stricken new immigrants from North Africa which bordered No-Man’s Land. Many of these hapless new arrivals lived in the ugly concrete building on your left called shikun mefunim or ’evacuees’ block’. As you can see, the structure was constructed like a fortress and built hastily out of concrete instead of the lovely Jerusalem stone required by city regulations. Note the tiny windows, which made it difficult for Jordanian snipers to hit the inhabitants. Firing ports under the roof were manned, when necessary, by the IDF. Despite massive restoration of Musrara, this 1960s slum hasn’t changed for the better.
Down the street, stunning Turjeman House was built in 1932 by a Christian Arab architect. During the War of Independence it was taken over by the IDF, and remained an Israeli position until the Six Day War. Afterwards, although badly damaged, it was transformed into a museum dedicated to the unification of Jerusalem.
A change occurred in the 1990s, and Turjeman House is now the Museum on the Seam. Changing exhibits relate to social dilemmas, dialogue, and coexistence (just now, the theme is ’Equal and Less Equal’). If you plan to visit, call first (6381278), as you need a guided tour to get the most out of the unusual displays.
Walk down the street a few dozen meters to reach the once lovely building, sometimes called Mandelbaum Gate, that served as the Israeli checkpoint for people and convoys passing into Jordan. After the Six Day War Israel’s Labor Court was housed here; more recently, it was turned into a yeshiva.
A sundial in the center of the highway marks the actual plaza on which people crossed from Jordan to Israel and back. In 1927 Rabbi Simha Mandelbaum built a gorgeous house here, but it was blown up by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence. It was this former residence that gave Mandelbaum Crossing its name (the Arabs called it Sa’ad and Sa’id Crossing — like the mosque).
Across the road stood huts occupied by soldiers of Jordan’s Arab Legion. Further on, a building with red rafters housed the Mixed Armistice Commission and continues to be occupied by the UN (look for the flag flying over the rooftop).
Remember the College Freres across from Kikar Tzahal? Young boys playing in the schoolyard often kicked soccer balls into No-Man’s Land. In December of 1965, Israel was asked to return several dozen balls to the school as a Christmas gift. Israel immediately agreed, and, as UN officials looked on, an Israeli officer marched through the minefields of No-Man’s Land while Jordanian soldiers called ’go left’ or ’go right’ to keep him from stepping on a mine! Two days after Christmas, 28 balls were handed over to the school at a jubilant celebration inside the UN building across the road.
Complete your jaunt by backtracking to Rehov Shivtei Yisrael. Pass the Romanian Patriarchate and Church (left), the Italian Hospital/Education Ministry (right) and cross the intersection to reach a beautifully restored edifice at No. 23. Although as yet there is no sign on the gate, this is Israeli headquarters for a non-profit international Spanish organization called Remar. Established 25 years ago by a reformed Spanish gambler to aid society’s rejects, Remar works with drug addicts and alcoholics in 59 different countries. Here in Israel Remar has a different goal, however: It hopes to create a cultural and spiritual bridge between the Spanish people and the Jewish nation. To this end, Remar brings large groups of pilgrims to Israel every year.
Last month Remar opened this handsome structure as a guesthouse. The building, with a Star of David on its faade and biblical passages on the dining room walls, contains six modern, charmingly decorated and very special guest rooms. Walk inside for a look at this lovely new addition to the Jerusalem scene, and climb to the rooftop for a great view of the Old City. For more information, call 077-344-3370. A few dozen more meters — and you are back at Kikar Tzahal.