Until the late 19th century, one of Jerusalem's busiest streets was just a tiny path along a patch of ground owned by an Arab who didn't want Jews on his property and took pleasure in shooing them away. One dark night in 1875 Jews from the newly established neighborhoods adjacent to the property got together, worked until dawn, and turned it into a public thoroughfare.
The new road became known as Bila, an acronym for the Hebrew phrase 'overnight' or 'bein laila.' Later, the name was changed to Agrippas, perhaps because 2,000 years ago King Agrippas II paved the city's streets with marble.
Last year the lower portion of this bustling downtown byway became the city's third pedestrian mall (midrahov, in Hebrew). The timing was perfect since Jerusalemites, who had been staying away from the center of town, have finally begun to return.
A delightful historic walk begins and ends on Rehov Agrippas (any bus along Jaffa Road will drop you off nearby), home to quaint little shops, charmingly restored old buildings, and modern commercial blocks. Except for one short set of stairs, which can be circumvented by entering the market from Jaffa Road by continuing past Rehov Kiah and turning left onto Rehov Etz Haim, this entire walk is accessible to wheelchairs. It will take you anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours, depending on whether you want to do any shopping, stop for a snack, or relax and enjoy the goings-on along the pedestrian mall.
THE AGRIPPAS midrahov is located just above the intersection of King George Avenue and Jaffa Road. Right off King George, to your left behind a wall, stands a rusty structure with two barred windows. A few decades ago, these were the ticket booths for the adjacent Eden movie theater. In 1998, after standing empty for many years, the Eden was gutted and turned into a parking lot.
Follow the first alley on your right into the sixth Jewish neighborhood to be built outside the walls of the Old City. Established in 1875, its name Even Yisrael (Stone of Israel) is taken from a biblical passage: 'But his bow remained steady, his strong arms stayed limber, because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, because of the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel' (Genesis 49:24). As it happens, the numerical value for the Hebrew word 'even' is 53 - exactly the number of apartments that were constructed in the neighborhood!
On your right you will see the gardens of the ritzy Arcadia Restaurant and on the other side of the alley a tiny Ethiopian restaurant, which opened its doors only a few months ago. Turn left further into the neighborhood and eventually you will reach a lovely central courtyard surrounded by quaint old houses.
If you continue straight ahead you will end up at the Sephardic Orphanage, founded at the beginning of the 20th century after Ashkenazim had already built two orphanages of their own. Walk through the decorative entrance into a courtyard shaded by a mulberry tree. The building has several stories, and when Turkish and German troops took over the building during World War I, they used the ground floor and courtyard as stables.
When you leave, turn left and walk up Jaffa Road. In the 1950s, dignitaries used to stand on the second-floor balcony above a row of shops across the street and watch parades go by. Today, the only mammal on the balcony is a colorful sculpted lion - one of dozens that pepper the city.
Further up the street on your left, a decorative gate hangs between two stone pillars. The gate is all that remains of the first Jewish trade school in Jerusalem, founded in 1882 by the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (Kol Yisrael Haverim or Kiah, in Hebrew).
On your right is a plaza known locally as Kikar Davidka, featuring a memorial to the men and women who defended the city during the War of Independence. You might need your imagination to see a resemblance, but the top of the stone monument is meant to resemble the stocking caps worn by our soldiers at the time.
In front of the memorial stands a Davidka, that strange weapon conjured up on the eve of the war by engineer David Leibowitch. It did little but give off a huge, terrifying shriek - but that was enough to cause the enemy to flee in panic. The inscription you see is part of a phrase from the Bible: 'I will defend this city and save it... [for my sake and for the sake of David my servant] (Kings 2:19-34).
Turn left on Rehov Kiah, named for the Alliance complex. An additional Alliance building, a boys' school, was erected in 1899; you will see it behind the wall as you walk through the parking lot on your right. The school was dedicated to the memory of Baroness Clara de Hirsch, whose husband, Maurice, had been a well-known Jewish philanthropist. After his death she continued contributing generously to Jewish causes.
There is a sculpted relief on the building that isn't easy to decipher. According to Jean-Claude Kuperminc, head librarian at the AIU library in Paris, the complete picture included clasped hands, a globe, and the Ten Commandments. You can just barely see the tablets, the hands, and four of the first 10 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in two columns: het, tet, daled, and yud. AIU uses clasped hands as its logo, to symbolize solidarity among the Jews of the world. The picture goes with the verse: 'Kol Yisrael arevim zeh le zeh,' 'All Jews are responsible for each other.'
FROM THE parking lot a path leads to the bustling Mahaneh Yehuda Market. Dating back to 1887, soon after the first neighborhoods in the area were up and running, this famous Jerusalem landmark began as an open-air Arab shuk and only slowly evolved into a permanent enterprise. In the late 1980s, the municipality built a roof over the market that offered protection from summer sun and winter rain.
I have always found the market crowded and dirty, with a distinct fishy smell. Some time ago, however, repairs were begun on the floors of the indoor market, while over the last year the outdoor market has taken on an entirely new look. Dozens of peddlers were moved out of the middle of the street, the stores were paved with a lovely granite, dozens of new street lights were added, a few saplings were planted, and colorful awnings were installed over the newly restored store fronts. Indeed, except for the vendors' Hebrew cries, this spacious and vibrant site could easily be one of the markets in Istanbul.
You need to descend a few steps to enter the market, then I suggest you turn right and take the first street to your left. Here you will find a most unusual dairy coffee shop called Hakol La'ofeh Vegam Cafe (everything for the baker and coffee too), which sells all kinds of kitchen items, from knives to rolling pins.
Large signs point to the Iraqi Market, where, in addition to food stands, dozens of men spend hour upon hour playing cards and backgammon together. And search out Azura, where the owners continue to prepare home-cooked food as they have always done - on old-fashioned paraffin stoves! After enjoying the sounds, smells, and colors of both the indoor and outdoor markets, head back to Rehov Agrippas and turn left.
A long row of double windows belongs to houses in Ohel Moshe, a neighborhood founded in 1883 with the help of the Sir Moses Montefiore Fund. Each air vent above the windows is shaped like a Star of David.
Enter the neighborhood through an arch topped by an elaborate memorial to Montefiore, then turn left. You are on Rehov Carmel, a picturesque little lane lined with lovely old houses. In the past, the residents here were religious Sephardim who spoke Ladino, a Spanish dialect with Hebrew elements. This is where former president Yitzhak Navon, an expert in ethnic folklore and a noted author, spent his childhood.
Cross the road into Mazkeret Moshe, established a year earlier than Ohel Moshe specifically for Ashkenazim. Enjoy the ambience, then leave the neighborhood through an arched alley leading back to Rehov Agrippas. Houses here have circular air vents above the windows - but a decorative Star of David on top!
Once back at the midrahov, you can take in the sights, from new immigrants playing the harp to magicians demonstrating sleight of hand. Last week two young girls handed us a slip of paper that read, 'How 'bout giving a smile?'
Note: If you take this outing on Shabbat you can still enjoy most of the walk - just replace the market portion with historic buildings on Jaffa Road: the elegant District Health Office at No. 86, built in 1882 as a home for a wealthy Christian Arab family; Jerusalem's first skyscraper (the Sundial House at No. 92); and a branch of the Police Department located at No. 107. Originally a small Turkish citadel, its lovely decorations were added in 1863 when it became the residence of Britain's consul in Jerusalem. public