In the pastoral quiet of the ancient Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem, Mary’s
Spring bubbles quietly into an ancient stone trough. Christians believe
Mary drank from the spring, and more than a million faithful visit the village
Jlem’s Lifta faces threats from destruction, development
Into the green
The Tourism Ministry and the municipality, in an effort to
develop the infrastructure for this influx of tourists, are trying to build
public bathrooms and enlarge the plaza as a new overlook point to accommodate
large tour groups, which sometimes block the narrow Rehov Hama’ayan.
there’s a small problem: The new toilets are located over ruins from the Second
Temple period, in an area where residents say the construction will irrevocably
change the character of their unique neighborhood.
Today, the picturesque
wadi below, a panorama filled with ancient stone terraces that hasn’t changed
much for 3,000 years, is obscured by a temporary corrugated steel fence that
hides a large, empty 314-meter building below.
Residents have covered the
fence with printouts calling for a halt to construction. They term the
building below “The Monster.”
Ron Havilio, a neighborhood activist and a
celebrated documentary filmmaker, laughs at the tourism slogan that was given to
Ein Kerem: “Walking in the footsteps of John the Baptist.”
is no longer valid!” he declared, sitting next to the stream and gesturing at
the temporary fence. The charm of Ein Kerem, what tourists come to see from
around the world, is the fact that the area has remained largely unchanged since
the time Jesus’s contemporaries walked through the neighborhood, he
“There’s not going to be anything left to see!” Havilio said.
“If they build here, tourists won’t come. Do you travel to ancient cities in
Italy or France to see infrastructure buildings and toilets?” he
The Tourism Ministry, which has been working on the development of
Ein Kerem for 20 years in cooperation with the residents, began in April 2010,
on the basis of permits issued in 2005 and 2006, to build a large structure to
house public bathrooms. A Jerusalem Municipality spokeswoman explained it as
part of a larger project that would eventually include underground parking and
other services for tourists.
But during the work, builders found the
remains of a water system dating from the Second Temple period.
discovery meant the ministry could not build a ramp to the bathrooms to make
them handicap-accessible, as required by law, a spokeswoman for the Tourism
In August 2010, the city’s legal adviser Yossi Havilio
(who is distantly related to Ron Havilio) put a stop-work order on the building.
At a meeting with the Antiquities Authority and neighborhood residents soon
afterward, the decision was made to seal the building until another solution
could be found.
“The residents of Ein Kerem are telling the establishment
that they’re making a mistake – we’ve been saying ‘Stop! This is a mistake!’ for
the past 20 years,” said Ben Ofarim, the head of the local
This week, the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and
Construction Committee is scheduled to release its opinion on the residents’
appeal regarding the building. The residents are asking for the building to be
torn down, saying that the plan to renovate the area did not follow the proper building procedures for Ein Kerem, which
include providing in-depth historical documentation before construction
“They destroyed the entire top of the wadi,” Ofarim said, angrily
gesturing at the area around the building, which is brown and dead compared with
the lush green terraces surrounding it. “They just gave the finger to public
Like many other places in Jerusalem, the area straddles a
delicate balance between development and preservation. The resident activists
are fighting to preserve the area as it exists today, while the municipality
argues that improved infrastructure in Ein Kerem will contribute to the mayor’s
vision to strengthen tourism and the economic development of the
“The Jerusalem Municipality and the Tourism Ministry see Ein Kerem
as the tourism anchor for millions of tourists and visitors,” a municipal
Residents say the ministry wants to build a large plaza
with restaurants and cafes, something the ministry strongly denies.
Ron Havilio, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1973, believes the
authorities are missing the point of Ein Kerem. He said that throughout history,
from the ancient Israelites through the British Mandate, people have avoided
building in the wadis below springs. As the water percolates down from the
spring, the land in the valley becomes incredibly fertile and is traditionally
the best land for farming.
The plentiful water from Mary’s Spring enabled
early Ein Kerem residents to become wealthy from growing fruit trees and
vegetables that require copious amounts of water, and selling their produce to
parched residents in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem.
neighborhood doesn’t need more cafes or more public toilets, Havilio said. It
needs to stay exactly the way it is.
“This is a cultural landscape,” he
said, his arm sweeping past the terraced hillsides and the quiet stone
alleyways. “The nature [of it] is very beautiful, but it has been fashioned by
man. These terraces were built in the time of the Bible. The landscape here is
the real biblical landscape.”