There’s something about Mary’s Spring

A Christian holy place and a unique historic site preserving millennia-old agricultural terraces.

Marys Spring 311 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Marys Spring 311
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
Ein Kerem activists scored a victory on August 18 when Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur issued a temporary cease work order freezing the Tourism Ministry’s redevelopment of the area facing Mary’s Spring – both a Christian holy place and a unique historic site preserving millennia-old agricultural terraces.
Tsur – the deputy mayor for planning and environment and former director of urban centers for the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel – told In Jerusalem, “I called a special meeting of the Conservation Committee yesterday [August 17] to discuss what is going on in Ein Kerem.”
An outspoken environmentalist concerned with preserving Ein Kerem’s biblical landscape, she explained that a building permit was issued in 2000 for a 100 sq.m. non-commercial structure across the road from Mary’s Spring that would include public restrooms with handicap access, as well as a municipal storage area.
However, under plans drawn up by Lutner-Bergman Architects on behalf of the Government Corporation for Tourism, that modest building mushroomed into a 30 x 12 x 5 meter-high stone-clad structure featuring an observation deck overlooking the spring and terraced wadi below. The present half-finished building doesn’t include handicap access as mandated by law.
Some 260 meters have been built without a permit and then sealed pending rezoning, Tsur explained. “Someone hopes they will get a permit in the future for a restaurant,” she said, declining to speculate on who was behind the construction.
Can the clock be turned back and the building be demolished?
“It’s not easy to halt things like that. I’ve put together an action team. There’s a legal limit,” she said vaguely of the time frame. Tsur called it a “Kramer vs. Kramer situation,” since one municipal bureau is behind the building, while another is opposed to it.
“I can understand their paranoia,” she said of irate Ein Kerem residents disturbed by the eyesore and lack of transparency.
“No one has really looked into the total needs of Ein Kerem. It’s a fault of our planning system,” said Tsur, raising a number of issues about Ein Kerem.
At the moment, Rehov Hama’ayan is not safe and is lacking sidewalks, she said.
Notwithstanding the area’s inadequate infrastructure, the Israel Lands Administration is developing more than 70 housing plots in Ein Kerem, she added.
The once pristine water of Mary’s Spring is no longer potable, she pointed out, as it has been contaminated by a cesspool from the Ein Kerem Youth Hostel.“As far as I’m concerned, there’s a message for the future with what we do with the water in the spring.” The youth hostel is now hooked up to the municipal sewage network, she noted.
In the future, Tsur hopes to channel flood water and restore the spring’s purity, allowing it to resume flowing into ancient wadi terraces below.
“To the extent of our ability, we want to enhance the experience of the pilgrim, the tourist and the residents,” said Tsur. One proposal is to make the village pedestrian-only as has been done in the downtown triangle of Ben-Yehuda, Jaffa and King George, as well as hundreds of historic cities and towns in Europe, she said.
Traffic cutting through Ein Kerem en route to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv is another key concern for the deputy mayor. She would like to see the former village closed to vehicular traffic, with people reaching the area’s historic churches by shuttle buses from the Mount Herzl terminus of the light rail scheduled to open April 7 next year.
The paving of Route 60 from Motza to Jerusalem will bypass Ein Kerem. But that project remains on highway engineers’ wish list. “Maybe in the interest of sustainable tourism, something useful can be made there,” she concluded.
TSUR’S SENTIMENTS and cease-work order contradicted the policy of the Tourism Ministry. Spokesperson Tal Bar denied that any zoning irregularities have been committed in Ein Kerem.
She claims that the Mary’s Spring project has been fully coordinated with area residents.
“For 20 years the Government Company for Tourism has been promoting this project in full coordination with the neighborhood council, whose concerns have more than once brought about changes in the original plan. It should be emphasized that the work is being done in accordance with the building permit and the scope permitted therein and is in no way exceeding the permit. The whole claim that the project is nonconforming is incorrect and baseless,” said Bar.
“In the framework of the construction of the new observation point in the area of the spring, public washrooms were also planned to be built. During the course of work, an ancient water system was uncovered which prevented handicap access as required by law. During deliberations about this in which all the relevant parties participated, including the Israel Antiquities Authority and the majority of members of the neighborhood council, it was decided to seal this ancient structure. Again we emphasize there will be no cafeteria, restaurant or events hall at the site, nor is there is any infrastructure for this, as was explained to the members of the neighborhood council,” said Bar.
Ein Kerem residents have taken a wait-and-see attitude to developments. Their suspicions about the plans of the municipality and the Tourism Ministry were only heightened last Wednesday. With cease-work orders taking 24 hours to go into force, workers were rushing about to the last minute before the freeze went into effect.
On August 10 residents held a meeting to organize their protest against the Tourism Ministry’s plans to redevelop the area facing Mary’s Spring. They have retained attorney Uri Lombrozo to try to get the project permanently halted.
From the late 1970s the hillside in question was an unsupervised parking lot paved by the municipality, recalled longtime Ein Kerem resident Walter Zanger, who is one of the community activists opposed to the new development. Before that, he remembers, Mary’s Spring irrigated the ancient terraces in the valley below as it had done from time immemorial.
“The building permit states this is a storeroom with no commercial purpose. But we don’t believe that,” said Zanger of the original modest 100 sq.m. structure which has now morphed into a 360 sq.m. building under construction since April.
Local resident Elihu Richter, a retired professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the nearby Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine, concurred with Zanger that zoning irregularities have taken place. “The building permit contradicts the master plan. This is the Holyland [zoning scandal] all over again,” he asserted.
Ein Kerem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, where Mary of Nazareth is said to have visited her equally pregnant cousin Elisabeth, “is for all the generations,” said Richter. “We in Jerusalem have a responsibility to preserve these biblical vistas.”
The real purpose of the new structure is to serve as a venue for weddings and bar mitzvas, speculated Zanger, who served as a Reform rabbi in Brooklyn before making aliya in 1966, settling in Ein Kerem and becoming a tour guide. “That’s where the money is,” he said, notwithstanding that in 2000 the Jerusalem District Planning Committee vetoed any commercial usage for the sensitive site.
Once a mixed Christian-Muslim Arab village whose orchards were Jerusalem’s bread basket, the 3,000 residents of Ein Kerem – then called Ein Karim (the Noble Spring) – all fled by July 1948 following a battle with the IDF during Israel’s War of Independence.
The village’s 100 abandoned stone houses were inhabited by impoverished Jewish refugees from Morocco, Romania and Yemen. Over time, the scenic village – now incorporated into Jerusalem’s boundaries – evolved into an upscale neighborhood and tourist destination, served today by eight restaurants and various inns and B&Bs. One of these is Pundak Ein Kerem, which adjoins Mary’s Spring. The inn is currently closed for a major expansion into a boutique hotel. Zanger questioned whether the lookout was intended to double as a parking lot for tourists and hotel guests.
Parking is a perennial problem on the narrow streets of the former village, especially on weekends, he noted. The need for parking spaces has been partially met by the construction of a twolevel garage on the site of the former loquat orchard of Dr. Grifel – the only Jew who lived in the village during the British Mandate era, he added.
Award-winning filmmaker Ron Havilio, another longtime resident of Ein Kerem, helped organize the August 10 meeting. “It seems we won’t have a choice except to resort to a legal appeal,” he said. “Who needs a scenic lookout? The whole village is one huge scenic spot. This is a planning blunder. You don’t put public washrooms beside a holy site and next to a water source.”