A divided & reunited neighborhood

Abu Tor, built on a hill, was split down the middle from ’48 to ’67.

Abu Tor (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Abu Tor
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1948, Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli forces in Jerusalem, met with his Jordanian counterpart, Abdullah al-Tal. Sitting together on the rough and uneven floor of a deserted house in Musrara, they marked out their respective cease-fire lines: Israel’s in red and Jordan’s in green.
Neither Dayan nor Tal intended the map to show anything but temporary and unofficial borders.
Indeed, at the time of the cease-fire, they even wrote within the agreement that they “assume there will be further discussions [and changes].” Yet for some reason, the rough and indistinct lines on this map, which expanded from the heat and blurred over time, were accepted as the final borders between Jordan and Israel in Jerusalem.
While many Jewish neighborhoods ended up facing the Jordanian border, only one was split down the middle: Abu Tor. One side of the neighborhood’s Asael Street was situated in Jordan, and the other side was in Israel. New immigrants and the very poor moved into deserted houses on the Israeli side, and both Arab and Jewish residents fortified their homes with walls and barbed wire. Some of the fortifications still stand, along with what used to be opposing military positions.
Israeli forces conquered the Jordanian portion of Abu Tor on June 6, 1967, during the Six Day War, which reunited Jerusalem. Abu Tor was incorporated into Israel, and Street Strollers visiting the neighborhood will find that today it is one of the loveliest in the city, full of splendid Arab-style houses, lush gardens, tall, shade-giving trees, tasteful new apartment buildings and – because it sits on a hill – some extraordinary views.
When the State of Israel was established, it inherited a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods with Arabic names. In 1958, they were renamed: Musrara would now be Morasha; Talbiyeh’s new moniker was Komemiyut, and Malha became Manahat. As you can see on the big sign at the entrance to Naomi Street, Abu Tor received the name Givat Hananya. (Interestingly the new names never took; few Jerusalemites today even know what they are.) According to a Muslim tradition, during a battle against the Crusaders, one of Saladin’s commanders lost his horse and continued fighting astride a bull – “tor” in Arabic. He was rewarded with the hill that is Abu Tor.
The Hebrew name, Hananya Hill, derives from a notation in Wars of the Jews, written by Jewish-Roman author Josephus Flavius. Josephus describes the path that Titus took during his conquest of Jerusalem, and mentions this hill as the site of a memorial monument to High Priest Hanan.
FOR AN unusually pleasant circular walk, begin on Naomi Street, near a large brown sign that tells the story – in Hebrew – of the conquest of Abu Tor. Located just off Hebron Road, the street is named for the biblical Naomi, whose family moved from Bethlehem to Moab when famine struck the Land of Israel. Her two sons married local (non-Jewish) women. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth returned to Bethlehem.
Ruth, who married into the clan for a second time, is famous as King David’s great-grandmother. While her name is missing in this neighborhood, you will find almost every street in Abu Tor is named for a person or event connected to the Jewish monarch, including Yishai (his father, Jesse), Oved (his grandfather), Avigail (one of his wives), his sister Zeruya and his nephew Asael.
From Naomi Street, head left onto Zeruya Street to breathe in sweet air and a delightful ambiance. While preparing this article, we stopped to savor the sight of the garden at No. 3. Two residents, on separate floors, called out from their balconies to ask if we would like to come in for coffee, and invited us to enjoy the garden.
Turn right on Gihon Street, named for the spring whose water sustained fed the people and the gardens in the City of David 3,000 years ago. Beautiful dwellings line the road, including the edifice at No. 14 – once the home of Lea Abushdid Ben-Avi, and known as Beit Ela (an anagram of the letters in “Lea”).
Itamar Ben-Avi was the son of controversial educator Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. When he was 26, Itamar fell madly in love with Lea Abushdid, a ravishing 16-year-old beauty from a wealthy and respected Sephardic family.
Unfortunately he had no money – and was Ashkenazi to boot. Her family objected vehemently to the match, but he persisted, writing passionate and often feverish love poems on the front page of the newspaper he had founded.
The two married, of course, and lived happily until Itamar died of a heart attack in 1943. Following hip surgery in 1978, Lea found it difficult to manipulate the steps leading to the large family house in Merhavia (near Katamon). But it was important to her and her sister Rina that the extended family remain together. So in 1980, they moved into new quarters on Gihon Street, which held seven apartments for their seven families.
If you retrace your steps on Gihon Street only as far as Yishai Street and then turn right, you will soon reach Beit Nehemia, the Abu Tor Community Center.
Beit Nehemia is dedicated to Capt. Nehemia Cohen, one of the country’s most decorated officers. Born in Jerusalem in 1943 to parents who had immigrated from Turkey after World War I, Cohen spent his regular army service in Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s elite commando unit. Afterward, as an officer, he replaced former defense minister/prime minister Ehud Barak in the unit. Over the course of his service in Sayeret Matkal, he received five prestigious medals for actions whose circumstances have remained secret, as well as a posthumous medal in 1973 for an action he had carried out with his brother – pilot and former MK Eliezer Cohen – eight years earlier in Egypt.
In February 1967, Nehemia Cohen was appointed second-in-command of a paratroop division. During the Six Day War, after the division’s commanding offer was killed in the Gaza region, Cohen led the men into battle. He was in the vehicle that spearheaded the advance, and continued forward despite heavy fire. He fell on June 5, 1967.
Feast your eyes on the extraordinary building next to the community center. Then return to Gihon Street through a charming little park, which was developed last year after residents quashed a plan to construct a synagogue on the plot. If you go right on Avigail Street and almost immediately pass through the open gate to your left, you will enter a complex owned by the Greek Orthodox Church that once contained an active monastery.
Most Christian traditions hold that High Priest Caiaphas kept a summer home in today’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, high above the Temple Mount. According to this belief, it was there that Jesus was condemned to death, and as a result, the height on which the United Nations building sits is known as the Hill of Evil Counsel.
However, some believe that Caiaphas resided instead in today’s Abu Tor, on the peak of the mountain. In the Byzantine era, Christians built a church here that offered tremendous views. You can see Mount Zion from a strange platform located in the middle of the neglected yard, and from the edge of the complex there is a stunning panoramic view of the Old City and the Dome of the Rock.
Turn left when you exit the complex, and go right onto beautiful Oved Street. When you reach the end of the street, turn left. But watch the house on the corner as you move around it, and you’ll discover that this was once an Israeli outpost.
You are now back on Gihon Street. The structure at No. 22 was built by singer/actor Yehoram Gaon for his family (the ceramic tile above the door reads “Gaon”).
Take the fork to the left to stroll along Asael Street.
It’s hard to imagine, but until 1967, all of the houses to the left belonged to Israelis, those on the right to Jordanians. Note the colorful symbols on many of the gates and doorways, signifying that the owners have made a pilgrimage to Mecca and displaying messages of welcome.
Although there were many friendly acts between the Israeli and Jordanian populations, every tiny change in the status quo gave rise to complaints and condemnations.
One Israeli family that lived 50 meters from a Jordanian army position had only an outdoor latrine. When the political situation was tense, it became dangerous to go out in the yard, so in 1965, a few days before Yom Kippur, the family began building an indoor bathroom.
On the morning of Yom Kippur, an Israeli representative to the Mixed Armistice Committee received an urgent summons to appear: The Jordanians claimed that Israel had violated the status quo. As this was the holiest day of the Jewish year, Israel tried to delay the meeting. But the Jordanians replied that they couldn’t be responsible for what might happen from their side.
So on Yom Kippur, the Mixed Armistice Commission – which included Israeli, Jordanian and United Nations representatives – sat for 18 hours discussing bathrooms.
Thirty-six recorded pages of these “crucial” talks still exist. Israel was condemned, in the end, but the family got their bathroom in what is still known as the Bathroom Affair.
Follow Asael, with its unusual architecture, including a house on the left whose door is completely blocked by cement. At the end of the street, go down the stairs to Ein Rogel Street.
Across the road, the house that stands at No. 5 replaces what was once known as the Abu Tor Overlook, or “Shoshana’s Kiosk.” Shoshana was a Romanian woman, one of the new immigrants to move to Abu Tor after the War of Independence. From the top of the box in which she ran a kiosk, one could get a clear and unobstructed view of the Old City. Soon tourist guides were bringing their groups to the “observation point” on the wooden crate. Guides cautioned their flock not to point (so the Jordanians wouldn’t think they were making obscene gestures), and on those rare occasions when shooting began, Shoshana would have everyone lie down on the ground next to the box – or the building that later replaced it. Until a few years ago, you could still climb up for a look, but today all traces of Shoshana’s Kiosk have disappeared.
Turn left on Ein Rogel, not forgetting to admire the homes that line the road. Near the corner, wide steps on the right descend into the Garden of Generations.
Also known as Blind Park – after the Jewish-Arab club for blind children that once operated there – it was dedicated in 1965 “to three generations of our ancestors whose faith in Israel lives on.”
Cross through the park, turn left and left again at Hebron Road, and enjoy viewing some more unusual architecture as you head back to Naomi Street where you began your walk.