Around Agron

The street features a wildly diverse variety of historical, modern, preserved and restored sites

Masorti Movement service 370 (photo credit:
Masorti Movement service 370
(photo credit:
When Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini put out a tender for the Palace Hotel’s construction in 1928, it was taken up by an Arab contractor and two Jewish architects. One of the architects was Chaim Weizmann’s brother-in-law Tuvia Donia; the other, Hagana member Baruch Katinka.
Considering that the mufti visited daily and that most of the laborers were Arabs, it is astounding that the hotel’s walls contained two built-in hiding places for Jewish-held weapons. Forbidden by the British to bear arms of any kind, the Jews had no choice but to prepare secret caches for weapons that they could use in self-defense.
Called “sliks,” these ingenious hideaways were located all over the country. The two at the Palace were designed by Katinka.
When the British Peel Commission came to Jerusalem in 1936 to discuss the “Palestine problem,” it held a number of its meetings at the hotel. But while some of the doors were kept open, others were tightly shut. How, then, were the Jews to hear what was going on? Incredibly Katinka managed to plant microphones in some of the electric wires so the Jews could keep abreast of current events.
A stroll along the capital’s Agron Street leads to a wildly diverse variety of historical, modern, preserved and restored sites.
Begin at Paris Square, on the corner of Keren Hayesod Street and Agron, and look around and below you while imagining the whole area as a desolate wilderness outside a tiny, crowded, walled Jerusalem. That’s exactly what it looked like, according to tour guide Ruth S. Frank, who has an impressive familiarity with Agron Street.
Indeed, Frank tells us, it was only in 1873 that someone saw the street’s possibilities. That person was a Dutch countess named Jeanne Merkus, a wealthy woman whose family had made a fortune in the rum trade.
A devout Christian and a philanthropist, she believed that restoring Jerusalem as a Christian city would encourage the Second Coming of the Messiah. Her timing couldn’t have been better, for the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and countries like France, Russia, England and Germany were taking advantage of the situation by building churches, hostels and consulates.
She, too, decided to build a hostel – but one that would fit 144,000 Christians, with 12,000 rooms for each Israelite tribe – in order to be ready when Jesus of Nazareth returned. Via a Muslim proxy, she purchased the enormous plot on which the Prima Kings Hotel, Heichal Shlomo, the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism, and the downtown branch of the Shufersal supermarket stand today.
Soon after she hired masons and architects and gave the orders to begin, war broke out between the Turks and the rebelling Russians.
Thrilled with the possibility that the Ottoman Empire was about to fall, she disguised herself as a man and joined the troops somewhere in the Balkans.
But on her return to Jerusalem a year or so later, she found that not even one story of her hostel had been built. Her money was gone, and Merkus – whom some had dubbed a modern Joan of Arc – died, destitute, on the streets of Paris.
MOVE DOWN the street to the complex spanning 4 to 8 Agron, which belongs to the Conservative Movement and includes a family hostel, a beit midrash (Torah study hall) and Moreshet Yisrael, a lovely synagogue.
Abstract stained-glass windows, an ark designed as Jerusalem’s Golden Gate, stunning metal doors, and an altar in the center are just some of the renovations the synagogue has undergone in the last few years. It was built in 1930 as a Protestant church with a balcony that could hold an overflow of worshipers. However, in 1972 the government heard that the church was trying to convert Jews to Christianity. Asked to leave, the church sold the property to a Conservative Jew who donated it to the movement, and it became the country’s flagship Conservative synagogue.
Dating back to 1897, the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism was constructed by a German group. During World War II, the British confiscated it, and after the War of Independence it served as the headquarters of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice committee. The Conservative Movement purchased the building in the early 1970s.
Moving further down the street, you can see squat cement cones among the brush to the right. In the mid-1940s, near the end of the British Mandate, Jews protested British policy on immigration by blowing up installations all over the country. The Jewish revolt became so daring that by 1947 anarchy reigned – especially in Jerusalem, where the British holed up in fortified zones equipped with armed guards and masses of barbed wire. Concrete cones known as “dragons’ teeth” lined the streets, intended to prevent invasion by armored vehicles, and some of these remain.
Peer above the wall at No. 14 to view the strangely shaped church belonging to the Rosary Convent. Founded in Jerusalem in 1885, the Rosary Congregation was established to help Arab girls in the region become educated, productive members of society with a sense of self-worth.
Rosary nuns originally lived inside the Old City, but at the end of the 19th century they moved into the convent on Agron Street.
Construction of the church, which began in 1910, was completed only in 1936. Fashioned like a rose, with six “petals,” its form is a constant reminder of the congregation’s name: In Latin, rosarium means “rose garden,” or “garland of roses.” Pilgrims from all over the world avail themselves of the inspiring sanctuary, whose imposing, monumental staircase leads to a relief-graced gable.FERDINAND VESTER was a German Lutheran missionary who moved to Israel in 1853 and made his home in Jerusalem. The house he built at 16 Agron Street (then Mamilla Road) 15 years later was one of the first to appear outside the Old City walls; the US consulate purchased it in 1912. Don’t even think about taking pictures of it, though – the minute you lift your camera, a hostile guard is likely to come barreling down the sidewalk in your direction.
Instead, head for Zamenhof Street further down the sidewalk, named for the doctor who invented Esperanto, an international language that never took off. Then backtrack to Milka’s Gift Shop at 22 Agron and cross the street to Independence Park.
While there is no sign on the road leading to the other side of the park, it does have a name: Rabbi Menashe Ben-Yisrael Street. Although few remember his name today, it was Ben-Yisrael who singlehandedly convinced Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews – expelled in 1290 – to return to England in 1656.
During the Second Temple period, Solomon’s Pools, south of Jerusalem, provided the city with water. Two aqueducts transported the water: One led directly to the temple reservoir, and the other apparently to Mamilla. Rumor has it that when the Persians conquered Israel in the seventh century, they martyred Christians and tossed them into the Mamilla Pool.
You will find the pool to your right, inside a flimsy wire enclosure.
The name Mamilla may come from the Arabic for “water from God” – ma’e min Allah. Rainwater that collected in this reservoir helped slake the thirst of Jerusalemites who were under siege during the War of Independence.
Once you’re there, turn left, walk to the far corner, then follow the asphalt path in front of you. It leads all the way to an impressive Mameluke tomb. The Muslim cemetery around it, which dates back to the 13th century, was built to hold the graves of Mamelukes – former slaves who managed to overthrow their Egyptian masters and who ruled Israel from 1268 to 1517. This tomb, which many consider the most impressive, holds the remains of the emir who governed Safed during that period. Walk around the tomb to see the ornamental entrance, above which Arabic scholars can make out the emir’s name (Aydugdi) and the date of his death (1289).
If you walk a few dozen meters past the tomb, you will return to Agron Street. Gaze across the road to your right, where the Palace Hotel once stood. Built in medieval Spanish style, it had horseshoe-like arches above the windows and a decorative, rounded facade.
Notably the inscription on the top of the building is written only in Arabic.
Today, the hotel’s entire façade has been almost faithfully restored – almost, because the barbed wire coiled around several of the exterior pipes has disappeared.
Fabulous as it was, the Palace was unable to compete with the luxurious King David, constructed in 1931, so the Arab owners leased the hotel to the British administration. Some years later, fearing attacks by the Jewish underground, the British fortified the hotel by sealing off the magnificent ground floor and twisting barbed wire around the sewage pipes.
If you turn left and then ascend King David Street to the right at the intersection, you’ll find a ramp just past the 1868 restaurant, leading down into an Andalusian-style courtyard whose planters and fountains are covered in authentic Moroccan tiles. This area is part of Mahaneh Yisrael, the second Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls and the first to be financed and built by the residents themselves.
The project’s initiator was Rabbi David Ben-Shimon, who immigrated to Jerusalem from Rabat in the early 1850s. For years, he tried unsuccessfully to alleviate the terrible living conditions of his fellow Moroccans inside the Old City. Finally, in 1864 (or 1866), the Moroccan residents began purchasing plots outside the walls, and a decade later there were already 20 houses in Mahaneh Yisrael.
The first building to appear was the Center for North African Jewish Heritage. At the time, it had only two stories and housed the rabbi and several other families, a synagogue and a religious school. Over the years, the neighborhood deteriorated badly, and many of the houses and courtyards were replaced with modern construction. Fortunately this historic structure was saved and its renovation recently completed, with much of the work carried out by Moroccans who came to Jerusalem especially for the purpose. Features include 300-year-old painted doors and a stunning chandelier, both from Morocco, as well as the original synagogue and artifacts from North Africa, such as a saddle with hand-embroidered gold threads and a Star of David. Particularly exquisite is the lacy stonework that is actually polished plaster.
Cross the courtyard, beautifully lit at night, and turn right onto Hama’aravim Lane. Moroccans were known as ma’arivim (westerners) because Morocco is west of Israel. The original neighborhood buildings still line the street. Note the metal doors and the blue metal shutters – needed for protection out in the wilderness.
When you reach Agron Street again, turn left and then left again at No. 24 to enter a large garden. The house there was built in the late 19th century by an Italian Christian pharmacist. Mahaneh Yisrael was a mixed neighborhood where different groups of people coexisted in peace, and one of the current residents, who moved here in 1965, fondly remembers when Turkish and Moroccan Jews lived in the area alongside Christians and Muslims. The adults would sit in the garden, sipping coffee and chatting, and watch the children play. •
The Center for North African Jewish Heritage is completely wheelchair accessible. Signs are all in Hebrew and/or French. Visitors can join either a Hebrew- or French-speaking group; call 623-5811. Or get a group together and contact Ruth S. Frank, the center’s official guide for English tours, at