Putting a price tag on history

As there are no new developments in the Jewish Quarter, houses only become available when a family decides to sell.

Jewish Quater in the Old City of Jerusalem, 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Jewish Quater in the Old City of Jerusalem, 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
The Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is physically small but big in importance. It covers a tiny fraction of the total area of the capital – approximately 0.1 percent, or 129,000 square meters – with a population of only 2,500, or 0.3% of the city’s total population. However, it has a central position in the Jewish religious and national ethos.
The Old City, an urban area encircled by old Ottoman walls, dates back to the period of the Second Temple, prior to its destruction by the Romans.
Accordingly it is considered a link between the Jerusalem of old and new, and for some, even a link between the heavenly and earthly.
Jerusalem has been continuously inhabited by Jews since the time of King David. While there were times, such as during the Roman destruction or the era of the Crusaders, when there were few or no Jews in Jerusalem, the Old City has largely been the abode of the Jews.
At the start of the 20th century and even before, the city’s crowded and unhygienic conditions prompted those with the necessary means to buy land and build houses outside the walls.
The Jewish Quarter, in the south-central area of the Old City, is one of the city’s traditional four quarters, along with the Christian Quarter in the northwest part of the city, around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Armenian Quarter in the southwest, around the Cathedral of St. James; and the Muslim Quarter, which covers a large part of the city’s eastern area.
The present Jewish Quarter is sparsely populated compared to its approximately 19,000 residents at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1948 War of Independence, the Jordanian Arab Legion captured the Old City, and much of it was destroyed. In the 1960s, Jordan planned to convert the area into a park. When Israel recaptured the Old City in the Six Day War, an ambitious plan was set in motion to rebuild the Jewish Quarter and restore it to its former glory.
In April 1968, the government expropriated the 12.9 hectares (31.8 acres or 129,000 sq.m.) of land that had made up the quarter before 1948. Most of the land was owned by the Wakf, the Muslim charitable endowment of Jerusalem, which was not happy about it. In 1969, the Construction and Housing Ministry established the government- owned Jewish Quarter Development Company, which was charged with rebuilding it.
The quarter was then rebuilt, with existing homes reconstructed. One such house was Batei Mahaseh, or House of Refuge, which was built in the late 19th century to house Jewish families of limited means. The compound’s interior was converted into luxury duplexes, and the façade was restored to its former look.
Other residential buildings were also restored, and as such, most dwellings in the quarter are single-family homes with modern interiors and restored exteriors. Large houses were subdivided into up to four dwellings of two or three stories, and the Jewish Quarter Development Company also built both attached and semidetached apartments, all in the Arab Oriental style common to the Old City.
The properties are not sold in the traditional sense; rather, “owners” acquire long-term leases from the Israel Lands Authority. Most of the apartments are four-room, 100-sq.m. dwellings, while the semidetached are a bit larger.
The Jewish Quarter, which is both the cradle of Judaism and the site of the Western Wall, has quite a number of yeshivot and synagogues. One of the most important is the landmark Hurva Synagogue, which was built in 1701, destroyed during the fighting in 1948, and reconstructed and consecrated in 2010.
In fact, the Jewish Quarter has been continually inhabited for millennia. In 1967, before the massive reconstruction work began, an archeological team headed by the Hebrew University’s Nahman Avigad extensively excavated the quarter. Their finds are on display in museums and other sites, many of which are two or three stories below street level.
HOW DOES all this affect the area’s real estate? “The real estate market in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City has a tempo of its own,” Rafael Bloch of Re/Max Real Estate’s office in the capital tells In Jerusalem. “Demand usually outstrips supply, and consequently prices are very high. There are approximately 500 households, and the source of the supply is when one of these households wants to sell – as there are no new developments and the volume of trade is limited.”
He explains that “those who want to sell demand very high prices, and consequently they are on the market for a very long time. The very high asking prices limit the volume of trade. A single- family, two-story house with a rooftop terrace and total built-up area of 140 sq.m. can fetch upward of $2.5 million. Four-room apartments built some 45 years ago are offered for $1m.”
That said, he continues, “it is very difficult to access real-estate prices in the Jewish Quarter because much of the demand is emotional, which is very difficult to price.” •