Bringing history into the present

Segways in the Jewish Quarter? The modern mode of transportation is one of tourism manager Eyal Matan’s many plans to make the area more appealing.

The Hurva synagogue 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
The Hurva synagogue 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Eyal Matan, by his own admission, is a lucky man. “This job is a dream come true for me,” says Matan, who recently took up the role of marketing the Old City’s Jewish Quarter and doing his best to keep its historic sites chockfull of tourists.
As an employee of The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem Ltd., he is particularly enamored of one of the quarter’s most impressive buildings.
“The Hurva Synagogue is one of the most amazing synagogues in Jerusalem, and the world,” declares the tourism manager. “The height of the building, and the mix of old and new, produce fantastic results.”
The Hurva was originally built in the early 18th century, but was destroyed just a few years later. It was rebuilt in the mid-19th century but that structure, too, was reduced to rubble in 1948 during the War of Independence. After much deliberation, an arch was built in 1977 to mark the spot where the synagogue had stood, over the years becoming a landmark in itself, and the entire edifice was eventually restored to its former glory and reopened two years ago.
“People who prayed here before 1967 have come to the synagogue and told us the building is just as magnificent as it was back then. That’s very gratifying,” notes Matan. Indeed the décor, with its seamless blend of old stone and smoothly painted walls, convincingly retro chandeliers and emblematic frescoes, appears flawless and commensurately atmospheric.
There is plenty to see at the synagogue. Besides the main hall, which is used for services and for study throughout the day, one can climb up to the gallery via the overhanging rooftop of the ground floor. Both levels offer excellent views of the Jewish Quarter, and the gallery level, which also has an external circumferential balcony, looks out as far as the Mount of Olives, with the Western Wall clearly visible as well.
Matan has over 10 years’ experience of running tourism sites, including a stint as chief of the Mini Israel site near Latrun, and is always on the lookout to offer some added value.
“Today we provide bar mitzva facilities to Israelis and people from abroad,” he says. “We are a sort of alternative to the Western Wall, where there is often chaos. Here you can have a private, and more comfortable, event, and the members of the group get a tour of the site, too.”
He says he is keen to make the Jewish Quarter as user-friendly as possible. Work is progressing at a rapid pace on a subterranean entrance to the synagogue’s basement, which runs under a side street and, when complete, will enable visitors to access the lower level directly from the Cardo.
“There are all sorts of family and other events held here in the Cardo,” he explains, “and if they want, people will be able to come straight into the synagogue to see what we have here.”
“What we have here” refers to archeological remains from the time of the First and Second Temples, which were recently unveiled to the public.
The Jewish Quarter, says Matan, is an unparalleled tourist attraction.
“You don’t have anything like this anywhere in the world,” he declares. “All these wonderful sites and the history you have here are unique.”
And he has devised plans to pack the tourists into as many vantage points as possible in the Jewish part of the Old City, and enable them to get from point to point conveniently.
“We’re going to have Segway and golf cart transportation available, so that less physically able people, and others, can see everything we have to offer here,” he says. “We will provide transportation and free entry to one of our sites for the same ticket.”
Besides the Hurva Synagogue, the sites within Matan’s purview include the Herodian Quarter at the Wohl Museum of Archeology, with its impressive finds from the Second Temple era; the Burnt House, which is believed to have been destroyed in 70 CE, shortly after the Romans destroyed Second Temple; and the permanent photographic exhibition “Alone on the Walls,” which documents the fall of the Jewish Quarter during the War of Independence.
The tourism manager says he is keen to bring visitors of all nationalities and all faiths to the quarter. “Jerusalem is, of course, also very important to Christians, and they also come to see Jewish sites here. There is also the [Byzantine] Nea Church, which is truly magnificent.”
Despite the high density of buildings, and the seeming lack of space in the quarter, the tourism manager says there are still some spots he would like to develop.
One of these is an amphitheater a short walk away from the Hurva Synagogue.
“We are going to develop this site and hold events, like large bar mitzva ceremonies and that sort of thing,” he says. “It’s a lovely spot, with the Old City wall here, and can hold 500 people. Of course, we’ll spruce it up a bit before we open it to the general public.”
The Jewish Quarter has a high profile among many Jews across the world, but Matan says people could know a lot more about it. “We don’t want visitors just to pass by here on their way to the Western Wall. There is so much history here, which we want to convey to people.”
That, he says, also involves placing the past in the right chronological and cultural context. “We don’t just offer technical tours of the quarter. We’d like Israelis and people from abroad to know how things developed here, when these buildings were put up, to know what happened here in 1948.”
One of the lesser-known tidbits of information emerges as we descend from the Hurva Synagogue gallery. Right next to the Ramban Synagogue is the unmistakable shape of a mosque minaret – which is, it seems, yet another colorful example of community in-fighting.
“That was built by a Jew who wanted to become the gabbai [manager] of a synagogue here, and when he was denied that, he decided to become a Muslim and put up a mosque here,” explains the tourism chief. The Muslim house of prayer is the Sidna Omar Mosque, built in the 15th century.
Obviously there is more to the Jewish Quarter than meets the eye.
“There is something for everyone here,” says Matan. •