Information square

Omar ibn al-Khatab Street near Jaffa Gate is short on space but long on attractions.

christian information center jerusalem_521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
christian information center jerusalem_521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
One of Jerusalem’s liveliest streets is actually a short plaza called Omar ibn al- Khatab, named for the second caliph of the Islamic world. It runs from inside Jaffa Gate to the beginning of the Armenian Quarter at Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road. Bursting with both ancient and relatively modern historical sites, the street/square has two tourist information centers that are open seven days a week.
Brilliant, tolerant and an administrative whiz, Omar visited Jerusalem soon after Muslim Arabs conquered the Holy City in 638. He revered many of the Bible’s most significant personalities and honored Judaism’s holy sites, including the peak on which Solomon erected the First Temple.
Thus when he ascended to the Temple Mount and found it overflowing with trash, Omar was enraged. He immediately ordered the rubbish removed – and, say some, he helped clear it out with his own hands.
At one point, Jerusalem Bishop Sophronius invited the caliph to join him for prayers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Omar is said to have refused, explaining that if he accepted, Muslims might immediately demolish this important Christian site and replace it with a mosque. He proceeded to pray outside the church – exactly where a mosque named for him stands today.
Begin your stroll outside Jaffa Gate, one of seven open gates in the Old City walls that were restored by Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. Stand in the plaza, with the vehicular entrance to the Old City on your right.
Now head for Jaffa Gate and look up at the small parapet above the entrance. Its floor contains an opening called a machicolation, from which soldiers could dump boiling oil or hot tar on any enemy attempting to mount an attack on the city. A large mezuza is affixed to the right-hand side of the gate.
Once you walk inside, you’ll see a large sign with information about Jaffa Gate. Pass the steps leading up to the ramparts to reach a new information center, which is open Sunday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays until 2 and Saturdays from 9 to 4. Here you can buy tickets for the city’s attractions, get hotel reservations, rent a car and even arrange flights to neighboring countries.
When you exit, look to your left to see an iron fence. Beyond it are two tombs decorated with stone turbans. They are said to contain the remains of the two architects who planned the city walls.
Next door, the pleasant government Tourist Information Center is open Saturday to Thursday 8:30 to 5, and Friday 8:30 to 12:30. The staff will provide you with free informative touring material.
Stop at the entrance to the Imperial Hotel. In the late 19th century, it was the grandest lodging place in the city. (Be careful – the road is undergoing renovations.) Turn into the alley between the massive columns that frame the entrance to see a stumpy pillar topped by a Greek Orthodox flag. On the fourth row you will read “LEG X.” The Tenth Roman Legion camped here during the Roman-Jewish revolt in the first century, and after its victory as well.
At the corner, turn right to reach the handsome edifice that houses the Franciscan Christian Information Center. It was built in 1858 to accommodate the Imperial Austrian Post Office. The colorful original sign is on view inside the CIC, but at the moment it stands behind a fascinating display of the superb buildings designed by Italian architect Antonio Barlucci during the 1930s. Center hours: Saturday to Thursday 8:30 to 3:30, Friday 8:30-12:30 (closed Sunday).
Across the street stands the Jerusalem Citadel, the oldest and most exciting historical site on Omar el-Khatab Street. In 1917, after the Holy City surrendered to the British, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby stood there and declared Jerusalem to be under British rule.
You may know the Citadel as the Tower of David, although it is unlikely that King David ever set foot on the site. However, Christian pilgrims, certain it had been constructed by the king, began calling it the Tower of David in Byzantine times. Centuries later, Muslims continued the tradition by fashioning a prayer site over the spot where they believed David had stopped to pray and named it after the monarch.
Actually, the foundations for Jerusalem’s citadel were built about 1,000 years after the era of King David by the Hasmonean (Maccabean dynasty) rulers of Israel. They erected a defensive tower and a city wall; remains of the wall were discovered during excavations. King Herod constructed a palace next to the city wall and added three towers, one of which still stands.
Today the citadel houses the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, an enterprise suitably located at the gateway to the Old City. The only museum in the world that deals exclusively with the history of Jerusalem, it spans the colorful millennia of the city’s history with a light and unusual touch. Besides the exciting displays, its buildings and grounds are historical sites to be explored. Free guided tours are available in English with your entrance to the museum.
At least once a year the museum offers a new and creative exhibition. This year’s is called “Letters and More” and offers a lively display on the development of writing.
A couple of years ago the museum added a Night Spectacular, whose dazzling sound and light show is a feast for the senses. And recently, the museum began offering daytime concerts and guided tours of Jerusalem as well. Open-air concerts should start up again in early spring (see for details).
NOW CROSS the street to Christ Church, the first Protestant sanctuary in the Middle East. The church was built from 1842-1849 by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity amongst the Jews, to draw Jews into the Christian fold; therefore it doesn’t have a single cross.
The Turks wouldn’t let Christians use bells to call parishioners to worship, so the church didn’t even have a belfry. However, after the Crimean War (1853- 1856) left the Turks in debt to the British, the Anglicans added a modest bell tower and dared to ring the bell for worship. Eventually the Church of the Holy Sepulchre followed suit, and soon bells could be heard all over Jerusalem. Look for the bell tower to your left as you face the church.
Despite a typically Protestant lack of embellishment, Christ Church is a magnificent sanctuary and well worth a visit. The design combines a touch of English beauty (rich, dark, wooden ceilings and tables) with Middle Eastern stone walls and medieval vaulted arches.
An unusual wooden screen covers most of the wall behind the communion table. Designed to remind onlookers of the Holy Ark, which in synagogues contains the Five Books of Moses, it is divided into four panels. The Ten Commandments (in Hebrew) are written in the two middle panels; on either side in Hebrew script are the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
Other decorations include a stunning trio of stained-glass windows that face the entrance. Installed when the church was expanded in 1913, the middle window represents the Christian Trinity. The words are in Hebrew, and the dominant figure is a tree or a vine that vaguely looks like a cross. Each side window includes a play of branches. Interestingly, on one side the branches end in a menora, and on the other is a cross. A stunning olive wood communion table, decorated with a Star of David and the Christian Alpha and Omega, was designed by architect Conrad Schick.
Ten years ago, Christ Church opened the Christian Heritage Center (hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), which illustrates the history of Christian Zionism in Jerusalem through historic documents, medieval Bibles and contemporary models of the city. Also open to the public is a 2,000-year-old water reservoir that leads to an ancient tunnel. A cafeteria services visitors and tourists staying in the guest house.
Your last site on this Street Stroll is the police station, known as the Kishle, used as a lock-up by the Turks who built it and the British who came after them. Today, Jerusalem’s mounted police exercise their horses in the Kishle’s paddock.
Among the prisoners held here during the British Mandate were members of the Jewish underground who had committed the heinous crime of blowing the shofar at the Western Wall. In 1931, the British had decided that the Muslims’ ownership rights to the Temple Mount also encompassed the Western Wall area and forbade Jews to blow the shofar at this holy site.
But the ceremony is an integral part of the High Holy Days, and the Jews could hardly take this lying down. So every year following the ban, IZL and Lehi members blew the Tekia Gedola to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast, and ended up at the Kishle.