City of stones

Combining his love of Jerusalem and current affairs, journalist Shlomo Cesana hopes to improve the capital’s image with his new guidebook amid his concerns for the city’s well-being.

Author and journalist Shlomo Cesana explores the stories behind some of the capital’s unique stone marks. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Author and journalist Shlomo Cesana explores the stories behind some of the capital’s unique stone marks.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Why does a journalist on a major daily newspaper decide to write guidebooks about Jerusalem? For Shlomo Cesana, Israel Hayom’s diplomatic reporter, it was very obvious: He wanted to write something to show the positive aspects of his beloved home town, which he has brought into the spotlight for the past two decades in less than flattering circumstances.
Cesana admits that after feeling like a “very bad ambassador for Jerusalem,” his guidebooks on the capital – two at the moment, with more planned – are an attempt to make up for years of his unfavorable reporting of the city through the “narrow prism” of terrorist attacks and bombings.
“I really love Jerusalem and see in this city a positive thing,” he says, citing the capital’s sense of community, its holiness and its charm. His first book, Jerusalem – City Guide, published last year, sheds light on 500 places of interest in the capital; and his second, recently published book, Set in Stone, explores stone marks from extensive time periods and highlights their special meanings and surroundings.
Cesana, 42, grew up in Katamon Het and spent his first 40 years in the capital. Following his studies at the Koteret school of journalism, he became the Jerusalem affairs reporter for Ma’ariv and covered the haredi sector and settlers, as well as events and terrorist attacks in the capital. He then assumed a number of Jerusalembased editorial roles, and in 2007 became Israel Hayom’s diplomatic correspondent.
Three years ago, he completed a tour-guide course “to complete the picture for myself” and to discover new points of view about Jerusalem. He gives tours of the city and focuses on locations that are close to his professional life – the government complex and the Knesset, alongside journalism tours that explore the settings of the country’s press history.
Set in Stone describes 80 stone marks in the capital, from a dinosaur footprint from millions of years ago, to burial caves from the Second Temple period, Crusader carvings and Ottoman seals, up to royal Ethiopian mosaics, “Zion” carvings in the Jewish neighborhoods established outside the Old City in the second half of the 19th century and the engravings on the Knesset plenum walls today.
The stone marks in the book are each presented in a beautiful full-page closeup photograph, alongside a time line and a short explanation of the mark, its settings and background information on the topic, as well as several smaller, more general pictures of the surroundings.
The book, which is available only in Hebrew – although Cesana hopes an English translation will follow – makes a fascinating read. It is geared toward lovers of Jerusalem in Israel and abroad and covers a broad range of topics, areas and eras.
Cesana himself is most interested in the modern stone marks, which is not surprising considering his love of current affairs. The engravings on the Knesset plenum walls, for example, signify to him that “the settings always remain the same,” regardless of the change of MKs in the building.
One of his favorite stories in the book is that of a mark engraved in the Western Wall. Located eight rows up and 18 columns from the right in the men’s section, the engraving “God is our Lord” can be seen. This inscription exemplifies the idea behind the book – that we often miss things that are right in front of us and that we need to take a good, fresh look at our familiar surroundings.
The inscription also signifies the changes that have taken place in Jerusalem. It was created when the ground level at the Western Wall was much higher, before the space in front of the wall was razed to create the Mugrabi neighborhood which, in turn, was torn down to create the plaza we see today. Add to this the holiness of the site, and you get a good roundup of Jerusalem.
“The innovation of the book is not disconnecting contemporary history from former history,” Cesana says, in an attempt to give “a little perspective” with regard to modern-day Israel. “Although we are here, there were a few others beforehand,” he notes. In order not to be temporary dwellers of this city, like so many before, he warns that we must strive forward in a thought-out manner.
Cesana believes this is especially important now, when the “current situation [of Jerusalem] is very sad.” The capital, he thinks, has become a “Gaza periphery of sorts in the general perception” in the sense that the shelling of that area has become routine in the public mind-set, something he worries the violence in the capital will also turn into.
“If you need to think twice about going to places, there is a problem. There is an issue of everyday violence that must not be permitted,” he says, noting that there are parts of Jerusalem, such as French Hill, where the security situation has become intolerable.
“The heart of the whole problem in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount,” he says, adding that all the past violent conflicts have developed from a disagreement over the Mount. “I don’t see an issue with Jews wanting to ascend the Temple Mount,” he says, acknowledging that it is the holiest site in Judaism, and the site upon which the Zionist return to the Land of Israel is founded.
“I think that what is happening in Jerusalem at the moment is unpleasant, because there is an attempt to disrupt the normal day-to-day life of the city,” Cesana says. “But even though there are certain violent incidents, they’re still not an intifada – the situation is reversible and quiet and a normal life can be restored here.”
On one hand, his experience as a Jerusalem reporter has exposed him to terrible sights, such as the Sbarro suicide bombing in the capital in 2001, in which 15 people were killed, but, on the other hand, has strengthened his belief “that we are in Jerusalem to stay.”
International bodies “won’t manage to change the mind-set that became fixed in Israel that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, even if it not recognized [as such] in the world,” he says.
“Jerusalem cannot be divided, both physically and politically,” he says, adding that in his opinion, no peace agreement would include giving up the Temple Mount.
Instead, he argues, Israel “should strengthen everyone’s understanding that we aren’t moving. Not from the eastern part of the city either. When that becomes clear it will put the agenda in order.”
This, he says, “will strengthen the economy and tourism, the discrimination will disappear, and they [the Arab residents of Jerusalem] will seek their surroundings in Jerusalem.” The majority of people, he says, support a peaceful, cosmopolitan, and safe Jerusalem.
In his opinion, the demographics of the city aren’t the main issue Jerusalem faces. “There is a sackful of problems in this city. The main issue isn’t the relationship between populations, but more the housing prices,” he says. “A little more could have been done to keep Jerusalemites [in the city].”
He is quick to point out that he doesn’t “see the haredim as the enemy. They don’t disrupt daily life in the capital.” But, he adds, “there are worrying general trends of lack of work and a disengagement from the Israeli discourse of serving in the army in the haredi sector.”
The answer to obtaining “a good life” in Jerusalem, he thinks, lies “in a tie that needs to be strengthened between the secular and national-religious.” These sectors share common values, such as wanting good education for their children and a green, eco-friendly city.
“A synagogue in Har Homa, a community center in Ramat Beit Hakerem, industrial plants and employment for educated people” are all examples of the kind of attention these sectors deserve, he says. By encouraging these sectors to live in the city, Jerusalem could flourish and become an attractive city.
“Mayor Nir Barkat has made a substantial change to the image” of Jerusalem, Cesana says, by encouraging cultural events. “More steps need to be encouraged, there aren’t enough yet. There’s a need to develop things that are related to events inside the neighborhoods, to encourage culture with significant funding,” he says.
Cesana hopes that his books will help counter Jerusalem’s negative image and show the city’s intriguing past and present. There is always something new to learn, and the guidebook is meant to surprise Jerusalemites as well, he says. “Things are always changing; history becomes intertwined with the present.” •