Exploring former no-man’s-land

A desolate expanse has been transformed into stunning parks and unique promenades.

Gan Bonei Hahomot in Jerusalem (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Gan Bonei Hahomot in Jerusalem
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1987 as one of the opening acts for that year’s Israel Festival, an unconventional French high-wire artist named Philippe Petit carefully walked across a cable that stretched between the Jerusalem Cinematheque and Mount Zion. The timing was perfect, for exactly 20 years had passed since Jerusalem was reunited in the Six Day War, and the act was meant as a symbolic gesture of peace.
Petit, who had performed a similar stunt between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974, did what he always does: crossed the wire with nothing underneath to catch him, should he fall.
If he had fallen, he would have landed in an area known, when the city was divided, as no-man’s-land. For 19 years Jordanian soldiers were based along the ramparts on the Old City walls, with Israel’s posts across the Hinnom Valley to the west. Dangerous, filled with mines and barbed wire, no-man’s-land was a desolate expanse above which shells whizzed overhead from both sides.
This week’s stroll takes you through that former no-man’s-land, into stunning parks and along unique promenades. Be advised that there are many, many steps to climb, and only Teddy Park, the Wall Promenade, the Bustan and Bloomfield Gardens are accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.
Begin at the top of the bridge above the Cinematheque on Hebron Road. If you stand next to the bridge’s obelisk and look to the south, you will see a cable that dates back to the War of Independence. Some say that this is the cable traversed by Petit; others say he walked across a parallel cable across the valley.
The cable you see in the distance belongs to one of this country’s best-kept secrets. Israel had conquered much of Mount Zion early in the war, but Jordan held the walled Old City, and there was no safe way to get supplies and troops up the mountain or to evacuate the wounded.
Even after the armistice in 1949, vehicles and people moving below the Old City walls were potential Jordanian targets.
So the army dug a tunnel – which you will soon see – between Mount Zion and Mishkenot Sha’ananim on this side of the valley. Unfortunately, it was too narrow to handle much traffic and included many impractical bends. Finally, innovative engineer Uriel Hefetz came up with the idea for a cable car, that was put into operation in December 1948. Although it was used for only a short time, it was kept ready – along with the tunnel – for any emergency. So secret was the cable car that until it was revealed to the public in 1972, few people in the country knew of its existence.
You are standing next to The Peace Sculpture, a work created by controversial Israeli artist Yigal Tumarkin. Inscribed with the well-known biblical verse from Isaiah about turning swords into plowshares, it was erected along the Jordanian Israeli border a year before the start of the Six Day War.
As you stroll across the bridge, enjoy a fabulous view of the Old City walls and Mount Zion in all its glory. The impressive Catholic complex with an unusual clock is the Dormition Abbey, located next to the stately Greek Orthodox Seminary.
From 1948 and until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, part of the Israeli- Jordanian border ran right between the seminary – located on Israeli-held Mount Zion – and the Old City wall to its right (your left). On the corner of the ramparts, just across from the seminary, the Jordanians manned an outpost.
Descend to reach Sultan’s Pool, part of the Hinnom Valley, which served as a natural border between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. Then cross the road to Mount Zion to see a large rock engraved with the words “Avshalom Sela.”
To keep a foothold on their side of the border, Israeli forces regularly patrolled the road between the Old City walls and the Greek Orthodox Seminary. On July 4, 1962, in one of many incidents that the Jordanian army labeled a “momentary craziness,” one of its men shot and killed the patrol’s commander, Capt. Avshalom Sela. Following his death, the army halted its patrols on this path.
Nearby, you will find one end of the tunnel used, together with the cable car, to transport people and equipment from one side of the valley to the other.
NOW CLIMB the steps of Ma’alot Benny up Mount Zion, and turn onto the path that hugs the lowest part of the slope. The path winds around the slope to reach the southeast corner of the Old City walls and a sign about what I call the Wall Promenade but whose official name is Gan Bonei Hahomot (Builders of the Walls Park).
The low wall on the corner is actually the base of a guard tower that was standing here when the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099. The Crusaders renovated both walls and towers but lost control of the city to the Muslims in 1187. And the Muslims destroyed it all a few years later, worried that the Crusaders would reconquer what would then be a fortified city.
Turn left to begin the Wall Promenade, leaving the walkway for a path leading atop the medieval tower. From the end of the path you have an excellent view of the corridor where Avshalom Sela was killed.
Backtrack, then stay on the grass adjacent to the wall to reach part of a 2,000-year-old staircase that led up to a hidden gate. Experts believe that the gate led directly into King Herod’s grand palace. Further on, a detailed map points out sites of interest in New Jerusalem.
Because the current walls – built in 1538 – were constructed above far earlier levels, a colorful timeline explains exactly what you are seeing, from the Hasmonean fortifications to Herod’s renovations, and Byzantine, Crusader and Muslim destruction and reconstruction.
Stay on the grass to reach your last stop, burial caves dating back to the First Temple period, when hewed-out family tombs were used for several generations.
Then backtrack a bit on the grass until you can cross the walkway road to a faucet and observation point with a great view of twin stone buildings across the main highway.
The buildings, originally Turkish stables that opened on to a cattle market, were renovated in 1969 to become Hutzot Hayotzer, the Jerusalem Artists’ Colony: a collection of workshops rented out to specialized artists who ply their art inside.
Stroll down to the main road, cross at the light and pass through the gates of fabulous Teddy Kollek Park. Inaugurated about a year and a half ago, the park was created by the Jerusalem Foundation as a legacy to Teddy Kollek. Known by Jerualemites simply as “Teddy,” Kollek served as the city’s mayor from 1965 to 1993, and did an incredible job of developing the city on both sides of the former no-man’s-land.
Beautifully landscaped and fully wheelchair accessible, the park has several unusual attractions. The first of them is just past the railings as you enter the park: a partially restored structure a century old, part of the Jorat el Anab neighborhood founded in 1892 by working-class Sephardi Jews from the Old City. It stands atop ruins from the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Over the years, Arab residents slowly began outnumbering the Jews in Jorat el Anab. Near the beginning of the British Mandate, new buildings, mainly meant to house shops, were constructed in the neighborhood. This one was situated at the edge of the Mamilla commercial district.
The neighborhood was abandoned during the years that Jerusalem was divided. Together with a 2,000 year-old cistern, ancient coins and Byzantine mosaics that no one knew about, the building was eventually destroyed, and what was left was covered over with dust and debris.
On your right as you descend the steps is the park’s highlight: a square in which shimmering waters dance to music three times every evening. In summer, children in underwear and bathing suits have a blast inside the fountains, while bystanders watch in delight.
At the bottom, you cross to the modest Visitors’ Center, located inside one of the two buildings making up Hutzot Hayotzer. Inside, besides a lively production celebrating the life and works of Teddy Kollek, are dozens of fascinating and even historical photographs. One reminded me of Teddy the mayor, who never slept. Indeed, when my parents would call at 5 a.m. to complain about problems on their street, he was already up and ready to check things out.
After watching the program, stroll through the passageway next to the museum into Hutzot Hayotzer. (If the museum is closed, walk to the end of the building and turn left and left again). If the shops seem closed, that’s only because the artists are deep inside pursuing their crafts. Do knock on the doors or ring the bells to examine stunning photographs, Judaica, handcrafts, prayer shawls and wedding canopies.
At the bottom of the Artists’ Colony you will find a fountain with winding stairs on either side. Climb up, cross the road and ascend more steps, enjoying as you climb all the foliage that accompanies you. Pass a stone bench topped by a broken mosaic, keep climbing past a strange metal sculpture I call “Moving through Jerusalem” (there is no sign telling you the real name and its creator) and finally, when you have a choice between ascending more steps (to the right) or taking the grassy hill in front of you, climb the hill to reach a double arched pergola and a fantastic view of the Old City walls.
AFTER ENJOYING the view, continue a few dozen meters to a sidewalk above a parking lot (on Emile Botta Street). Turn left and walk past the sign for the Te’enim Restaurant inside the Confederation House. Then walk through the open gate on your right into paradise.
This is the Abraham Gozlan Orchard (bustan in Hebrew), a lush and splendid park between the back of the King David Hotel and Yemin Moshe. Renovated by the Jerusalem Foundation, its two acres of landscaped land feature terraced gardens, formal staircases and an orchard boasting olive, date, pomegranate, fig, carob and almond trees.
Take a right at the pool, ascend either of the staircases and continue climbing.
Head left on the path to visit one side of the complex believed to hold the tomb where King Herod buried his family, including victims of his violent paranoia.
Ascend a path between the two sides of the complex to reach the Israel Bonds Tribute Site, where three time capsules meant to be opened in the future contain the names and stories of Israel Bonds members who contributed to the economic development of Israel.
Back on the main path, continue past the other part of Herod’s Family Tomb to a sparkling pool and fountain, where you can rest your weary feet.
Teddy Park is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Musical Fountains perform daily at 6, 7 and 10 p.m.; without music during the day at 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 6 p.m. The Visitors’ Center is closed on Fridays but is open the rest of the week from 2 to 9 p.m.
Hutzot Hayotzer operates on Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Information is available at www.jerusalem-art.orgor from Yaal Herman, chair of the Artists’ Committee: www.yaalherman.com.