A new plan for the OLD CITY

A face-lift to the Jaffa Gate area aims to bring the infrastructure up to date and create a more attractive tourist destination.

Jerusalem construction 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem construction 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Thursday, 2 p.m., Jaffa Gate. The flow of visitors to the Old City is amazing: students from all over the country not dressed for Jerusalem’s chilly weather, Christian pilgrims, tourists clicking away with their cameras, haredim hurrying to the Western Wall – and this journalist, waiting for the director in charge of the Jaffa Gate renewal project at the Jerusalem Development Authority.
It is one of those few really cold days, the drizzle making it impossible to sit on one of the nearby stone benches. Under the arch of the gate, three Arab residents try to keep warm around a sahlab cart, while a fourth is brave enough to stand outside in the cold, trying to peddle fresh beigele (round bread) to passersby. After a short while, Elad Kendel from the JDA arrives and guides me through the gate to the heart of the project.
Some NIS 550 million and a political realization lie behind the large-scale works being carried out in the Old City. In fact, this is a massive project involving the Prime Minister’s Office, the Tourism Ministry, the Antiquities Authority, the Foreign Ministry, the municipality, the National Insurance Institute and the JDA.
When the work is completed, scheduled for late 2013, the Old City will be hooked up to the same infrastructure as west Jerusalem, its streets and alleys will be renovated, the outdoor lighting will be improved, and the facades of the houses in the Muslim Quarter market and other tourist areas will have undergone a face-lift.
Archeological excavations of public baths from the Byzantine period found under the bridge that connects Jaffa Road to the Mamilla passage will be cleaned and prepared for visitors, including a plan to fill some of the excavated pools with hot water as an additional tourist attraction. Cultural events – theater, music and dance – will take place throughout the year in various locations in the Old City, including the Muslim and the Armenian quarters, as well as the promenade along the walls and the amphitheater near Zion Gate. The project director’s vision is to have the Old City become a vibrant venue day and night, all year round, not just during the High Holy Days.
The next step after completion of the work near Jaffa Gate is to install new infrastructure on Rehov Hagai (the main alley of the shuk in the Muslim Quarter), and then to completely revitalize the Bab el-Huta neighborhood (mainly inside the Muslim Quarter).
Renovations will also be carried out in the Christian and Armenian quarters near Zion Gate. Meanwhile, the Antiquities Authority has completed its shoring up of the walls and is conducting renewal work on all the Old City gates, with the Damascus, New and Jaffa gates already completed. The NII will provide funding to make these venues wheelchair-accessible.
Kendel says the works will extend to areas surrounding the Old City, including the promenades around the walls, the Ein Tzurim Park in the east, the completion of the Mount of Olives Cemetery, and all will be connected to the City of David tourist site.
KENDEL CHOOSES not to comment on whether this project is connected to Mayor Nir Barkat’s Gan Hemelech (King’s Garden) plan to turn part of Silwan into a tourist and cultural center. Other sources at the JDA agree that if the mayor’s plan is ever implemented, it is clear that it will be an organic part of the whole concept here, which is nothing less than a revolutionary change in the aesthetics and physical condition of the Old City.
Asked why information about this major plan has not been made public, Kendel says that due to the sensitive location, it is easier to act first and then to publicize it, “to diminish fears and suspicions as much as possible.”
Although it is mainly an infrastructure project, it is clear to all parties involved that at its heart is a government policy to create the look and feel of a more unified city. The persistent claims that Jerusalem is all one city are becoming difficult to take seriously, given the tremendous gap between the physical development of the city’s east and west areas.
“By 2005,” says a municipal source, “it was becoming clear to all that it couldn’t continue. The differences in infrastructure, development, venues and facilities for tourists and even Israeli visitors, not to mention the appalling conditions for the residents of the Old City, were so obvious that something had to be done. Officials realized that they couldn’t go on delivering speeches about the eternally reunited city, while in fact, apart from haredim, no one dared to walk in the narrow streets of the Old City. That led to a government decision to release large budgets and to launch the project.”
While at the JDA there is a discreet acknowledgment that there was a political aspect to the project, for city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz), there is no doubt that the infrastructure works in the Muslim Quarter are a means to increase the Israeli presence there.
“Nobody knows exactly where all this will lead us.
Who knows what physical obstacles they may meet when they start to dig up Al-Uad [Hagai] Street? Not only won’t the JDA and the municipality compensate the merchants, but I am seriously concerned that once the works are done, large parts of the Muslim Quarter will look strangely like the Jewish Quarter, with the same architectonic motifs, that Jewish families will move there, that eventually visitors will ask, as they already do now when they visit the City of David, why Arabs live in a Jewish neighborhood?”
Margalit adds that the Palestinian Authority has already asked the United Nations to intervene and stop the works.
Anyone who has visited this part of the city recently knows how difficult and unwieldy it can be. As soon as you go through Jaffa Gate into the Old City, you enter a very narrow passage between two rows of metal barriers, with men working on the new pavement on one side, while others are cleaning the walls on the other side. It is difficult to know where to walk, as you are enveloped by a massive cloud of dust. The entrance to the Muslim Quarter market is even worse. The merchants use the Moriah municipal company’s metal fences to hang their merchandise (as a social comment or simple need?).
The part of the street that leads to the Kishle police station, with the entrance to the David of Tower Museum already renovated, is a little larger than before and is, one must admit, cleaner. Groups of tourists stand at the entrance to the Kishle, where work is still under way, and they seem apprehensive, trying not to fall between the scattered stones and the thin lines that separate the entrance and the construction work on both sides. A guide explains in Hebrew-accented English to the impressed group that “the work you see around you is part of a huge project to clean and renew the holy city for the first time in 2,000 years.”
THE KISHLE is a story in itself. While workers were busy cleaning and preparing the moat under the Tower of David Museum’s main entrance to welcome the thousands of visitors expected in the spring, the ancient Ottoman prison was holding some priceless artifacts within its walls. Archeological excavations conducted under the main hall of the Kishle have revealed some historical treasures from the Byzantine period to the Second Temple period, and perhaps some findings from the First Temple period yet to be discovered.
These findings sparked the idea to capitalize on this location’s cultural and tourist potential. The first step was the decision made by Tower of David Museum director Shosh Yaniv, the Israel Festival directors and the Schusterman Jerusalem Season of Culture direction to use it for one of the special musical events in the framework of the season and the festival. Thus decided, a string quartet will perform a piece by contemporary composer Steven Reich on a black stage suspended above the gaping abyss of the excavations.
To reach the site, the audience will walk across the moat and sit around this dramatic spot. But Yaniv’s vision extended much further. She wanted to include the newly discovered hall of the Kishle as part of the museum compound (historically it is indeed so) and use it as an exhibition hall. At the JDA, the reactions on the publication of the plan raised more than one eyebrow. “Not that we don’t like the idea,” admits a source at the JDA, “but nobody knows where the money will come from, so it’s rather premature.”
And, he admits, “In addition to the financial aspect, this is a very sensitive location. I think it requires more than enthusiasm to be included in our plans. You know how it is: You move a stone in Jerusalem, and it is reason enough to hold an emergency meeting at the White House. This is not a matter of infrastructure, this is something else.”
“By the end of 2013, the Old City will finally have modern and suitable infrastructure,” says Kendel. “For now, we are still using [some of] what was done by the Ottomans. Obviously it had to be done, but not only that: The aim is to turn the Old City into a place where people will want to come and feel secure about doing so. That’s what makes this project so large and so important.”
And indeed, Kendel is responsible for the Old City’s physical aspects as well as its cultural ones. “It’s not only new pipes for water supply, sewerage, new lighting in the streets, cleaning and refurbishing the buildings facades – it all leads to one goal: to put the Old City back on tourists’ itineraries. Thus the project also includes many cultural events – mostly organized through festivals during the year, such as the Festival of Light, the Knights Festival and some of the Israel Festival events. We also need to make it worthwhile and rewarding for the merchants of the market, as every such event increases their profits, and that’s exactly what we want to achieve.”
The cultural aspect of this plan is twofold: As well as a roster of year-round outdoor events – as much as possible in the winter – Kendel says he is planning small local events wherever extensive works are taking place. If a part of an alley in the market is obstructed because of the works, the merchants in the nearby streets will be compensated with street theater, music or other cultural fare.
KENDEL IS convinced that the plan is worthwhile, but the merchants of the market view it with suspicion and some anxiety.
Abu Fouad, the owner of a souvenir shop at the entrance to the market, and Fa’awaz, who runs a shop nearby, are the only vendors who agreed to answer my questions. They admit they are a little apprehensive because of the construction work.
“Sure, there are more tourists now, but they don’t buy too much, and it doesn’t cover our very high property tax expenses.
This municipality charges us very high sums – it’s killing us, you know.”
Asked if the renewal work, when completed, will be good for business, Abu Fouad says, “Well, we don’t know exactly what it is about. New infrastructure is always good, and lighting and cleaning, of course, but we are afraid the municipality will ask us to pay more once it is done. Where will we get the money?” At the suggestion that the JDA will make the area more attractive to tourists, the men shake their heads: “Maybe, maybe not.”
Obviously they are not opposed to the improvements, but they want to be sure there is no catch.
Kendel, well aware of the suspicions of the merchants in the Muslim Quarter, explains that before the renovations begin, the JDA will involve the local community council and welfare and social workers who work in the neighborhood.
Every step will be preceded by meetings with the merchants, explaining in advance what each step means in terms of obstacles and blockages of the narrow streets, dirt and dust and all the other aspects of outdoor construction work.
“We know, for instance, that changing pipes in the Bab el-Huta neighborhood will be no picnic. We tread very slowly and cautiously so that the residents, the merchants and the visitors will be able to get through this period with the least possible disruption.
But we also know that problems will arise. Nevertheless, this is the right thing to do. This city deserves to be renovated so people will return to walk through its fascinating streets and alleyways. There is no other way to do it. We will clean it, rebuild what has to be rebuilt, brighten it, and we will offer a host of cultural events to make it the most attractive place to visit.”