Bells and tombs in the Christian Quarter

Our guide wanted us to see Jerusalem from a different perspective than that provided on the standard Old City tour.

A stained-glass window in the Latin Patriarchate. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
A stained-glass window in the Latin Patriarchate.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Just inside the Jaffa Gate, there is a tiny cemetery. Buried within, behind an iron fence, are two hapless engineers – or perhaps an architectural duo. Hired in 1538 by Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to plan and execute restoration of the city walls, they lie beneath lovely, ornate tombs. One of them is still topped with a stunning stone turban.
Local tradition maintains that an enraged Suleiman had them executed when he learned that despite his orders, they had left Mount Zion outside the enclosed city. Yet as due their rank, they were buried near the all-important Jaffa Gate.
According to another tradition, Suleiman ordered them beheaded so that the glorious walls of Jerusalem would never be reproduced.
Or they may have been assassinated because they knew the city’s secrets. Once dead, of course, they wouldn’t be able to report its weaknesses to any dastardly enemies.
But perhaps they purposely left part of the land outside the walls so that they could sell it for a profit. That would certainly have angered the sultan! We heard this last version of the tale for the first time on an unusual jaunt inside the Old City – a circular route that you can take as well. About 40 or 50 people participated in this outing. Leading it was Anwar Ben Badis, a teacher of spoken Arabic at the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center on Mount Zion. About half of the group were his students, while the rest were their guests. Ben Badis spoke in both Arabic and Hebrew, explaining that he wanted us to see Jerusalem from a different perspective than that provided on the standard Old City tour.
From our meeting place outside the Jaffa Gate, Ben Badis related that the valley below – which we know as the Hinnom Valley/Sultan’s Pool – has another name. In Arabic, it is called Jorat el Ainab – hole of the grapes.
For centuries, locals grew grapes in the wadi, which was richly irrigated by underground springs and water from the Mamilla Pool.
The Jaffa Gate also has another name: Bab el-Halil. Halil has two meanings: “Hebron” (as historically this gate faced the road to Hebron) and “beloved friend.” The latter refers to Abraham, revered in Muslim tradition as both leader and prophet. There are over 40,000 people living inside the Old City walls, according to Ben Badis – about 31,000 Muslims, and the rest Christians, Jews and Armenians. Thus, there are four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Armenian and Christian. It would take many days to cover them all, so we were only visiting the Christian Quarter.
We entered the Jaffa Gate, where we stopped in front of the engineers’ tombs.
Ben Badis explained that the engineers were from the Caucasus, and that the decorations were typical of that region. The workers who built the walls, however, were locals from Bethlehem, Beit Safafa and Silwan.
In 1900, construction began on a fabulous clock tower on top of the Jaffa Gate. Like 99 others throughout the Ottoman kingdom, the clock tower was meant to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who would be celebrating the 25th year of his reign. Jerusalemites were so poor that it was difficult to find enough funds, and it took seven years to complete the project. When it was ready, however, the magnificent clock tower was four meters tall, with two clock faces showing local time and two others telling the time in Europe.
Thirteen or so years later, British preservation fanatic Ronald Storrs was appointed governor of Jerusalem. Passionate about holding on to the unique character of the Holy City, he moved the clock tower, which he felt marred the look of the Jaffa Gate, to Allenby Square – today IDF Square.
It has since disappeared; perhaps the British whisked it away to England, with everything else they abducted from the country. Six other clocks still stand, in Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Nazareth, Safed and Nablus.
Ordinarily one counts seven open gates in the walls of Old Jerusalem (an eighth, the Golden Gate, was sealed up long ago). On this tour, however, we learned that Muslims only count five. That’s because a gate, in Islamic architecture, is an opening in the wall that forces you to turn left as soon as you enter, to make a swift entrance difficult for an advancing enemy.
We turned left onto Latin Patriarchate Street. Ahead of us, a yellow-and-white flag flew above the beautiful white Latin (Catholic) Patriarchate complex, whose magnificent church is almost always open. Another reminder that we were in the Christian Quarter was the taphos monograms (a T and a P) on many of the buildings. “Taphos” means “sepulchre” in Greek and appears on property belonging to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Indeed, descendants of Greeks who came to this country at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th reside in the quarter, along with thousands of Arab Christians.
The road soon becomes St. Peter’s Street, which turns into Freres (Brothers) Street. At the corner, New Gate Road on the left took us a few dozen meters to the New Gate. Also known as the Sultan’s Gate, the New Gate dates back only to 1889. That’s when Jerusalem’s French Catholic clergy asked Sultan Abdul Hamid II to create an entirely new entrance into the Old City to make it easier to pass between the Notre Dame Monastery outside the walls and the Christian Quarter inside. The New Gate was also a boon to pilgrims, who could now skip the Arab markets and Muslim Quarter on their way to the holy Christian sites. Ben Badis told us that the Christian population of Jerusalem was so grateful that it donated land to build local Muslims a little mosque.
Back on Freres Street, we began descending steps, but stopped at the Melia Art and Training Center to our right. Melia has been helping downtrodden village women for a quarter of a century by providing them with the expertise and materials necessary to produce decorative arts and crafts that are sold here and abroad. When necessary, Melia intervenes between the women and their families, especially when the menfolk try to get their hands on the money their hardworking women have earned.
Down the steps we went, as Freres Street turned into Casa Nova Street. At the very bottom, we turned left onto Greek Patriarchate Street, lined with small second-floor balconies. Called mashrabiya (oriel windows in English), they are an element of Arabic architecture that has been in use for hundreds of years. According to Ben Badis, they are most often found on the street side of a building, but often very fancy mashrabiya that give an indication of their owner’s wealth are constructed inside the home facing the courtyard.
Historically these protruding balconies had several functions. In the hot countries where they are common, they would let air into the home. They also permitted women to watch the street without being seen by passersby. And at one time, said Ben Badis, women would let a pail down from the balcony, collect wares from a merchant, and pull the pail back up.
The splendid Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is just past the oriel windows, on the right side of the lovely arch. Groups need prior permission to enter, but if there are only a few of you and you come in the morning, you will probably be allowed inside.
Not only does the patriarchate contain a monastery, living quarters, offices and a church, it also boasts the only school in Israel where many of the classes are taught in Greek. In earlier times, the massive gate was kept closed, opening only for a camel or horse packed with merchandise. People entered by way of a tufach – a little opening that one had to stoop down to enter. Bowing down as one came in was a way of showing respect to an honored site. At one time, there were huge nails in the gate, to keep assailants at bay. More recently, these were rubbed off with a huge disc, so visitors wouldn’t hurt themselves.
We walked through the compound and climbed up to the rooftop for a view of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built on foundations of a house of worship erected in the fourth century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was vastly expanded by the Crusaders hundreds of years later. It is here, according to Christian belief, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried.
Constructed atop remains from the eighthcentury Church of St. Maria Latina, the nearby Church of the Redeemer was a project of Emperor Wilhelm II. Not only did he dedicate it in 1898, but he may have designed the church’s august belltower.
The golden-topped Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount is frequently called the Mosque of Omar. But Omar, the ruling caliph at the time the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, had nothing to do with the structure’s construction. And its real founder, Abed El Malik, erected it not as a mosque, but as a monument that would provide a suitable shrine for the rock from which – according to Muslim tradition – Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
However, there was an actual Mosque of Omar right next to where we were standing, almost close enough to touch. Like other Muslims, Omar revered many of the Old Testament’s most significant personalities. He also honored the holy sites – including the peak on which Solomon had erected his magnificent Temple. Upon ascending to Mount Moriah, Omar was enraged to find the esplanade overflowing with trash. He ordered the rubbish removed, and some sources say he cleared it with his own hands.
When it was time for prayer, 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 were he to accept, Muslims might immediately ravish this most important of Christian sites and replace it with a mosque dedicated to Islam. All he requested was a small area in which to pray – called a salah in Arabic.
Long afterward, a mosque and minaret named for Omar were built on the site.
In the short time that we stood on the roof, we heard prayers coming from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Our teacher’s words were drowned out by the Church of the Redeemer’s bells, followed by the muezzin loudly calling worshipers to prayer from the mosque.
“Some visitors are put off by all the noise in this city,” Ben Badis told us. “But isn’t this mixture of sounds really the essence of Jerusalem?” To make this walk circular, continue past the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to the end (Christian Quarter Street). Turn right, and follow the shops to the end, which is David Street, then turn right and climb up to the Jaffa Gate.