Head for the rooftops

Some of the capital’s best views can be seen – for free – from the Old City.

Old City views 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Old City views 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Ever notice how exhausted you can get after even a short visit to the Old City? Yet the entire area within the walls is only one square kilometer. Perhaps what wears out visitors is the congestion: The Old City’s historic sites, markets, shops and homes are packed as closely together as sardines in a tin can.
This Pessah, why not try a more relaxing tour of the Old City? Head for the rooftops – for spectacular views, fascinating historical tidbits and good, clean air? And it’s all free.
Start on Maronite Convent Street, located next to the Immanuel Gift Shop inside Jaffa Gate. The quaint little byway passes a guest house belonging to the Maronite Christians, a sect based in Lebanon and the only Eastern Catholic Church without an Orthodox counterpart. On Monday through Saturday you are permitted inside, where you can go up to the roof for a stupendous view of the Old City. It is possible the guest house will be closed for Easter. If so, be sure to return some other time.
Turn right onto St. Mark’s Street, towards the Lutheran Hostel (third door on the left). Ring the bell to enter, and ask to visit the gardens that lead to a view in which the golden Dome of the Rock seems close enough to touch. A tall, cream-colored bell tower and black dome on your left belong to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, constructed in 1898 for the visit of Emperor Wilhelm II. In the distance, you can see the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, Brigham Young Mormon University sprawling on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, Augusta Victoria Church and the tall tower of the Russian Ascension Church.
After reveling in the lush tranquility of the gardens, continue left on St. Mark’s Street to reach a metal staircase. Take it up to the Rooftop Promenade, which tops the Arab markets and offers a view of three Old City Quarters: the two domes atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Redeemer, and the reddish Church of Alexander Nevsky in the Christian Quarter; the Muslim Quarter below and in front of you; and to your right, the modern buildings of the Jewish Quarter.
Angular tin roofs cover skylights that were opened by the Crusaders when they renovated the market in the 12th century. Bend down for a look inside, where shoppers and shopkeepers mingle.
A building with a red tiled roof is the Galicia Kollel, an institute for studying the Jewish Sources. Jews in Galicia purchased a large plot of land here in 1830, and for about a century scholars and their families lived here and worshiped in their Zion Hametzuyenet Synagogue.
After Arab riots in 1936 destroyed their house of worship and it became too dangerous to remain, the kollel was abandoned. It was rebuilt in 1982, and the students and their families have returned.
For an unusual vantage point, make your way carefully past the end of the promenade and look left. You will be standing above Painters’ Market Street, enjoying the multicolored hustle and bustle from a safe distance.
Cross the promenade all the way back to the beginning, descend the metal steps and make a sharp right.
Follow the road to the end, turn right, and at the second alley, which is Al-Attarin Street (Shuk Habesamim, in Hebrew), head left. Continue to a large sign that reads “Hebron Hostel” and turn right to descend picturesque Aqabat et Takiya Street (Ma’alot Hamidrasha in Hebrew). Splashes of color on walls, courtyards and doors, often depicting palm trees or a crescent moon and a star – the symbol of Islam – indicate that the owners of these houses have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The design on buildings with a beautiful striped red-and-white masonry, sometimes interspersed with black stones as well, is called ablak. They date back to the Mamelukes, who ruled Israel from the mid-13th century until 1516.
AT THE next main junction (El Wad Street, or Rehov Hagai in Hebrew), turn left. Pass through a market fragrant with spices and baked goods and lined with pillows, purses, dresses and gifts. When you come out into the open air, continue past Via Dolorosa Street on your left and the “real” Abu Shukri restaurant across the road. Walk to a brown double door and ring the bell.
This is the Austrian Hospice, built in 1863 by the Austrian Catholic Church as the first national pilgrims’ house to appear in the Holy Land. At the time it was fairly small, with only a ground-floor lobby and first-floor rooms. But that’s really all that was needed: in the beginning only 20 pilgrims a year actually stayed there overnight. Business picked up in 1869, when Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph traveled to the Holy Land after attended the opening of Egypt’s Suez Canal. And by the beginning of the 20th century, there was so much demand that an entire second story was added to the building.
After World War I, the British commandeered the guest house and used it as a training camp for policemen. Later, following the division of Jerusalem in 1948, the Jordanians seized the building and turned it into a hospital for the Arabs of the Old City.
In 1987, after major repairs were made, the Austrian Hospice reopened and flourished, especially as its Viennese Coffee Shop claims to be the only place in Israel that offers a variety of imported Austrian coffees. It is often packed with visitors stuffing themselves on genuine (and inexpensive) apfelstrudel, Sachertorte and Linzertorte served with whipped cream. Climb to the rooftop for a stupendous view of the Old City.
Next, backtrack to Via Dolorosa Street and ascend. When you reach the seventh station of the Via Dolorosa (the site reads “VII”), turn left. Walk through the market until you come to a large staircase on your right (a small sign from the ceiling reads “Mike’s Center”). Ascend, and at the end of the walkway, pass through the gate on your left. You have reached a roof that has no view but is notable for its amazing history.
This is one of the roofs atop the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Twenty Ethiopian monks live in the extremely humble dwellings you see around you. Ethiopian monks have been residing on the roof since 326, when Byzantine Queen Helena is believed to have identified the True Cross. The monks graciously permitted her to build a chapel on the site, asking only for accommodations on the roof, which became Deir a- Sultan, or Solomon’s Monastery.
For 1,700 years the monks’ fortunes waxed and waned, depending on the politics of the time and Ethiopia’s wealth and influence or lack thereof. By the end of the 19th century, Jerusalem's once prestigious Ethiopian community had sunk into abject poverty, unable to pay the high property taxes demanded by the ruling Turks. Finally they erected these miserable shacks in which to live, and they guard their homes and two tiny adjacent chapels with their lives. To move out would be unthinkable, say the monks, for others would immediately confiscate their holdings.
Walk to the far end of the roof and duck under the low ceiling of an entrance to St. Michael’s Ethiopian Chapel. An enormous painting on the wall depicts Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba.
Interestingly, in the painting there are hassidic Jews among the crowd, while Solomon sports a Star of David around his neck.
You will descend into the plaza in front of the Crusader-built Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Open daily to visitors, it is a good place for people-watching. When you finish with the church, stand with your back to the entrance and take the steps that ascend to the right. At the end, turn left onto Christian Quarter Road. At David Street, the main byway that descends into the marketplace, take a right and climb up to Jaffa Gate.