Neighborhood Watch: History with style

There are surprisingly few real-estate transactions in trendy Ein Kerem – and prices are steep.

Ein Kerem home 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Anglo-Saxon Real Estate)
Ein Kerem home 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Anglo-Saxon Real Estate)
Ein Kerem is considered one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Jerusalem today.
The desiderata of many of Jerusalem’s moneyed elite, it is green, it is stylish and it has excellent road access to both city and intercity roads, making it practical for those working in Tel Aviv to live there.
Located in the southwestern corner of the capital, it is home to over 350 households as well as monasteries and Christian charitable institutions, which together add up to over 2,000 inhabitants.
Ein Kerem has deep historical roots associated with the early Christian fathers. These have some bearing on the real estate scene, as does the vicinity of Hadassah University Medical Center, built in 1961 on a nearby hill.
According to Christian tradition, the neighborhood was the birthplace of John the Baptist, and it is also associated with the life of the Virgin Mary: The freshwater spring known as Mary’s Spring is where Mary and Elizabeth met. According to the Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth was John the Baptist’s mother and a cousin of Mary’s. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christian pilgrims consider the spring water holy, and they fill bottles from it when they visit. Baron Edmond de Rothschild repaired and renovated the spring.
This link to leading figures in the Christian faith led to the establishment of a large number of churches and monasteries, and the area is a place of pilgrimage for Christians. Nearly two million people, half of them pilgrims from overseas, visit these sites each year.
However, Ein Kerem’s history predates Christianity; it was already inhabited in pre-biblical times. As was the case in many settlements of antiquity, it was the spring, a source of freshwater essential to life, that attracted the first settlers, and the area was continuously inhabited for thousands of years afterward.
Archeologists have found pottery dating to the Middle Bronze Age. The Bible mentions Ein Kerem in the books of Jeremiah and Nehemiah. During excavations in the area, archeologists found a marble statue of Aphrodite dating from the Roman era in Judea, broken in two. Historians believe it was probably vandalized by fanatical Byzantine Christians when they ruled Palestine. The statue is now in the Rockefeller Museum.
Ein Kerem remained an important village during the Arab conquests in the seventh century. The Crusaders called it St. Jehan de Bois, and a tax census after the Turkish Empire conquered Palestine in the late 16th century showed 29 families, all Muslim, inhabiting the village. According to the British census of 1931, the village had a population of 2,637, and there were 3,180 inhabitants in 1945.
In 1948, the population dropped to zero for a time.
During the War of Independence, Ein Kerem was a base for Arab guerrillas who attacked convoys bringing food water and other supplies to Jerusalem. After Israel conquered the area, the inhabitants fled and were prevented from returning after the end of hostilities.
After the war, Israel incorporated the village within Jerusalem’s boundaries.
Ein Kerem was one of the few depopulated Arab villages around Jerusalem that survived the war with most of their buildings intact. New immigrants of limited means resettled the abandoned homes.
Over the years, the capital’s artistic set “discovered” Ein Kerem and started to buy up old houses, which the owners were more than willing to sell because at that time, in the ’70s and ’80s, the neighborhood was something of a real estate backwater. Later, affluent Jerusalemites started buying, and with good reason: Ein Kerem was a prosperous village where the houses were large and spacious, with thick walls and arched ceilings. Those houses were meticulously and expensively restored into often stunning palatial residences.
Janet Amitai, the manager-proprietor of the Re/Max Agam real-estate agency for the area, tells In Jerusalem that there are unusually few transactions in the area, since owners will not sell.
“Whatever comes into the market is snapped up, despite the fact that prices are very high,” she says.
“The price for a single-family house can cost upward of NIS 6 million, depending on the size of the plot.
Some of these large houses were subdivided into flats, and the price of these properties is much lower.”
Any one laying out NIS 6m. for a property will probably want to adapt it to his or her needs, and this can add substantially more to the cost.
Most of these houses have already been restored, so the “adaptation” costs will be minimal, but anyone planning major changes has to be willing to part with large sums of money. The planning authorities are reluctant to grant permits to change the exteriors of the buildings, but even making changes to the interior, where walls are thick and strong, is neither cheap nor easy. •
• A 250-square-meter Arab house on a 600-sq.m. plot sold for NIS 6 million. This property has two floors: An upper floor was added to the original house such that the new blended with the old.
• The top floor of an old Arab house with a floor area of 120 sq.m. sold for NIS 4m. The house is on a 750-sq.m. plot. One of the selling points of this property was its excellent views of the surrounding area.
• A 120-sq.m. Arab house in need of renovation on a 900-sq.m. plot sold for NIS 5.8m.
• In the ’80s, a few semidetached residences were built. One of these, with a floor area of 110 sq.m. on a 300-sq.m. plot, sold for NIS 2.25m.