Neighborhood Watch: Outside the walls

Once home to poor former residents of the Old City, Yemin Moshe is now one of Jerusalem’s most expensive neighborhoods.

Yemin Moshe (photo credit: Courtesy Anglo Saxon)
Yemin Moshe
(photo credit: Courtesy Anglo Saxon)
Yemin Moshe is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem to be built beyond the walls of the Old City. In ancient times, there were suburbs beyond the city walls, but there were none from the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE to when work began on Yemin Moshe in 1839.
The neighborhood’s name roughly translates to “the right hand of Moshe” – referring to Sir Moses Montefiore, one of the most influential Jews in the 19th century and one of the pillars of the British financial and commercial establishment. Besides being one of the richest men in Britain, he was also one of the most generous philanthropists in the empire, which at that time encompassed a quarter of the world. He gave large sums of money to alleviate poverty in Britain and its settlements overseas, and he was heavily involved in Jewish causes. The czar received him in person when Montefiore petitioned him on behalf of the Jews in the Russian Empire.
Montefiore visited the Holy Land several times during his life and donated large sums of money to promote Jewish projects in Palestine – including the money to purchase the land on which Yemin Moshe stands, and to build the houses. Planning started in 1837, and by 1839 the first houses were being built: 28 modest dwellings of one comparatively large room and a smaller one – what today’s realtors would call a room and a half.
In Palestine during the first half of the 19th century, brigandage was a fact of life. The Old City gates were closed at sunset, and those who had to spend the night outside were lucky to be alive in the morning.
Consequently the whole Yemin Moshe compound had a high wall surrounding it, and a gate that closed at nightfall.
Even with these security measures, it was not easy to persuade people to leave their homes in the Old City, which were cramped and unhealthy but perceived as safe. The new compound also had a water cistern with an iron pump imported from the UK – a novelty in early 19th-century Jerusalem – as well as a mikve (ritual bath) and a communal oven.
The new neighborhood was extended in 1866 when a cholera epidemic broke out in the Old City. Some of the people who took up residence in Yemin Moshe refused to stay there at night for fear of marauders, but that year saw the neighborhood take off. The overall security situation in the surrounding areas improved, and the fear of living outside the city walls subsided.
It is easy to recognize Yemin Moshe by the large windmill of the same name. Although the windmill seemed like a promising idea at the time, it was never actually used, mainly because there were no strong winds in the area to move its sails.
Yemin Moshe went through a difficult time during the War of Independence. Enemy forces had it surrounded for months during 1948. After the cease-fire with Jordan, the area was too near the cease-fire lines for comfort, especially since it was just under the guns of the Jordanian Arab Legion on the city walls.
As a result, the neighborhood was completely abandoned for the next 19 years, until the Six Day War.
In the wake of 1967, all of Jerusalem became part of Israel, and historical Yemin Moshe underwent extensive renovations. In the last four decades, it has become a center for artists, writers and foreign residents attracted by its history and outstanding architectural features. Its beautiful gardens, cobbled alleys and breathtaking urban views all add to its attraction.
The architecture of the neighborhood remains aesthetically much the same as it was at the turn of the century. There are strict building codes, and detailed architectural regulations and permits are necessary for any renovation work so as to preserve the historical character of the neighborhood.
The homes in the now-upscale area are some of the most expensive in today’s real-estate market. The population has changed from the poor former residents of the Old City to one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest sectors, with a significant percentage of foreign owners who use their residences as both permanent and holiday homes.
According to Moshe Bavani, a real estate agent with the Anglo Saxon brokerage in Jerusalem, those buying real estate in Yemin Moshe “are usually overseas buyers looking for something special, something extraordinary, a museum piece, a historical piece of Jerusalem with the means to indulge their whims.”
Such people, he continues, “are willing to pay the very hefty price and put up with the inconveniences of living in a historical area. Most people willing to dish out a few million dollars for a home want to adapt it to their needs. [But] this adaptation can turn into a nightmare, due to the strict enforcement of building regulations. Those who buy in Yemin Moshe are also willing to walk the streets with steps between them and parking areas at a distance from their homes.”
He explains that living in the historical neighborhood “is a status symbol, and the urban view of the old city walls is unmatched.”
Restorative architect Kobi Kantor tells In Jerusalem that any restoration work has to be authorized by the municipal planning authorities.
“It is strictly forbidden to make any alterations to the exterior of the building, the façade, the roof, etc.,” he says. “[The authorities] are much less strict with the inside, but no internal restoration work [is allowed to] destroy historical artifacts such as arched roofs, and no internal restoration work can make any changes in the windows or doors.”
Prices in Yemin Moshe start at $10,000 per square meter and can reach as high as $15,000 per sq.m. for the more distinctive, renovated corner homes. The homes in the neighborhood were built in rows, so the two corner units have the advantage of having windows on three sides – meaning more air and more light. There are only about 100 apartments in the area, and turnover is sparse. But when a property comes onto the market, there is no lack of buyers, even though a large renovated residence can cost some $3 million.