Three religions, one trail

A walk along Hagai Street takes you from Damascus Gate, through the Via Dolorosa, to the Kotel Hakatan.

Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
During the Ottoman rule of Israel, Jews were permitted to frequent only a small section of the Western Wall, and the British went so far as to refuse permission to blow the shofar for fear of Arab reaction. Even today, women experience humiliating and denigrating treatment at this most sacred of Jewish sites.
But there is a section of the Western Wall far closer to the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount than the traditional site of prayer, that is perhaps that much more sacred. It is called the Kotel Hakatan (Small Western Wall) and is open to all. There is even room there for notes to God, while at the traditional site every nook and cranny is crammed full with tiny scraps of paper.
Stop at this major site on a Street Stroll that takes you along Hagai Street (or al-Wad Street in Arabic) as far as Sha’ar Habarzel Street (or Bab al-Hadid Street) and the Kotel Hakatan. On the way, have fun in the markets, enter historic buildings, delight in a gorgeous view and learn a surprising fact about a famous American author.
Begin at the bustling Damascus Gate open-air market, open most of the week and offering anything from tennis shoes to electric kettles. Called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew, the gate faces north and the in the past a road there led directly to Nablus (Shechem) and Damascus. During the Byzantine period this was known as St. Stephen’s Gate, since according to Christian tradition, the martyr Stephen was dragged out of the city through this gate and stoned to death somewhere on the other side of today’s road.
Its Arabic name, however, is Bab al-Amud – Gate of the Pillar, since when the Arabs conquered the city, they found a giant column topped with a full statue of Roman Emperor Hadrian standing in the center of Damascus Gate’s inner plaza.
There is a small entrance to the right of the gate (your left) below today’s street level. Flanked by two massive, broken columns, it was part of a monumental triple victory arch built in 135 CE after Hadrian crushed the Bar- Kochba Revolt, turned Jerusalem into the Roman city called Aelia Capitolina and renamed the Land of Israel “Palestine.”
From the street there is a fairly steep descent to the gate. Once inside, you will find you descend even further.
That is because you are walking between two hills and down into the main wadi (valley) cutting through the Old City. The valley exits the Old City at Dung Gate, and “flows” into the Kidron riverbed. Called Hagai (the wadi) in Hebrew, it is also known by its Greek name of Tyropeon, or Cheesemakers’ Valley.
At the bottom of your descent, take Hagai Street’s left branch and continue on. Hadrian blocked up the northern portion of the valley, where the flow of water was most shallow, and created the street along which you are strolling today.
You will find this byway bursting with colorful shops, from women’s clothing stores to sweet-smelling spice stands, and you will rub shoulders with people from every possible walk of life. Look up to see houses built on the arches that cross the road. Then find a plain brown door, topped by a Star of David, across from the Jerusalem Star restaurant just before the second arch; there is another door under the house itself. The doors lead into the building where eight families connected to the national-religious Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva live today.
This particular house is three stories high and was purchased by Moshe Wittenberg in 1884 from the Latin patriarch – who bought it from its Christian Arab owner.
Before that, for a short period in the mid-1860s, it operated as the Mediterranean Hotel. Among its lodgers were famous archeologist Charles Warren and, in 1867, American author Mark Twain. More recently, former prime minister Ariel Sharon resided in an apartment there with his late wife, Lily. As soon as you pass under the arch, look back to see a large Israeli flag hanging between two windows.
CONTINUE ALONG the road. Located on the corner at the end of the wall on your left, the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family is a slice of Europe that offers elegance, tranquility and delicious Viennese delights. Ring the bell next to the big brown door, and enter.
The Austrian Hospice was the first national pilgrims’ house to appear in the Holy Land. It was built in 1863 by the Austrian Catholic Church at a time when pilgrims had just begun coming to the Holy Land. At the time it was fairly small, with only a ground-floor lobby and firstfloor rooms. But that is really all that was needed; in the beginning only 20 pilgrims a year stayed there overnight.
The Austrian Hospice was the first national pilgrims’ house to appear in the Holy Land. It was built in 1863 by the Austrian Catholic Church at a time when pilgrims had just begun coming to the Holy Land. At the time it was fairly small, with only a ground-floor lobby and firstfloor rooms. But that is really all that was needed; in the beginning only 20 pilgrims a year stayed there overnight.
Then in 1869, after attending the opening of Egypt’s Suez Canal, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I traveled to the Holy Land. He did so as a simple pilgrim, symbolically removing his jewelry and crown for his entire three-week stay at the hospice. Soon afterwards, business picked up, 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. Several decades after the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, the Austrian Church renovated the guest house and again began receiving lodgers.
Besides the cool, quiet ambience of the hospice, visitors enjoy a fabulous view from the roof (the elevator can take you part of the way).
This is also that only place in Israel that offers a variety of imported Austrian coffees, as well as genuine (and inexpensive) apple strudel, Sacher torte and Linzer torte served with whipped cream.
Sometimes called the Way of the Cross or the Way of Sorrow, the Via Dolorosa represents the traditional route that Jesus followed from condemnation to crucifixion. There are 14 stations along the way, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The building on the corner after you leave the hospice houses the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate and the Third Station of the Via Dolorosa; you will find the Fourth Station and the lovely Armenian Catholic Church next door.
Now look for the (questionably spelled) sign above a door on your left that reads: Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim. In 1886 Rabbi Yitzhak Winograd, an immigrant from Pinsk, founded a yeshiva called Torat Haim in the Jewish Quarter. Not long afterwards, so many students wanted to join that it became necessary to expand. Rabbi Winograd decided to buy a bigger place in the Muslim Quarter because so much of the property there was Jewish-owned. Besides, it was closer to the sacred Temple Mount.
Torat Haim suffered at the hands of its Arab neighbors for decades, and students and teachers had to flee the building temporarily during Arab riots and massacres in 1921 and 1929. The riots of 1936- 1939 were catastrophic, and in 1939 they were forced to jump ship.
The only thing they were able to take with them was the Torah scroll; everything else, including a vast library of Jewish sources, was left behind.
An Arab guard hired after the riots continued caring for the yeshiva and protecting its contents even after Israel lost the Old City in 1948 and he stopped receiving a salary. On his death, his brother took over and – wonder of wonders – when Jerusalem was reunited 19 years later and the Jews returned, they found that all of the yeshiva’s contents had been saved from harm. Indeed, this was the only synagogue or yeshiva in the Old City that was not desecrated and destroyed during the years of Jordanian control. Igud Lohamay Jerushalaim (Association of the Veterans of the Battle for Jerusalem) was established a few years later and began restoration of the yeshiva, which belongs, today, to Ateret Cohanim.
CONTINUE AS far as Sha’ar Habarzel Street, passing several more Jewish-owned buildings and an Arab bakery emitting a delectable fragrance. At the corner of Hagai and Sha’ar Habarzel streets, look right to see a plaque in Hebrew. It tells the story of 27-year-old Elhanan Atalia, who was stabbed to death on February 28, 1991, on this very spot and dragged into the building in front of you – Beit Elhanan. A police station is now located a few meters from the corner.
Turn left on Sha’ar Habarzel Street. Ahead of you, the black door belongs to Beit Danon, another building purchased by Jews in 1886.
Today it serves as a synagogue, cultural center and dormitory for students of the yeshiva on Hagai Street.
Note the unusual Mameluke stone work on both sides of this little lane. Originally slaves who were forced into Muslim armies and converted to Islam, the Mamelukes turned the tables on their masters and became rulers themselves. In the mid-13th century they conquered the Holy Land, and ruled here until the Turks took it from them in 1517.
The Mamelukes who lived in Jerusalem chose the Muslim Quarter for its proximity to the Temple Mount. As you can see, they erected elaborately decorated schools and homes using bands of differentcolored stones – mostly red and white, and sometimes black – that are known as avlak.
The Temple Mount is directly behind the green gate, but only Muslims are permitted to pass through. Instead, turn left at the gate and descend three steps, and soon you will see a sign on the left that reads “Small Wailing Wall.” This section of the Western Wall, the Kotel Hakatan, forgotten for decades but far closer to the Holy of Holies than its larger counterpart, is divided into two parts because Arab homes were built with and among some of the stones.
Today the wall area is clean and safe. Leave your note for God, pray here with your family and friends or just take a good look. Then, if you still want to visit the Western Wall, retrace your steps to Hagai Street, turn left, and you will end up at the traditional site. •