Walking the ramparts of history

From sultry Mossad stories to classic battles of King Herod, there are several possible walking routes along the Old City walls.

Ramparts atop the Old City walls jerusalem 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Ramparts atop the Old City walls jerusalem 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In 1967, Israel began preparing for what became the Six Day War. At the time, Jerusalem was a divided city, and the country’s leaders realized that they lacked information about Jordanian positions on the ramparts atop the Old City walls. But how to lure the soldiers out of hiding so the army could see where they were stationed? Officers came up with a creative solution: They arranged for a shapely Israeli girl to stand on a balcony in the Mamilla neighborhood, across from the Old City walls, and slowly and provocatively to remove her clothing. As Jordanian soldiers exposed themselves in a rush to get a good view, Israeli forces were able to photograph their positions.
Assuming that this was but one of a multitude of Israeli legends, a guide told the story during a tour he was leading at a battle site from the Six Day War. To his astonishment, a woman on the tour declared that every word of the tale was true. She should know, she said, because she was the girl whose job it had been to lure the soldiers out of hiding! Soldiers are no longer stationed on the ramparts patrolling the walls. Today, tourists and Jerusalemites stroll atop those walls for a firsthand view of both old and new Jerusalem.
There are several possible rampart routes. Our favorite is the section between Jaffa Gate and Zion Gate – a short walk, but an exciting one that offers an excellent view of Mamilla. (Please note: This is a great family walk, but it involves climbing dozens of steep steps.) From Jaffa Gate, you first head for the back entrance of the Citadel (also known as the Tower of David) and look for the sign at the far end leading to the wall promenade (tayelet hahomot). After descending a few steps and paying your fee, you will end up in the dry, partially built and partially hewn moat that surrounded the Citadel. Directly in front of you will be part of the city wall from the sixth century CE; behind you, a slanted wall called a glacis, meant to prevent battering rams and siege machines from getting too near.
A staircase leads up to the ramparts themselves, which were constructed in 1538 during Suleiman’s restoration of the ancient walls. At the top, there is a sort of plaza that offers a view of the Kishle, from the Turkish word for “barracks.”
The Kishle is located on the site believed to have housed King Herod’s magnificent palace 2,000 years ago. During the Ottoman period, it served as a jail, and today it is a police station. Not too long ago, Jerusalem’s mounted police used the courtyard as a riding paddock.
Back on the ramparts, you will immediately come to the first of the walls’ several dozen fortified towers. You will find them at regular intervals of 80 to 100 meters, more or less the range of an arrow. If you stand right next to the first tower and gaze straight ahead, you can see two more a short distance away.
Because the city walls were thick, it was impossible for a guard on the walkway to view what was happening immediately below unless he leaned over a breach in the ramparts. From these little towers, however, which were higher than the walls, they could get a much better look. You can try it as you stand there, to discover recently excavated ruins of walls and fortifications dating from the Second Temple period to the Arab and Crusader eras.
At this point, you may notice that you are often walking between two walls. The stone wall on the left was built by soldiers of the Jordanian Arab Legion after the division of Jerusalem in 1948. Combined with the city wall on the right, it formed a communication trench connecting various military positions. Until the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, fortifications also included a metal roof and a thick overlying layer of sand.
The towers, meanwhile, provide a tremendous view of new Jerusalem. The King David Hotel is unmistakable; so are the strange domes of the posh David’s Village development, situated on top of what was once the Mamilla neighborhood (the Mamilla Mall is across the road).
In its heyday, Mamilla was Jerusalem’s main business district, and during the roaring ’20s, bordellos and casinos stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the neighborhood’s exclusive shops. But because Mamilla was so close to the Old City, it was particularly vulnerable to attacks from hostile Arabs.
On November 29, 1947, the night that Jews celebrated the United Nations decision to partition Palestine, Arab rioters and looters engulfed Mamilla. The British police made no effort to intervene, but fortunately for those in the neighborhood, the mobs dispersed when several Hagana squads came to the rescue.
From 1948 to 1967 – the 19 years during which the city was divided – Jordanian soldiers sniped at Jewish neighborhoods from high atop these ramparts. The once-prosperous Mamilla, already partially destroyed in the riots, quickly turned into a slum. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, after a massive overhaul and with the appearance of a fashionable residential area, it has returned to its former glory.
As you continue, the large building you will see on your left is the Armenian Theological Seminary.
Behind the seminary, a gray dome with a cross tops the Armenian Cathedral of St. James. This is the Armenian Quarter.
Since the fourth century CE, there has been an unbroken Armenian presence in Jerusalem. Armenia was the first nation in the world to officially accept Christianity (in the year 301). Continually subject to persecution and oppression, the Armenian nation was devastated between 1894 and 1922, when the Turks slaughtered over a million people. Although the Armenian Quarter originally housed mainly monks and nuns, it opened its gates to thousands of refugees who fled to Jerusalem after being expelled from their homes in 1915.
Life in this quarter revolves around church institutions, and residents here live behind locked gates. This not only separates the Armenians from all their neighbors, but also keeps them safe at night.
Within the complex, there are about 2,000 people, making it possibly the only monastery compound in the world with a grocery store, nursery school and entertainment.
As you continue, you will soon have a good view, to your right, of the Sultan’s Pool – part of the Hinnom Valley, which served as a natural border between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, according to the Bible: “The boundary went down to the foot of the hill facing the Valley of Ben Hinnom, north of the Valley of Refaim. It continued down the Hinnom Valley along the southern slope of the Jebusite city and so to En Rogel” (Joshua 18:16).
On the other side of the valley are the red-roofed houses of Yemin Moshe. To their left stand the newly restored historic windmill and the elongated buildings of Mishkenot Sha’ananim – the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the Old City in 1860.
Next along the route is Mount Zion. There are several Christian cemeteries there, but the one closest to the ramparts belongs to the Catholics. Buried within is Irishman Christopher Costigan, who sailed from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea in 1835. While researching holy sites near the Dead Sea, he contracted malaria and was brought to the Franciscan Convent on Mount Zion. A tongue of land that protrudes into the southern portion of the Dead Sea is called Cape Costigan after the young explorer, who died of his illness at the age of 25.
During the Byzantine period, many Christian traditions arose, among them the belief that Mary wasn’t dead. Instead, like all the saints, she lay deep in eternal sleep. Mary’s crypt was believed to have been on Mount Zion.
German emperor Wilhelm II visited Israel in 1898, and the Turkish Sultan presented him with a plot of land on Mount Zion to build a Catholic church. The German Benedictine Order erected the splendid, massive Dormition Abbey – beginning construction in 1906 and finishing in 1910 – over the Byzantine church that housed Mary’s crypt.
Beautiful mosaics decorate the church’s upper hall, while brilliant blue stained-glass windows add a stunning color to the interior of the church. The basement crypt features a life-size statue of Mary lying in eternal rest. Made of cherry wood and ivory, the impressive figure is bathed in the glow of burning wax candles.
Next to the impressive abbey stands a unique clock tower. From this particular vantage point, it is easy to pretend that you are looking at the face of a Prussian soldier, complete with helmet, eyes and nose. Some say that if you happen to view it at just the right angle at night, the clock looks exactly like the emperor Wilhelm himself.
After ascending the stairs ahead of you, you can look left to view foot and vehicular traffic heading to and from Jaffa Gate on the road below. All of the buildings on the left, as you continue, belong to the Armenians.
So you should keep your eyes on the quarter; as it is not open to casual visitors, this may be your only chance to get a glimpse of daily life within. Perhaps you will see people milling about, or boys shooting hoops on the basketball court that sits next to the magnificent Armenian monastery.
Soon you will be privy to an unusual view of Zion Gate. A plaque inside the gate and numerous bullet holes on its exterior bear witness to a successful Israeli attempt to reach the besieged and beleaguered Jewish residents of the Old City on May 18, 1948.
Unfortunately, however, most of the soldiers were withdrawn, and the handful of Jewish defenders who remained could not hold out against the might of the Jordanian army. On May 28, the Jewish Quarter was forced to capitulate to the Jordanian Legion.
On your way back to Jaffa Gate, you can make a few stops. Several shops feature beautiful Armenian tiles, and for an added treat, you can stop in at the Armenian Church – the courtyard is always open to visitors.
Ramparts winter hours: Saturday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This particular route is also open Fridays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.Fee: Adults NIS 16; seniors, children and soldiers NIS 8.