Walls great and small

This week’s walk features an elegant 19th-century villa, a striking cathedral, three monuments, a world-renowned pottery workshop and a famous tomb.

pottery shop 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
pottery shop 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
During King Herod’s reign (37 BCE to 4 CE) and for decades afterwards, Jerusalem expanded greatly to the north. This left the new neighborhoods unprotected, and in 41 CE, soon after becoming king, Herod’s grandson Agrippa began building a wall that would incorporate them into the city. The design called for such a massive structure that after examining the foundations, Agrippa began to worry. What if Roman Emperor Claudius got a look at the wall and thought Agrippa was planning a revolt? Construction on the wall came to a screeching halt just about the time that Agrippa experienced a sudden demise.
If Agrippa had completed the wall, could it really have held off the Romans? Decide for yourself on this week’s Street Stroll, which also features an elegant 19th-century villa, a striking cathedral, three monuments, a world-renowned pottery workshop and a famous tomb. If you like, you can end your jaunt at my favorite humous joint in Sheikh Jarrah.
Begin next to the Sa’id and Sa’ad Mosque at the corner of Naomi Kis Street and Nablus Road and cross Naomi Kis over to the yellow (not the green-and-white!) gas station. What remains of Agrippa’s wall is found in front of the station, shaded by olive trees. Josephus called this the Third Wall, and that is how it is known today. Two other walls surrounded other parts of the city at the time – the Old Wall and the Middle Wall.
During the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), Jewish defenders of Jerusalem did their best to finish the wall. Unfortunately, it was not sturdy enough to hold off Roman battering rams.
As you cross the narrow adjacent street to Nablus Road on the other side, you pass a plaza hugging the guard booth of the nowdefunct American consulate. The plaza has a monument to the 25 paratroopers of the 28th Battalion who were killed in action along Nablus Road during the Six Day War.
A second memorial wall stands on the opposite side of the plaza. Who would have thought, in those heady days when this monument was erected, that there would be the need for a second, newer wall inscribed with the names of soldiers from the battalion who have fallen in Israel’s wars since 1967? Now head for No. 14 Nablus Road, across from the empty consulate, and ring the bell outside the Palestinian Pottery. This amazing enterprise belongs to the Balians, descendants of master potter Neshan Balian. The Balian and Karkashian families were brought to Jerusalem in 1917 from Kutahya, Turkey, to renovate the ceramic tiles at the Dome of the Rock. Five years later they established the first Armenian Pottery in Jerusalem. The two families parted ways some decades later, with the Balians remaining on Nablus Road.
You won’t find the Balians’ fabulous designs and handiwork in the Old City marketplace; their creations are sold only at this shop (and on their website, http://armenianceramics.com).
Sitting at the table in the store is Marie Balian, a renowned ceramic tile artist whose works have been exhibited all over the world – from the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. She is currently preparing an exhibit for an institute in Paris.
WHEN YOU leave, turn right to continue north on Nablus Road.
On your left, the east Jerusalem YMCA now includes the elegant Legacy Hotel. Past the British Council and the Nazarene Church, you come to a villa at No. 35. A prayer center is housed in this historic building, constructed in 1890 in what was an early Arab neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City.
The house was sold to a couple from the American Colony in 1904. In 1930, when Swedish consul Lewis Larsson moved in with his family, it became the Swedish Consulate. In May 1947, UNSCOP (United Nations Special Commission on Palestine) came to Jerusalem, and since Sweden was one of the countries on the commission, several meetings were held at this villa.
In 1969 the Baptist Convention in Israel purchased the building and operated it as a center for Christian students. On the top floor, scholars translated the New Testament from Greek into modern Hebrew. The old building was renovated in 2008, and the second story now features an unusual, interactive prayer room.
Cross the street and walk a few dozen meters to one of Jerusalem’s most distinctive landmarks: St. George’s Cathedral, dating back to 1898. The center for the Anglican Church in the Middle East, this classic neo-Gothic edifice and the extraordinarily impressive buildings in the cathedral enclosure would fit easily into a traditional English countryside.
A lone Byzantine pillar stands in the center of a courtyard dominated by vaulted arcades. The column is capped with a cannonball and surmounted by a cross, representing the victory of Christianity over war. Positioned around the courtyard are the bishop’s residence, a delightful guest house, the cathedral and a splendid tower that was completed in 1910. The latter was named for King Edward VII, a genial patron of the arts who died that same year.
Interestingly, the 33-meter-high square tower with its four pointed turrets was purposely not attached to the church. It was planned that way by the architect, who feared the consequences of interdependence should there be an earthquake. The tower’s three bells are sounded for the daily Angelus (a historic call to prayer), as well as on solemn occasions.
A combination of massive stone walls, arches and the warm, dark woodwork in the ceiling and the pulpit contribute to the cathedral’s uplifting ambience. An Austrian organ is housed in a beautifully carved wooden structure at the rear of the church. Anglican congregations from Iraq and the Gulf states contributed a new pulpit to replace the original Irish stand destroyed by a mortar shell during Israel’s War of Independence.
One wall of the church holds the British royal coat of arms which, until 1948, hung in the seat of the British high commissioner at Government House.
When the British Mandate ended in 1948, the coat of arms was deposited here, in the last bastion of English domination over mandatory Palestine.
When you leave, turn right. Cross at the corner and continue left on Nablus Road to the American Colony Hotel. You are about to explore one of the first houses outside the Old City walls, dating back to the mid-1860s.
The rich effendi who built this palatial residence fitted it with beautifully decorated chambers for himself and for each of his four wives. At first completely isolated in the wastelands, the dwelling was eventually incorporated into the aristocratic neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that grew up around it. A splendid inner courtyard – today an exclusive restaurant – provided privacy for the villa’s inhabitants and a measure of protection from outside attack.
When the effendi died, he left no male heir to take over the historic villa. It stood empty for decades, until it was rented to a communal group of Protestants originally from Chicago. Commonly known as the American Colony, the group was led by Anna and Horatio Spafford, a couple that had experienced great personal tragedy.
Before they came to Jerusalem, the Spaffords lived in a beautiful home in Chicago. In 1873 Anna and the four Spafford daughters left on a trip to Europe, but their ship collided with another vessel. The four girls perished, but Anna was saved. More children were born to the Spaffords after this catastrophe, but one of them died of disease. The family moved to the Holy City hoping to find respite from their sorrows.
The pioneer group reached the Holy Land in 1881 and moved into lodgings within the Old City walls.
But when dozens of Swedes joined the colony in 1896, the living quarters became far too crowded for comfort. That’s when the American Colony relocated to the late effendi’s splendid villa outside the walls.
At first it had been quite a struggle to find financing for the colony’s modest daily requirements, as well as for the help the group proffered to needy Jerusalemites. Once joined by Swedish farmers, blacksmiths and expert craftsmen, however, the colony became solvent and even began to prosper. With a new bakery, blacksmith shop, dairy and a photography business, it was almost completely self-sufficient.
And eventually new vistas opened up.
The colony began taking in paying guests at the beginning of the 20th century, doubling up to make room for out-of-town visitors. Little by little, the American Colony Hotel became famous for its combination of European and Middle Eastern hospitality and ambience.
Note the beautiful original stone floors as you enjoy unique and touching exhibits. Then take stairs to a second story that features an open sitting room from which you can gaze up at the exquisite painted wooden ceiling.
BACK ON the road, turn right and continue down the street. There is a gas station on your left and construction on your right. Stop across from the Al-Kana’a Grocery, just before the turn for the Tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, and climb a few steps to a second monument from the Six Day War. This one is dedicated to 11 soldiers from the 71st Battalion who fought and died in Sheikh Jarrah and on the ridges of Mount Scopus in the battle for Jerusalem. In 1985, a new wall was added, inscribed with the names of soldiers from the battalion who fell in later years.
Your last point of interest is the traditional burial site of Shimon Hatzadik, a Jewish high priest during the time of the Second Temple. Many are the stories and legends around Shimon Hatzadik, but he is most famous for his maxim that the world stands on three things: Torah, divine worship and acts of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2).
To visit this unprepossessing tomb, turn at the sign, take the left fork and turn left into the parking lot.
End your tour, if you like, with humous, pita and chopped salad. Return to Nablus Road, turn right, cross the intersection and continue straight ahead up a short hill next to the Automatic Grocery. Stop at the tiny eatery on your right.
Then begin the long trek back to where you started.