Jaunt through Mount Zion

Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter came under Arab siege on December 1, 1947, immediately after the UN decision to partition Palestine.

Dormition Abbey and the adjacent Greek Orthodox Seminary (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Dormition Abbey and the adjacent Greek Orthodox Seminary
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Heinz Bahner was only eight years old when Nazi thugs brutally attacked his father – a decorated hero who fought for Germany in the First World War – because he voted against Hitler in the 1933 elections. The Nazis thrashed young Heinz as well, when he came to his father’s aid.
The boy vowed to himself that the day would come when he would be strong enough to fight. Five years later, on Kristallnacht, Heinz and his father watched helplessly as Nazis burned their Torah scrolls and set their synagogue on fire. Soon afterwards, Youth Aliya brought young Heinz to Palestine; his father perished in the Holocaust.
Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter came under Arab siege on December 1, 1947, immediately after the UN decision to partition Palestine. When the British evacuated Jerusalem on May 13, the quarter was still under siege – and also under heavy Arab attack. The situation was catastrophic, with Jewish residents of the Old City frantic with desperation.
David Shaltiel, commander of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, came up with a strategy for getting troops into the Jewish Quarter: One group – the main force – would enter the Old City through the Citadel, also known as David’s Tower. A second unit would attack Arab-held Mount Zion, located outside the walls, but only as a diversion while the first troops completed their mission.
Yitzhak Rabin and other Palmah officers were convinced that Shaltiel’s proposed assault on the Old City was doomed to failure. But Shaltiel had the final say, and his plan was put into operation on May 17, 1948.
Heinz Bahner – by now a strapping Palmah commander named Uri Ben-Ari – headed the primary diversionary force.
As they made it up the slopes, taking position after position, Ben-Ari was flooded with memories from his German childhood. Filled with resolve to fight to the end, he ignored orders to cause a diversion only, and together with his men conquered Mount Zion.
Which is why, from that day to this, it has been in Jewish hands.
AN UNUSUAL outing on Mount Zion begins at Jaffa Gate and ends nearby. You will see exactly where Shaltiel planned – and failed – to break into the Old City, view memorials, tour traditional Jewish and Christian sites, and explore off-thebeaten- track excavations located on the slopes of the mountain. Note: There are a lot of steps on this stroll.
Cross the road next to Jaffa Gate to reach the back entrance to David’s Tower.
Shaltiel believed that a small opening near the door, covered with an iron grille, was a passageway leading into the very heart of the Citadel. It was his plan to send several armored vehicles filled with soldiers up to Jaffa Gate and, while troops shot at Jordanians defending the Old City, sappers would blow off the grille.
Infantry would then run through the opening and into the Old City.
Unfortunately, they were soon discovered and bombarded with grenades and shells. As casualties mounted, the Jews were forced to retreat. In the end, the only operation that succeeded that night was the conquest of Mount Zion.
Walk through Jaffa Gate, then turn right, passing the Armenian Quarter on your left. Continue to Zion Gate, on your right, and walk through. You have now exited the Old City and are standing on Mount Zion. Here, Jewish soldiers were stationed after their unexpected capture of the mountain. Across from them, only meters away, Zion Gate stood, chained but undefended.
Unexpected though it was, Shaltiel decided to seize the opportunity to reach the Jewish Quarter. Bone-weary troops, having had no rest for days, were ordered to break through the gate and advance 200 meters through enemy territory to be welcomed by their Jewish brethren.
At 3:30 a.m. on May 19, 1948, asleep on their feet, Palmah soldiers succeeded in breaching the gate and reaching the joyful residents of the Jewish Quarter. However, that same day thousands of newly arrived Jordanian Legionnaires began shelling Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City. The troops who had broken in and reached the Jewish Quarter were withdrawn, and the promised reinforcements never materialized.
Much has been written about the senseless quarreling between command posts that led to the tragic loss of the Jewish Quarter. But the upshot was this: the handful of defenders that remained (200 men, women and children) could not hold out against the might of the Jordanian army. Less than two weeks later, on May 28, the Jewish Quarter surrendered to the Jordanian legion. Jerusalem was torn in half, and would remain divided for the next 19 years.
With your back to the gate, turn right and stroll over to a concrete slab stuck in the wall and inscribed with the date 18.7.1948. This was the site of a last-ditch attempt to break into the Old City before a cease-fire was scheduled to take effect.
The operation was known as the Kedem campaign, and Italian-born Prof. Yoel “Giulio” Rakah, head of theoretical physics at the Hebrew University, was charged with preparing the prototype for a special cone-shaped bomb. When it was finished, soldiers threaded two sides of the 150-kilogram bomb with metal bars.
After lugging it up Mount Zion stretcher- style, they approached the target through the Christian cemetery you see across the road and set it down next to the wall. But although the bomb did explode with an ear-splintering crash, the wall was barely scratched.
If you walk a bit further, you reach a very small yet touching monument in memory of Sgt. Shlomo Meir Cohen of the Givati Brigade. Cohen was ambushed by five Arab terrorists as he walked towards the Western Wall on February 18, 1989.
Descend the steps in front of you; at the bottom there is another memorial to Sgt.
Cohen. Turn left, take the upper path, and ascend a few more steps to reach the Greek Orthodox Seminary. When you turn left again you will see, directly in front of you, one of the city’s most impressive churches.
ACCORDING TO a widely accepted Christian tradition, Jesus’s mother Mary fell into eternal sleep at a site on Mount Zion. Franciscans built a chapel on the holy spot during the 14th century and called it Dormition: an abbreviation for the longer phrase in Latin, Dormitio Beatae Mariae Virginis – the slumber of the Saint Virgin Mary.
The contemporary complex was erected by the German Benedictine Order at the beginning of the 20th century, with funds donated by German Emperor Wilhelm II. Called Dormition Abbey, its ornamental cone-topped church and unusual tower are visible from many parts of the city. And, incredibly, every view of the picturesque complex – including yours – is unique.
Pass the entrance (or go inside for a look) then at the corner, turn right.
Directly across from a large statue of King David, enter a two-story building probably erected by the Crusaders that houses two sites of vast importance to Jews and Christians. The bottom floor holds the traditional location of King David’s Tomb; the Cenacle, or Coenaculum; the top story is the traditional site of the Last Supper – the Passover Seder that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
Steps lead up to the Cenacle, believed to have hosted a second major event as well.
Seven weeks after the Seder, on the Pentecost (the Jewish Shavuot festival) “disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit” and sent out into the world to spread the Gospel (Acts 2:4).
In the mid-16th century, the Turks who ruled the Holy Land expelled the Christians from the Coenaculum, which they converted into a mosque. At the same time, they severely limited both Christian and Jewish access to both sites. Jews who wished to pray over King David’s grave were directed to a room on the Cenacle’s southern wall.
After examining the Cenacle’s splendid Crusader-typical vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and pillars crowned with intricately decorated capitals, exit and climb up to the roof. Jews were not permitted in the Old City after the War of Independence, despite specific provisions in the Jordanian-Israeli armistice agreement. As a result, the closest place in Jerusalem from which they could view the sacred Temple Mount was Mount Zion.
In the Bible, Jews are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple on three holidays: Passover, Shavuot and Succot. Every year Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben- Zvi, would climb up to the rooftop and welcome pilgrims to the holy city who had come to gaze at the Temple Mount. Look around to see the president’s rooftop room.
From here, there is a panoramic view of both old and new Jerusalem. The large plaque on the wall is dedicated to defenders of the Jewish Quarter who fell during the 1948 war.
AS EARLY as the 12th century, a noted Jewish traveler wrote that Mount Zion had become established as David’s burial site.
Descend to the bottom of the staircases and cross an arched courtyard to enter King David’s Tomb. You will find Jews, and sometimes a few Christians and Muslims, praying next to a sarcophagus covered with a blue velvet cloth. The Tomb, whose contents and age have never been scientifically analyzed, has been partitioned so that part of it is located in the section allocated to men, and the rest in the portion allotted to women.
For nearly 400 years, the entrance into what is the present-day’s men’s section was completely covered with beautiful, hand-painted ceramic tiles. On December 19, 2012, a haredi vandal shattered the tiles.
His reason: he was hoping that worshiping at King David’s Tomb would bring him a mate, and he believed that the Muslim- made tiles were blocking his prayers! They were not restored, so what you see now is the Mameluke entrance built into what is most likely the original Crusader arch.
The David’s Tomb/Cenacle complex is under the control of the Interior Ministry, with access to all. Nevertheless, the Vatican would dearly like have a freer hand in deciding when to conduct ceremonies, for currently these have to be coordinated with security authorities and are very limited in scope. The very idea of Christians holding mass above their heads has outraged the country’s Orthodox Jews, leading to demonstrations and the desecration of area churches – including a recent fire at the Greek Orthodox Seminary.
Fears of a Catholic takeover have also caused Orthodox Jews to increase their presence at the site, and today the complex hosts a yeshiva along with a makeshift synagogue.
It is also much livelier than in the past: On one of our visits, my companion saw – and I heard – a Jew playing a violin during prayers. And on Saturday nights, the place lights up with hassidim dancing joyfully near the tomb.
On September 7, a group of concerned Jerusalemites formed “Window to Mount Zion,” intended as a means of improving interfaith relationships. They plan to man the site in shifts, learn more about David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, and share reliable information with the public by means of social media. Their website, currently under construction, is www.mountzion.org.il.
Exit the tomb by way of a table with lit candles. You will see the Chamber of the Holocaust Museum across the street; turn right. Go left at the end and descend to the main road, cross the street and turn right.
Walk down the sidewalk next to the road, continuing until you come to three large open rectangles, sculpted “windows to the view.” Here, either look down, or descend steps next to the furthest rectangle to view excavations – not yet signposted and open to the public – that include an ancient quarry, remains of the city’s chiseled Hasmonean wall (second century BCE) and part of a Hasmonean tower. Higher up on the same site, a fourth-century wall with more evenly chiseled stones was renovated by Byzantine Empress Queen Eudocia in the sixth century.
Plans are afoot to incorporate the excavations on what will one day become the Jerusalem City Walls National Park. From the “windows,” continue on a path just below the road (on its left) while you enjoy a view of the Hinnom Valley. From the stoplights at the bottom, you can walk back to Jaffa Gate. • King David’s Tomb: Saturday to Thursday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays until 1 p.m.
The Cenacle: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Dormition Abbey: Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 12 noon, 12:30 to 6 p.m.