Down the tracks

Get a picturesque and historic view of Jerusalem by riding the light rail from end to end.

Passengers on the light rail 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Passengers on the light rail 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Soon after the light rail began operating in Jerusalem, I found myself sitting on the train next to a tourist from Jamaica. After asking me all kinds of questions about the sites visible from the windows, she told me that she was taking the train from one end to the other to get a feel for Jerusalem.
She certainly had the right idea. For while the light rail in other cities is mainly a vehicle for transportation, the Jerusalem Light Rail provides riders with a window into thousands of years of the city’s rich and turbulent history.
We suggest that you take the train from the Ammunition Hill station all the way to its final stop at Mount Herzl and then return.
Each ticket (NIS 6.60) is good for 90 minutes, so you can get on and off as many times as you like within each hour-and-a-half time span.
If you come by car, park at the enormous free parking lot connected to the train stop at Ammunition Hill. Then, before you board the train, you can tour the hill, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Six Day War (see my article in the May 18 edition of In Jerusalem).
Be sure to buy your ticket before you get on the train and to validate it at once. And check that you are heading for Mount Herzl and not towards Heil Ha’avir.
You are heading for the Shimon Hatzadik station, named for its proximity to the tomb of a Jewish high priest during the time of the Second Temple. There are many stories and legends surrounding Shimon Hatzadik, but he is most famous for his maxim that “the world stands on three things: Torah, divine worship, and acts of lovingkindness” (Pirkei Avot 1:2).
From 1948 to 1967 (from the War of Independence to the Six Day War), this route was the hostile border between Jordan and Israel.
Today’s east Jerusalem, on your left, was controlled by Jordan, and everything on your right side belonged to Israel.
At the next station, Shivtei Yisrael, notice large, gray, unattractive apartment buildings with tiny barred windows. This is the edge of the Musrara neighborhood, whose windows faced the unfriendly border and were meant to offer as much light as possible while protecting inhabitants from flying shells. Life was very difficult for people on the border and Musrara deteriorated quickly. By the time Jerusalem was reunited, Musrara had earned an unsavory reputation as a drug-infested slum.
In recent years, however, the neighborhood has undergone a remarkable transformation. Thoroughfares that were once drab and wretched are squeaky clean and absolutely charming. Nineteenth-century designer lanterns have replaced Musrara’s shattered streetlights; proud residents – many of them new to the neighborhood – have fastened creative nameplates on their doors and planted window boxes that burst with colorful blooms.
The Museum on the Seam, to your right as you head south, was built in 1932 by an Arab architect with impeccable taste. During the War of Independence it was taken over by the IDF and remained an Israeli position until the Six Day War. Afterwards, although badly damaged, it was transformed into a museum – Beit Turjeman – dedicated to the unification of Jerusalem; today Beit Turjeman is called Museum on the Seam.
Changing exhibits relate to social dilemmas, dialogue and coexistence.
The next stop is Damascus Gate, which you can’t see from the train. Then the train heads up the hill, right next to the Old City walls, which were restored by Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in 1538. You are still on the former Israeli/Jordanian border, and the train tracks run over what was, for 19 years, a mass of barbed wire in a forbidding no-man’s-land.
Enjoy your view of Notre Dame de Jerusalem, a stunning monastery topped by a towering statue.
Construction on these imposing stone walls and round turrets began in 1884, when French Catholics began thronging to the Holy City. Notre Dame was built by the Assumptionists, an order that pioneered penitential pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The Assumptionists lodged their pilgrims at Notre Dame and fed them with food grown at a farm on the grounds of St. Peter’s Church on Mount Zion.
The monastery was severely damaged during heavy fighting in 1948 in a battle that prevented the Arab Legion from invading western Jerusalem. Until 1967, Israeli soldiers guarded Jerusalem from the rooftops of Notre Dame, directly across from Jordanian positions on the walls. Charmingly restored in later years, Notre Dame now once again functions as a hotel for Catholic pilgrims.
Next door, the St. Louis Hospital treats terminally ill patients of all faiths. Locally known as the French Hospital, it was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph and was originally located inside the Old City walls.
But when French count Marie Paul A. de Piellat visited the hospital in 1874, he was appalled by its unsanitary conditions and decided to establish a modern facility outside the walls. Both the old and the new hospital were named for Louis IX, crowned king of France at the age of 12 in 1226.
The New Gate, directly across the street, provided French Catholics with easy access in and out of the Old City walls. It was added in 1889 by Turkish ruler Abd el- Hamid and, unlike older gates, completely lacks ornamentation.
During the years that the city was divided, a terminal patient at the French Hospital leaned out a window and, as she coughed, lost her false teeth in the twisted barbed wires of no-man’s-land below. It took meticulous maneuvering and the goodwill of Israel, Jordan and the United Nations. But in the end, accompanied by representatives of the Mixed Armistice Committee, a nun from the hospital searched for and retrieved the teeth.
As you reach the top of the hill, you will pass Tzahal Square and a rounded building full of holes. When Jerusalem’s first city hall was constructed in 1930, the money came from Barclay’s Bank. The bank’s offices were located in the rounded section of the solid stone building before you, while the municipality was around the other side. Jagged holes scarring the façade are the result of shells fired by Jordanian soldiers during the War of Independence and the Six Day War; in the 19 intervening years, Jordanian snipers added even more bullet wounds to the face of the building. Despite restoration, the holes were left to remind onlookers of Jerusalem’s travails.
The train turns the corner and stops at today’s City Hall at Safra Square; this is where you will disembark if you want to visit Jaffa Gate or the municipality. City Hall is a six-story modern edifice, but lovely old buildings behind the station date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. They have been beautifully restored and incorporated into the municipal complex.
Immediately across from this station, the buildings at No. 17 and No. 19 Jaffa Road sparkle in the sun.
Constructed and owned by the Armenian Church, with decorative balconies and graceful arches, they date back to 1900. Later, a third, less elegant story was added to No. 19. Look for the emblem of the Armenian Patriarchate above most of the doors.
If you get off at this station, walk on to the square to see the Golden Mile – a row of 38 creative works produced by students at Bezalel School of Art and Design in conjunction with the “Pure Gold” exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum.
As you whiz on to the next stop, look left to see the building with tall, narrow windows erected in 1939.
Originally the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which helped finance the Zionist movement, it now belongs to Bank Leumi.
Next door, the Central Post Office was also constructed during the British Mandate. Note how its bland exterior is offset by a row of black basalt stones from the Golan Heights. Inside, however, colonial England shines through, including floors of black and green marble, high ceilings and chandeliers.
Peek out at the enormous structure on the corner of Cheshin Street and Jaffa Road to your right. Located at the edge of a compound built during the reign of the last Russian czar, it was constructed in 1903 as a hostel for Russian pilgrims and could hold 1,200 guests.
During the British Mandate, this was the British Intelligence Headquarters and in 1944 it was bombed by members of Menachem Begin’s underground Irgun Zva’i Leumi organization. After it was hurriedly restored, the IZL bombed it again! Splendidly restored structures line Jaffa Road, some of them well over 100 years old. And the sidewalks, empty for a decade prior to the advent of the light rail, now burst with shoppers, diners and tourists. If you wish to join them, get off at Jaffa Center station. Otherwise, continue to Davidka station, where a newly revamped plaza features a monument to one of Israel’s noisiest weapons. Invented by engineer David Leibowitz, the weapon was a homemade mortar fashioned from pipes and called the Davidka.
Although it was anything but reliable, the raucous Davidka was a momentous addition to the Jews’ minimal weapon stock. That’s because whenever it managed to land and actually explode, the shriek it emitted was dreadful. Indeed, it is said that some Arabs believed the Jews had obtained the atomic bomb – and fled in panic from the sound.
A Davidka was brought to Jerusalem during the War of Independence and proved crucial in the Israeli capture of Mount Zion, Katamon, and the Allenby camp.
The inscription on the monument is from the Bible: “I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant” (II Kings 19:34).
The next stop is at the Mahaneh Yehuda Market, originally an open-air bazaar, and later a sadly neglected Jerusalem market. Renovated a few years ago, it is on the must-see list for every visitor to the city. Locals flock to the market as well, for its fresh produce and ambience.
If you join the crowds, you will be (literally) “rubbing shoulders” with people from all walks of life and nationalities. On any given day you may find musicians playing their instruments, ultra-Orthodox men preaching to bystanders or beggars hoping for alms.
Once back on the train, pass the restored old Shaare Zedek hospital, near Ha’turim station, with the Central Bus Station the stop after that. Soon afterwards, the train ascends the Bridge of Strings, held up by cables and inaugurated in 2008 at the city’s entrance.
The train stops in front of the garden neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, then at two stations in Beit Hakerem.
At the Yefe Nof station you will stand next to the hugely impressive building belonging to Yad Sarah – a volunteer organization founded by former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski. Here, anyone can borrow wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other medical equipment at no cost.
Finally, exit the train at Mount Herzl station to tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, view the graves of Leaders of the Nation and walk through the country’s main military cemetery. Afterwards, take in the production at the Herzl Museum. Uplifting in the extreme, it answers the question: What would Theodor Herzl think if he could see Israel as the country is today?