Past present

A new Jerusalem Theater exhibition sheds light on the ‘Monk’s Farm’ – a little-known spot in Beit Hakerem whose history brings to life the capital’s own changes and tremors.

The site of the Azrieli College in the early 1960s (photo credit: YOSSI SADEH)
The site of the Azrieli College in the early 1960s
(photo credit: YOSSI SADEH)
In this still youngish country, progress is still in full flow in many places.
Roads are constantly being widened – anyone who has driven between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in recent years can attest to that ongoing, annoying but presumably eventually beneficial endeavor – and, as the population continues to increase, new neighborhoods are emerging. Changes are also occurring in more established parts of towns up and down the country.
Should you happen to have the services of a time machine that would allow you to pop back around a decade and, for example, take a stroll around Baka, you would see quite a few original single-story or two-story edifices that, in the interim, have taken on another two or three floors and, in the process, have undergone an irreversible change in aesthetic orientation.
Ruth Kark is keenly aware of the metamorphoses that have been taking place in the capital over the past half a century or so, and is drawing the public’s attention to a relatively little-known spot in Beit Hakerem called the “Monk’s Farm.” Kark, a Hebrew University professor emeritus of geography, has put together the “From Rocky Ground to College” exhibition, which opens today at the Jerusalem Theater.
As the name of the exhibition suggests, the show was inspired by the redevelopment of the Azrieli College of Engineering Jerusalem, which was completed at the beginning of this school year. The exhibition was first unveiled at the college last October, following collaboration between Kark and then college curator Tirza Ribak.
The subject of the show is something of an urban legend, and relates to a small agricultural project named after a Greek Orthodox monk called Vikandius who belonged to the local Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which traces its origins back to James the Just of the first century CE. The Patriarchate was looking to develop real estate in Jerusalem in the 19th century, and the Beit Hakerem plot was acquired in 1863. Vikandius took over the Beit Hakerem small holding around 1925-30.
The history of the farm is neatly conveyed, both textually and pictorially, in the exhibition, which includes location- specific sections of maps dated between 1924 and 1977, on which the outline of the farm and trees are indicated.
The 1936 drawing also notes the position of several caves on the hilltop, which Kark remembers well.
The 73-year-old Kark was born in Herzliya, moving to Jerusalem with her family at age six; her parents settled in Beit Hakerem and opened a hotel. It was a strange time to relocate to Jerusalem, as the War of Independence was brewing, and the city was soon to endure attacks from across the then-border with Jordan, as well as from the Jerusalem Hills, not to mention a prolonged siege.
“We were one of the few families to move to Jerusalem during the war,” recalls the historian. “My mother suffered a serious asthma attack, and she simply couldn’t stay in Herzliya. She needed the drier air of Jerusalem, and she felt fine here.”
The young Kark reveled in her new surroundings. “This whole area was open, and there weren’t too many houses here. We used to go to the Monk’s Farm and play in the caves there,” she says. “We spent the whole day outside. It was a good time to be here. There was the Elephant’s Tooth rock, on the way to Beit Zayit, where we played and, on the other side of Beit Hakerem, there was the Monk’s Farm and stone quarries.
How things have changed, as the city has grown and the demands of modern- day living have gradually left their mark. Part of the Vikandius farmstead disappeared when the Begin urban highway was built, and much of the rest became incorporated into the Bezeq College, which opened in 1977, the precursor of the Azrieli higher education establishment.
Although little remains of the farm site, it at least echoes Kark’s childhood days here, before Beit Hakerem grew to its current expansive size, and before Ramat Beit Hakerem sprang up in the immediate environs of Vikandius’s early 20th-century abode. Some of the original pine trees are still in situ, and local children can engage in some healthy activity on the swings and other play facilities on what is now affectionately known as Vikandius the Monk’s Park.
The idea for “From Rocky Ground to College” was initially sparked several years ago, when Kark and her former student Dr. Itamar Katz engaged in research on the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The exploratory project caused a few ripples in the local Greek ecclesiastical authority’s hierarchy and looked at ongoing disputes over real estate here.
Little is known about Vikandius. He was born in 1876, on the island of Crete, and came to Jerusalem at the age of 18. He was accepted by the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the Greek Orthodox monastic fraternity that for centuries has guarded and protected Christian sacred places in the Holy Land. Seven years after arriving in Jerusalem, Vikandius was ordained and took on the moniker by which he is known today. His first post as monk was to administer the Patriarchate’s flour mill, before gaining promotion to the bakery.
The precise timing of the monk’s relocation to the then-pastoral location is not known, although one of the map sections in the exhibition, dating from 1924, clearly shows the positions of cisterns, perimeter fencing, some deciduous trees and a building. The young monk’s agricultural training on his parents’ farm came into play, and he set about planting fruit trees and a vineyard, which Kark remembers from her own childhood.
Vikandius’s decision to make his new home on the hill near Beit Hakerem may have been prompted by the fact that it was located not too far away from the Greek Orthodox monastery in the Valley of the Cross, where he spent seven years training for full monkhood. The site also offered convenient irrigation advantages, even though it is unclear whether Vikandius was aware of all the water sources in the vicinity when he acquired the site, as one of the wells apparently appears on a map for the first time in 1936.
The latter also helps to chart the changes that occurred at the spot since the first map was drawn up, with new structures evident in the 1936 document, as well as the position of pine trees in the northern part of the site.
Some of the trees now provide shade for the current children’s playground.
The farm was abandoned no later than July 3, 1948, following the monk’s tragic death. He was visiting a colleague in the Old City during the War of Independence, and both monks were killed when a shell hit the church where they were spending the evening. Vikandius was 72 years old, and both he and his friend were buried at St. Stephen’s Monastery in the Kidron Valley.
Kark fondly recalls crocuses, gladioli and cyclamen proliferating in the area in the winter and spring, and says the place was something of a Garden of Eden for her and her pals. “It was a gorgeous natural beauty spot. There’s nothing left of that now.” The Jerusalem Theater show, at the very least, offers some sort of tribute to the area’s pastoral backdrop.
The exhibition opened at the college on the first day of the current school year, and Kark says that Ribak was keen to pay tribute to the local endeavor of yesteryear and to ensure that the students had a handle on the locale’s roots.
“I think it is wonderful that the college, which of course looks to the future, also thought of the past,” says Kark, referencing Shakespeare’s incisive observation in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” The words are also etched on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, where Kark engaged in research. “I adopted that idea for this exhibition. The past is the entry into the future.”
Kark notes that there is plenty of past in the area. “I found this near the Monk’s Farm,” she says, proffering an impressive fossil. “There are lots of lovely things here.”
Kark is doing her level best to make sure we know at least something of the local history. She has written several tomes and scores of papers on topics relating to urban development in the region, dating back to the mid-19th century. Other fields she has investigated include ethnographic themes, as well as the intriguing subject of women and land ownership in traditional and modern cultures. Kark is often recruited to advise court hearings as an expert on land disputes.
From Rocky Ground to College features evocative historical photographs and also tries to put us in the urban sprawl evolution picture with pictures and maps that correlate the then with the now.
“I tried to get a view of the places you can see here from all sorts of vantage points in Beit Hakerem, but there is simply nowhere that allows you to do that,” says Kark, showing me a picture taken in the early years of last century with a skyline that includes the YMCA tower and the Augusta Victoria church-hospital complex on the southern side of the Mount of Olives. In one print you can also just make out the incline of Aza Road.
Kark says the venture was an eye-opener for her, too. “I didn’t know why the place was called the Monk’s Farm before Itamar and I started researching it. We still don’t know enough about the place. We mostly found maps, which clearly show the boundaries of the plot. I’d really like to know more about it someday.”
Perhaps some visitor to the exhibition will be able to shed more light on the Vikandius urban legend. 
“From Rocky Ground to College” opens March 25 at 10:30 a.m. and will run until April 18.