Jerusalem's Open House festival: A sneak peak to city's historic homes

For 3 days, some of the capital’s most iconic buildings and sites will be open to the public.

SANTA’S HOUSE in the Christian Quarter of the Old City opens its doors (photo credit: GUY YITZHAKI)
SANTA’S HOUSE in the Christian Quarter of the Old City opens its doors
(photo credit: GUY YITZHAKI)
The Jerusalem rendition of Open House is about to take place for the 12th year running. In 2007, when it joined the roster of Open House events that occur annually in major cities across the globe, there were “just” 84 sites on offer around the capital. It is a measure of the behind-the-scenes festival’s success that the list of the forthcoming edition, scheduled for this weekend (October 18-20), features a full 131 buildings, outdoor locations and tours.
The lineup includes plenty of the usual suspects, such as David’s Tower, Jaffa Gate, Tabor House, and the American Colony Hotel – tours of the latter are already fully booked, as are a few others – but the Open House organizers are to be applauded for shuffling the pack each year.
Across the three day program Jerusalemites and out-of-towners can enjoy a rare glimpse of the interiors of uniquely designed domiciles, churches, synagogues and public institutions, and absorb some little known facts about the city’s history.
Open House offers a treat to be savored, and a chance to drop down a gear and learn something about our everyday surroundings. As we go about our daily business, making our way through the packed streets and traffic jams, rushing to school, work, or the stores, and getting on with our schedules, we miss a mass of intriguing and often attractive spots that could enrich our knowledge of Jerusalem, and probably brighten up our day in the process. That lamentable state of affairs is exacerbated by the increasing tendency to bury our faces in our cell phone screens, rather than take a look around us to possibly catch a fine specimen of a tree or flower, a beautiful bird or two, or even – imagine! – make eye contact with our fellow pedestrians.
That is probably the case when we traverse the length of such a main artery as Agron Street which, on the right-hand side as you descend, is chock-full of delightful old buildings of various sizes and vintage. Near the US Consulate you can spy the impressive edifice and grounds of the St. Vincent Convent and Lazarists Monastery, albeit crouching behind imposing, and a little intimidating, wrought-iron gates.
If you keep on going down the road just a few paces and keep your wits, you may notice the entrance to a murky looking passageway. It is clearly a spot that has seen better times, but has also witnessed seismic shifts in human, political and aesthetic directions over the last century-and-a-half. At first glance the gateway does not seem to be anything to write home about. But the short covered passageway behind it leads to an enchanting yard with several two-story buildings dotted around it, and some surprises too.
“Look up there,” suggests Tzipi Ron, who will be your well-informed guide should you opt to take the tour of the HaMa’aravim Neighborhood that starts at 11 a.m. on Friday from the Agron Street entrance to Independence Park. Following Ron’s gaze, I note the statue of a Madonna on the roof of a building at the other end of the quadrangle. I certainly didn’t expect to see that at a residential spot in this part of Jerusalem.
When it comes to guides to some of the more esoteric aspects of the city, you couldn’t ask for a more deeply steeped or enthused hand-holder than Ron. The many roles she has filled with great devotion and energy over the last four decades or so include: environmental activist – she helped to stymie the first plan to build on Gazelle Valley during Ehud Olmert’s subsequently disgraced tenure as mayor – she is a member of the Municipal Conservation Committee, and she is a recipient of Jerusalem`s Distinguished Citizen Award.
THE ROOFTOP statue in the off-Agron Street yard indicates that the place was not always inhabited by Jews. “Christian Arabs lived here,” Ron explains. “They even carried on living here after the War of Independence.”
But, in fact, the neighborhood has had a couple of monikers in its time, the other being Mahaneh Israel. It was founded by Rabbi David Ben Shimon, who hailed from a wealthy Moroccan family. It was the first Jerusalem district set up outside the Old City by local Jews. This was in the 1860s when most Jews preferred to stay put in the cramped and often unhygienic living conditions of the Old City, as the walls offered them some security from attack by local Arabs. “No one really wanted to live in this area,” Ron notes. “This was on the main route to Ein Kerem, and it was considered dangerous.”
Even so, the well-off rabbi, who was also known as Tzuf Devash (Nectar) and the Radvash, had some serious hindrances to negotiate before he was able to get the builders in. It seems that longstanding Jewish residents of Jerusalem, aka samach tettim – referencing the Hebrew initials of Sefaradi Tahor, pure Sephardi – were not well-pleased about the arrival of the new Jewish contingent from North Africa. After involving the Turkish authorities, Ben Shimon was unceremoniously slung in the slammer and subjected to some painful corporal punishment. However, when the Turks discovered he was a French subject they quickly released him.
And so the HaMa’aravim (Western) neighborhood came to be. The name refers to the geographic origin of the new inhabitants, to the western edge of North Africa. Ben Shimon lived in a fine residence in the neighborhood, and the interior can be viewed on any of a bunch of guided tours taking place across the three days of the festival.
The entrance to HaMa’aravim Street, which lies adjacent to the expansive structure of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, is now much wider than it was back in the day. “They made the streets narrow so that anyone who came to attack them would have to do so in small numbers,” Ron explains. “And the streets are all parallel for a similar reason – so that the attackers would not be able to move freely from one part of the neighborhood to another.”
Judging by the quality of the original stonework, Ben Shimon clearly had a generous budget at his disposal. “And you can see Hami stone in quite a few of the buildings around here,” says Ron, pointing to some of the smooth-faced red-tinged stones near the entrance to the aforementioned yard. “That is very high-quality material.”
Ron will also take the tour patrons through the back way of the neighborhood, which leads into an impressive inner quadrangle, complete with fountains and arabesque-style tiling. Sadly, the yard is overlooked by several oversized structures that steal some of the spotlight from this delightful site. But it also makes you appreciate the beauty of yore even more.
The two-hour lap of the area also takes in a visit to Independence Park, the Muslim cemetery across on the side of Agron Street, and Mamilla. And there will be plenty of colorful anecdotal tidbits to be enjoyed during the tour, including legends about the Lion’s Cave in Independence Park, and the origin of the name Mamilla. 
Hopefully, the event will persuade all to take a look at the beautiful spots dotted around the city that have survived the relentless march of urban development. It may even get us away from our cell phones for a moment or two to actually appreciate where we are.
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