They are not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Old City of Jerusalem. And they feature on no tourist itinerary. But gardens, symbols of our shared love of beauty and quest for peace, abound in each of its four quarters. They, even more than the origins of the Holy Fire and the recipe for Abu Shukri’s famed hummus, are the Old City’s best-kept secret.
The word “garden” conjures up various images. For the Persians, it was synonymous with Paradise; for the Moors an enclosed courtyard with plentiful water; and for the English square lawns framed by arched hedges. But whatever a garden may or may not be, John Evelyn’s dictum that “no man may be miserable that is master of a garden,” is amply borne out by our experience wandering in the Old City. We would add that no person who loves a garden is miserable.
Whether master of a simple window box or a vast roof-terrace, our green-fingered acquaintances in the Old City display a contentment rare in these parts. In times of closure, conflict and corona, they work even harder on their plots, collecting cuttings and seeds, foraging for scraps of iron to use as flowerpot holders, wood to use as a trellis, and reaping the literal fruits of their labor: lemons, etrogs, grapes, pomegranates, figs, almonds, grapefruit, and olives. The scent-filled alleyways a mere stone’s throw from the main sites are potent reminders of the possibility of an alternative, happier, reality.
The gardens we focus on here, a few private and some public, are just a handful of those on view to those who seek them out: Abna al-Quds (Sons of Jerusalem), a community garden in the poorest part of the Muslim Quarter; a street and home in the Jewish Quarter which have become a surprise stop-off point for locals and visitors; the Anglican meditation garden behind Christ Church, enjoyed by Muslim, Christian and Jew alike; and the Zakarian family garden just outside the Armenian St James compound which undoubtedly merits the epithet, Paradise.
Michael Zakarian, one of four children born to Armenian parents at 5 St. James’ Street when Israel was still Palestine and the Austrian Post Office was located at the end of his garden, was by his own reckoning a wild youth. While his siblings studied, he spent his formative years breeding pigeons in his rambling garden, almost half a dunam smack in the heart of the Christian Quarter. His love of nature was already well entrenched when he left Israel for the US, returning after three decades to find the garden in disarray, tended only by his aging mother Arshalouys. In the 27 years he has been back, Michael has worked tirelessly to restore it to its original glory, adding herbs and wildflowers, and constructing an elaborate pigeon loft where his 80 pigeons coo noisily and live very contented lives. “I talk to them when I feel lonely. They need lots of love,” he says.
The garden is divided into rough sections; very rough because there’s a sense that this is a primordial wilderness in which peace and harmony prevail. In one part there are almond, pomegranate, lemon, grapefruit and etrog trees. “We make jam from the etrogs,” he tells us. A 300-year-old Aleppo pine stands in the middle section, towering over the garden and visible from the street, alongside a 200-year-old cedar tree. Until recently an equally old olive tree gave abundant fruit, but at the end of February 2020, in the last real storm of the winter, the tree collapsed.
“I’m still waiting for the municipality to take away the trunk,” he says. There are cacti and aloes, lupines and ferns, cyclamen, anemone, poppy, nasturtium and bugloss all around.
Hidden on one side of the garden, behind a jungle of foliage, is an ornate gate framed by enormous cacti plants and wild roses. Michael pushes it open and we are suddenly in Christ Church, in the yard behind the guesthouse. “There was a tennis court here once,” he says, “when I was young I’d play there instead of going to school. I had my first love affair there.”
He has a dreamy look in his eyes.
We walk through the gate and into the Christ Church precinct, to glimpse a tamer, anglicized version of Paradise. No gentler or more beckoning vista is there to behold in all of the Old City than the one that greets you when you enter the Anglican meditation garden, located just off the yard that was once a tennis court. A walled enclosure open to the public, the garden would look perfectly at home in the Cotswolds were it not for exemplars of five of the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy: grape, fig, pomegranate, olive and date. English ivy cascades down the stone walls, a pristine lawn invites the weary to recline, winding paths separate the discrete sections from one another, and benches under a vine-covered pergola offer the opportunity for a romantic or meditative interlude.
This is where British student Hannah Bladon was heading in 2017 when she was stabbed to death by a terrorist on the bus in which she was traveling. An olive tree planted in her memory, discretely to one side of the lawn, is already two meters tall. On a plaque is written: “Hannah was a loving, caring soul full of faith.” She was one of many people of all faiths to seek tranquility, solace and peace in the secluded garden where many a relationship has blossomed in the shade of the fig tree. Other plaques affixed to the stone wall commemorate Lt.-Gen. Sir William Dobbie and Somerset B. Burtchaell.
The first lawns in history were said to have been in medieval monasteries, where their greenness served as an aid to contemplation. Illuminated manuscripts from that period also show pots of herbs discretely placed in small enclosed gardens. Christ Church continues this tradition, with decorative as well as kitchen herbs in pots and threaded among the wildflowers covering a disused well: sage, sweet marjoram, za’atar (hyssop), oregano, lavender, rosemary and thyme.
In addition to the lawn, there are beds of various size enclosed by small stones or flagstones, each replete with a variety of plants and trees: an almond tree, a lemon tree bearing fruit, a vine and a fig tree, a date palm, tulips, roses, aloe, cyclamen, perennial geranium, asparagus fern, and a dwarf umbrella plant.
A hidden area at the very back of the garden is the preserve of those who like their seclusion to be total. I can think of no better place than this to make life decisions or simply think, write, reflect or meditate.
Lydia, the French gardener, makes the occasional appearance, so if you find yourself there when she’s there, say bonjour. You’ll be rewarded with a beaming smile and, if you’re up for it, a miraculous story.
St. James Street crosses Ararat Street and takes you into the Jewish Quarter. At the junction of Or HaHayim and HaShofar streets, a wall of framed poems by Old City resident Ruth Fogelman comes as something of a surprise. This quiet enclave sandwiched between the Hurva Synagogue and the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of St. Mark had always seemed rather non-descript, part of the modern development that typifies the Jewish Quarter, which was largely rebuilt (often resembling a theme-park) after its destruction in 1948.
A wooden trellis spanning the breadth of Ha Shofar Street is threaded with burgundy-colored bougainvillea. Artwork of an eclectic and foraged nature is affixed to every possible surface – pots painted bright colors on walls, flowers inside broken clay vessels attached to drains, a trio of Japanese symbol-paintings, a “shelf dialogue” where locals and visitors are invited to add their own miniatures to the collection already on the wooden shelf, a “dreaming bench” made from a log where kids from the area rest or play while their parents cook or pray, a selection of homemade hanukkiot (Hanukkah candelabras), ropes partially covered with nasturtium dangling from rooftops. Even the garbage room at the end of the alley is decorated, both inside and out, with Purim scenes and midrashic allusions, painted – we later learn – by artist Anatka Singer, a local who happens to be a new immigrant from Sweden.
We are intrigued. Who is the artist-cum-gardener who had created these streets of interactive art? A discarded pillar from the Cardo seems to indicate the entrance to his/her home. As we enter the stairwell, likewise covered in artwork, we marvel at the optimism and community-mindedness of this local resident. We climb the stairs to the very top and find ourselves on a homey roof-terrace – generously unlocked and unguarded. Pots containing Yemenite etrog (larger and more gnarled than the regular), kumquat, a small pomegranate tree, an olive tree, spring onions, tomatoes, and bright yellow wood sorrel framed a long wooden dining table, on which stood a canister of bicycle oil and a watering can. Aromatic herbs, including zuta levana (white savory) and medicinal sheba (mugwort), a frenzy of honeysuckle, and a collection of bicycles, framed what we took to be the artist-cum-gardener’s front door. It was.
Amnon Shiloni has lived in this building since 1976 and his wife Dalit Rom-Shiloni since their marriage in 1981. Their home is exquisite. Compact, full of artwork, music, color and life. Amnon, a former manager of Israel Radio’s Reshet Gimmel, turns out to be the brainchild behind the street art. He explains, “I wanted to create a dialogue with the local population.” And he has succeeded. In the few minutes I stood outside with him, residents stopped by to talk and to admire the newly-mounted poems and artwork, while kids jumped on and off the dreaming bench. A few tourists poke their heads around the corner and smile. It turns out that everyone has a side of them that responds to art and nature; it just takes someone with initiative, like Amnon, to expose them to it.
Amnon and Dalit are well-known figures in all four quarters. Dalit, a professor of Hebrew Bible, volunteers as an ambulance driver in the Old City, on call throughout the night. Amnon, who knows all the local vendors and artisans, often invites strangers to their home for a chat over coffee and home-made cake. In their different ways, the two of them make the Old City a safer, more beautiful and welcoming place.
The final garden we visit is one whose development we’ve been watching for decades. It’s in the Sheikh Lulu part of the city, a poor neighborhood between Flower Gate and Damascus Gate, abutting the Old City wall itself. You can see it from the Ramparts Walk. Once it was a festering wasteland, full of garbage, discarded metal and dead cats. It was such an eyesore that we often left the Ramparts Walk early, before getting to that point, to save ourselves heart-ache. The area is home to many families, a densely inhabited part of the Muslim Quarter that sits uneasily between the two gates, seemingly forgotten.
Over the past decade the wasteland has been turned into a garden, with the help of volunteers from in and around the Old City. There’s an ornamental pool, almond trees, roses, geranium and wild flowers, shaded benches, an ancient pine at the entrance to the compound, a feeling of care where once neglect reigned.
When we went to take pictures there in late February, the coronavirus had just hit, but kids were playing on the adjacent soccer pitch, a bunch of men were playing cards and drinking coffee in the clubhouse, and an elderly man was waiting for someone to turn up with the key so he could sit in the garden. Wafa, a volunteer from Zur Baher, comes to the Old City three times a week to take care of the garden. Quarantined the day we came to take pictures, she tells us on the phone how much the garden has become a part of her life and the lives of the local community.
It is raining when we leave Abna al-Quds. We pull up our hoods and hunch our shoulders against the cold. The street outside is empty.
At Damascus Gate, it is life as usual, shoppers and street vendors, armed policemen, boys pushing carts of pita bread, fallahin sitting on the wet flagstones selling mangold, sage and spinach, haredim rushing to the Kotel. It’s a complex place and the coronavirus makes it all the more fraught.
Gardens may soon be the only place of sanctity and sanity left in Jerusalem’s Old City.