A jewel in the crown

Heleni Hamalka is one of Jerusalem's most fascinating streets with a rich history and beautiful buildings.

Historians tell of two queens named Helena who visited Jerusalem over the last 2,000 years. One of them was the mother of the Byzantine monarch; she traveled to Jerusalem in the year 326 to identify sites holy to Christians. It was that queen Helena who determined the locale at which Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have been crucified and buried. And it was she who built the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre atop those very sites. The other Helena was queen of Adiabene, in today's Iraq. Around 30 CE she and her sons converted to Judaism. When Israel suffered terrible famine, Helena and her family sent food to the Holy Land. The queen eventually made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and built at least one palace in Jerusalem. Extraordinary ruins thought to remain from her palace were discovered in 2007 - in the parking lot across from the City of David. Among the finds was a remarkably well-preserved 2,000-year-old earring inlaid with pearls and precious stones. After her death, Helena's son Monbaz II buried her in the Holy City - probably in the Tomb of the Kings (in east Jerusalem). It is this Helena for whom the short but fascinating Rehov Heleni Hamalka in downtown Jerusalem is named. A narrow side road leading into Heleni Hamalka is called Rehov Monbaz. Rehov Heleni Hamalka is bordered on one side by Jaffa Road - accessible by public transportation only - and on the other by Rehov Shivtei Yisrael (with parking spots). Begin a short walk of exceptional interest on the corner of Shivtei Yisrael, next to a beautifully restored edifice at No. 23. This is the Israeli headquarters of a nonprofit international Spanish organization called Remar, which is trying to create a cultural and spiritual bridge between the Spanish people and the Jewish nation. To that end, Remar brings large groups of pilgrims to Israel every year. Last year Remar opened this handsome structure as a guest house. The building, which flies an Israeli flag and boasts a Star of David on its façade and biblical passages on the dining room walls, contains six modern, charmingly decorated and guest rooms. The roof offers an expansive view of the Old City. Now ascend Rehov Heleni Hamalka. On your right, at No. 21, you will see a grand edifice of Ethiopian origin that is more than a century old. Ethiopians have had an unwavering connection to the Holy Land since the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem thousands of years ago and, according to their belief, bore King Solomon a son. The beautiful structure before you was the gift of Empress Taito, who hoped that revenue from rents would help Jerusalem's impoverished Ethiopian community. Note the unusual staircase at the entrance. On March 30, 1936, the British inaugurated their Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS), a radio station that operated out of Ramallah and, three years later, moved to this splendid site. The PBS had been broadcasting from Jerusalem for less than two months when underground IZL forces (Irgun Tzvai Leumi) bombed the building and two of the personnel were killed. The British went back to transmitting from Ramallah and, after the State of Israel was declared, this became the home of Israel Radio. At the top of your short ascent, cross the road to reach a tall round tower. It belongs to a striking building known as Beit Sergei, which underwent a face-lift a decade ago when its red and white stones, long covered with a gray film, were cleaned and polished. Beit Sergei stands at one end of the Russian Compound, built on land purchased by the Imperial Palestine Russian Orthodox Society in 1860. It was in that same landmark year that Jerusalem Jews first tried life outside the Old City walls. In fact, the Jews competed with the Russians for this particular property - and lost. Formerly a Turkish cavalry parade ground, it was originally known as Nuva Yerushalma, or New Jerusalem. Russian pilgrims began visiting the Holy Land en masse in the middle of the 19th century. To provide for their needs, several hostels were constructed inside the Russian Compound within walking distance of the Old City's holy sites. But none of these hostels was fancy enough to house the Russian aristocracy. The nobility preferred the elegance of Beit Sergei, built in 1890 on the initiative of Prince Sergei Alexandrovitch, brother of the ruling czar. The complex included stately visitors' rooms, bathrooms and showers, dining rooms and cisterns. The first floor was the service area, with a reception hall, kitchen and other rooms. On the second floor were 25 rooms, half of which were fairly plain and the other half elaborately furnished with Persian rugs, silk wall hangings, plaster sculptures and brocade curtains. On weekdays, you can walk inside to view two squat towers within the courtyard that held the bathrooms; indeed, bridges leading to the upper stories are still in place. Incredibly, those early bathrooms are now public restrooms. When the hostel was inaugurated, Sergei visited the Holy Land with a number of relatives. In his ceremonial speech he expressed the hope that he would one day be able to return. His wish went unfulfilled: Sergei was murdered by revolutionaries 15 years later. Along with other buildings constructed by 19th-century Russians, Beit Sergei is marked with an intricate symbol. Look for it on the tower: It contains the intertwined Greek letters "P" and "X" - chi and rho - and probably had its origins in 312. That was the year in which Roman Emperor Constantine the Great prepared for combat with a formidable adversary named Maxentius. A Christian tradition relates that God appeared to Constantine in a vision and promised him victory. All the emperor had to do in order to win was inscribe an abbreviation of the word "Christos" (chi and rho) on his standard. In that decisive battle, which took place at the Milvian Bridge near Rome on October 28, 312, Maxentius was roundly defeated and Constantine was able to consolidate his power. As if to prove the truth of the legend, the formerly pagan Constantine slowly began leaning toward Christianity that very year. And in 324 Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Also on the symbol are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, an alpha and an omega. They refer to a phrase from the New Testament: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End" [Rev. 22:13]. Written in early Russian script in a circle around the letters is the biblical quotation "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet" [Isaiah 62:1]. Across Heleni Hamalka, at the entrance to the Russian Compound's parking lot, stands a 19th-century gatehouse. There were two gatehouses here until the 1980s, at which time the road was widened and one of the pair was torn down. Carved into the wall is the same symbol you saw on the Beit Sergei tower. Behind the gatehouse is a holding prison for people suspected of a crime; past the gatehouse stands a magnificent Russian Orthodox church. After the British conquered Palestine in WW I, they took over Beit Sergei. Later, when it came under Israel's jurisdiction, parts of it were boarded up. The rest of the complex houses the Agriculture Ministry and the Jerusalem offices of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. For years, England's Prince Philip (Queen Elizabeth II's husband) has claimed to own the Sergei building. According to his lawyers, DNA tissue examinations prove Philip to be related to the fallen Romanov dynasty that originally bought the land for the elegant hostel. Other claimants include Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. Although Beit Sergei's entrance today is on Rehov Heleni Hamalka, originally it was around the corner, on Monbaz. Walk over and take a look: The stunning facade was designed in symmetrical Renaissance style. Your last site of interest is located at No. 9, where Bank Tefahot stands today. During the British Mandate period, this building housed the immigration office. And it was here that the British almost invariably denied Jews the certificates they so desperately needed for immigration to Palestine. Although the Balfour Declaration of 1917 specifically approved the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, a 1939 White Paper published to appease the Arab population severely limited Jewish immigration. It also demanded a complete halt by 1944, despite the fact that the British were fully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. This knowledge did nothing to deter them from sending refugees back into Nazi territory. Two months after Menachem Begin was chosen as commander of the IZL, he chose the despised immigration office as his first target. On February 12, 1944, IZL fighters simultaneously attacked immigration offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. While no one was hurt, the buildings were severely damaged. A few more steps and you are on Jaffa Road, where construction for the light rail continues to drive Jerusalemites and downtown merchants up a wall. Turn a blind eye, if you can, and head across the street to the popular Village Green for lunch, to the wonderful coffee shops in nearby Nahalat Shiva across the street, or snack at the delightful restaurants on side streets leading off Jaffa Road. Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel, including Jerusalem EasyWalks; Israel Travels from Metulla to Eilat; and Israel's Northern Landscapes: Your Guide to the Golan Heights, Eastern Galilee and Lake Kinneret. For more information, visit www.israeltravels.com or contact Aviva at israeltravels@gmail.com