Digging into our roots

After years of abandonment, the Mount Scopus Botanical Garden has been redesigned to highlight its value as a historical and cultural asset.

Hebrew University 88 (photo credit: )
Hebrew University 88
(photo credit: )
The site of the Mount Scopus Botanical Garden - reopened to the public last week after a lengthy renovation project - involves a history full of partly thwarted destruction and miraculous rebirth. It is the location of numerous starts and stops that continually surprised those who came upon it. And still, many Jerusalemites - including some Hebrew University students and staff - are at best only vaguely aware of its existence. In 2004, the Hebrew University started a campaign to conserve and develop the botanical garden. The administration hired environmental sculptor and planner Ran Morin to design and oversee the project. The work was undertaken in cooperation with the Archeology, Geography and Botany departments, included a large advisory board of professionals and specialists and took nearly two years to complete. "It was important to see this whole garden as a cultural asset," explains Morin. "Our duty is to understand the complexity of these places and to develop them in a way that will keep them here for the next generation." This complexity takes us back at least 2,000 years. The Talmud tells a story about Nicanor, who brought two bronze gates from Alexandria by ship for the Second Temple (about 60 years before it was destroyed). "A gale rose in the sea and threatened to drown them [the crew]," the Talmud writes. The crew tossed one door into the sea, but Nicanor managed to save the second one by threatening to throw himself in with it. When the ship arrived in Acre, the second door popped out onto the seashore. Some said it had lodged itself under the boat; others said a sea creature had spat it out. Either way, it was called a miracle. In 1902, British lawyer Sir John Gray Hill and his artist wife, Lady Caroline Emily Gray Hill, decided to build their house on the highest point of Mount Scopus, with a view to the Old City on one side and the Dead Sea on the other. As construction began, they came upon a tomb. On one of the ossuaries (bone boxes) was written in ancient Greek and Hebrew: "The bones of Nicanor of Alexandria who made the gates." The Gray Hills moved construction of their house to a different spot and preserved the tomb. In 1931, botanist Dr. Alexander Eig built the Hebrew University's botanical garden on and around the grounds of the Nicanor tomb. The world's first garden arranged by habitat rather than plant species, it included specimens found all round the land of Israel - from Lebanon to Sinai, and from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. Mimi Ron, who manages the garden and its plant life, explains that there are several species grown there that are endemic - that is, the only place in the world where they grow in a specific area in Israel. One of these is the Rumex Rothschildianum, which was named after the famous banking family. The plant is endemic to the Israeli seashore and can be found in about three spots between Netanya and Herzliya. "What are the most common seashore plants today?" she asks, then answers facetiously, "Buildings." She adds, "All three areas where this plant still exists are planned for development. So we have to help conserve them." There is also a Bustan section in the garden devoted to traditional agriculture. It has a stone hut and a yard with small plots where various local and seasonal plants are grown. At present, these include lentils, peas, beans and wheat. There are also almond, olive and mulberry trees in the yard. For Morin, the garden itself exemplifies the important approach for such a conservation project by placing emphasis on the plants' soil and climate conditions. He undertook a long process of research into the history of the site. In 1948, as the Mount Scopus campus was closed following the War of Independence, the botanical garden was abandoned and left to fend for itself. Since the plant life was indigenous to the general region, much of it was found alive and well when Israel recaptured Mount Scopus during the Six Day War in 1967. There was also a further archeological complication. Zionist leader Menahem Ussishkin wanted to make the site into a kind of pantheon of Zionist leaders. He brought Leon Pinsker's bones from Odessa in 1934 and was buried there himself upon his death in 1941. As Ron says, "He couldn't have known that this would be the end of his pantheon - that there was going to be a war and that Mount Scopus would become inaccessible." Looking at historical maps, Morin tried to evaluate what went wrong. He found that the major problem was the construction of the new campus in the early 1970s. To build the single-building campus, five meters of land and rock were cut from the top of the mountain. Most of the area of the garden was kept intact but was now separated from the rest of the campus, leaving it on a kind of island. The university's central cooling and heating system was constructed on the garden premises. Pointing to the parking lot across from the Mount Scopus Aroma Cafe, Ron recounts that Eig had planted a cedar grove that survived the nearly 20-year abandonment. But, she adds, "It was cut down and replaced by the parking lot, which was named the Cedar Parking Lot in memory of the trees." The botanical garden was underused and fading from the general public's consciousness. "There were people who knew this place should be taken care of," says Morin, "but no one did. So I put the pieces together." He emphasizes that the intervention had to be delicate and look natural, to integrate and promote the original site. One of the most important steps was to improve the old paths and make them accessible to the disabled. To do this, he mixed sand from Arad in with the cement to give it a softer, yellowish color that would blend in better with the soil and flintstone. He also designed a new path along the garden's northern edge that connected the eastern and western half of the campus. "If you work in the Rabin Building and have to go to the bus station, you can now take a shorter single-level path that also leads through this beautiful garden," he points out. Morin also redesigned the campus-side entrance to the garden, transforming three crumbling cement tunnels into what he calls "an artistic project." The tunnels include soft lighting, flowing water along either side and murals of root systems. "Roots were a major part of the project," says Morin. He quotes 20th-century philosopher Simone Weil as saying that roots are one of the most important needs of the human soul - and one of the least known. After he'd already designed the murals, the conservation team opened up one of the Nicanor tombs that had been closed for years and found what Morin describes as a rare and amazing sight: The roots of one of the fig trees had grown along the floor, walls and ceiling of the cellar, picking up humidity that had condensed on its surface. Although the Israel Antiquities Authority usually cleans out archeological sites, Morin decided to keep the roots as part of the project. "We should keep these places that hold within them a memory of the past, where you can feel the roots," he reflects.