Ein Kerem residents fight new construction on ruins

Flushing over history: Residents say Tourism Ministry planning to build restrooms, plaza that would damage character of unique area.

Ein Kerem toilets_311 (photo credit: Ron Havilio)
Ein Kerem toilets_311
(photo credit: Ron Havilio)
In the pastoral quiet of the ancient Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem, Mary’s Spring bubbles quietly into an ancient stone trough. Christians believe Mary drank from the spring, and more than a million faithful visit the village each year.
The Tourism Ministry and the municipality, in an effort to develop the infrastructure for this influx of tourists, are trying to build public bathrooms and enlarge the plaza as a new overlook point to accommodate large tour groups, which sometimes block the narrow Rehov Hama’ayan.
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Into the green
But there’s a small problem: The new toilets are located over ruins from the Second Temple period, in an area where residents say the construction will irrevocably change the character of their unique neighborhood.
Today, the picturesque wadi below, a panorama filled with ancient stone terraces that hasn’t changed much for 3,000 years, is obscured by a temporary corrugated steel fence that hides a large, empty 314-meter building below.
Residents have covered the fence with printouts calling for a halt to construction. They term the building below “The Monster.”
Ron Havilio, a neighborhood activist and a celebrated documentary filmmaker, laughs at the tourism slogan that was given to Ein Kerem: “Walking in the footsteps of John the Baptist.”
“This [slogan] is no longer valid!” he declared, sitting next to the stream and gesturing at the temporary fence. The charm of Ein Kerem, what tourists come to see from around the world, is the fact that the area has remained largely unchanged since the time Jesus’s contemporaries walked through the neighborhood, he explained.
“There’s not going to be anything left to see!” Havilio said. “If they build here, tourists won’t come. Do you travel to ancient cities in Italy or France to see infrastructure buildings and toilets?” he asked.
The Tourism Ministry, which has been working on the development of Ein Kerem for 20 years in cooperation with the residents, began in April 2010, on the basis of permits issued in 2005 and 2006, to build a large structure to house public bathrooms. A Jerusalem Municipality spokeswoman explained it as part of a larger project that would eventually include underground parking and other services for tourists.
But during the work, builders found the remains of a water system dating from the Second Temple period.
The discovery meant the ministry could not build a ramp to the bathrooms to make them handicap-accessible, as required by law, a spokeswoman for the Tourism Ministry said.
In August 2010, the city’s legal adviser Yossi Havilio (who is distantly related to Ron Havilio) put a stop-work order on the building. At a meeting with the Antiquities Authority and neighborhood residents soon afterward, the decision was made to seal the building until another solution could be found.
“The residents of Ein Kerem are telling the establishment that they’re making a mistake – we’ve been saying ‘Stop! This is a mistake!’ for the past 20 years,” said Ben Ofarim, the head of the local committee.
This week, the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Construction Committee is scheduled to release its opinion on the residents’ appeal regarding the building. The residents are asking for the building to be torn down, saying that the plan to renovate the area did not follow the proper building procedures for Ein Kerem, which include providing in-depth historical documentation before construction starts.
“They destroyed the entire top of the wadi,” Ofarim said, angrily gesturing at the area around the building, which is brown and dead compared with the lush green terraces surrounding it. “They just gave the finger to public planning.”
Like many other places in Jerusalem, the area straddles a delicate balance between development and preservation. The resident activists are fighting to preserve the area as it exists today, while the municipality argues that improved infrastructure in Ein Kerem will contribute to the mayor’s vision to strengthen tourism and the economic development of the city.
“The Jerusalem Municipality and the Tourism Ministry see Ein Kerem as the tourism anchor for millions of tourists and visitors,” a municipal spokeswoman said.
Residents say the ministry wants to build a large plaza with restaurants and cafes, something the ministry strongly denies.
But Ron Havilio, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1973, believes the authorities are missing the point of Ein Kerem. He said that throughout history, from the ancient Israelites through the British Mandate, people have avoided building in the wadis below springs. As the water percolates down from the spring, the land in the valley becomes incredibly fertile and is traditionally the best land for farming.
The plentiful water from Mary’s Spring enabled early Ein Kerem residents to become wealthy from growing fruit trees and vegetables that require copious amounts of water, and selling their produce to parched residents in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem.
The neighborhood doesn’t need more cafes or more public toilets, Havilio said. It needs to stay exactly the way it is.
“This is a cultural landscape,” he said, his arm sweeping past the terraced hillsides and the quiet stone alleyways. “The nature [of it] is very beautiful, but it has been fashioned by man. These terraces were built in the time of the Bible. The landscape here is the real biblical landscape.”