Back to the future: Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood

Katamon's quaint houses are again among the most sought-after real-estate in Jerusalem.

Katamon 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Katamon 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Katamon is the name of an area which covers a large chunk of south-west Jerusalem. Its name derives from the Greek KATA TOI MONASTERIOI, which means "under the monastery," as the first houses were built under the shadow of the monastery of San Simon. The neighborhood was founded by the Greek Orthodox church in the late 19th century. The church was then going through a tight period financially, and decided to sell some of its land to make ends meet. The affluent Christian Arabs who bought the land built elegant mansions, and the area soon became the preferred address of the city's Christian elite. During the period of the British Mandate, many of its houses were rented to high-ranking members of the British administration. After the turmoil that befell the area during the War of Independence, however, the neighborhood suffered a turn for the worse. For nearly 50 years after its capture by the Hagana in 1948, Katamon was considered one of the least-favored areas of the capital. The upper-middle-class Arabs fled, and their houses were occupied by Jewish refugees from captured areas of the city and by new immigrants. The elegant houses and apartments were subdivided into small residential units, elegant no more. Now, Katamon's face is changing, and the neighborhood is coming into its own. Wealthy families are buying old Arab mansions in the area called Old Katamon and are restoring them to their original state. Old apartment houses are being bought by wealthy families, and subdivisions made since 1948 are being joined together to create palatial residences which are being snapped up by the rich and beautiful. The growing demand for real estate in the area, especially the pre-1948 Arab houses, has led prices in the area to skyrocket. Even old apartments which have to be expensively restored are fetching prices of $10,000 to $12,000 per square meter, which means a large, unrestored, apartment may fetch over one million dollars. Giora Dayan, CEO of Tafnit Real Estate Brokerage, told The Jerusalem Post "The prices for old apartments have reached unimaginable levels, but there are many who are willing to pay those prices." Regarding the area's mansions, Dayan said they are practically priceless. "One operates under the maxim that 'if you want to know the price of such a house you cannot really afford it.'" Dayan pointed out how the prices in Old Katamon have affected those of the rest of the area, citing the case of a four-unit apartment building built in the 50s that has been sold for approximately $300,000, or upwards of $3,000 a square meter. "Over ten years ago, real estate prices in Katamon were among the lowest in Jerusalem... Now, the sky is the limit". Because of the influx of upper-middle-class families, Katamon - or at least parts or it - is changing fast, and developing companies are busy buying either land or decrepit 50s-era buildings, tearing them down and building expensive residential apartments in their place. The aggregate price of an old four-apartment building built in the 50s can cost from $1 million to $1.3m. If a developer then builds on that land an apartment building of 20 units, he can sell them for around $10m., leaving a nice profit, even allowing for building costs. Other developers bought some of the rare empty tracts left in the area, to be used to build a high-class residential compound. The Hasid Bros. development company is currently building such an estate, which it calls Ganei Zion. The 9,500-sq.-m. plot will be home to an 18-story tower and four 6- and 8-story apartment blocks built around a 3,000-sq.-m. park. The flats are being built according to the highest standards, and penthouses on the 18th story will each have access to a 60-sq.-m. swimming pool. Sharon Hasid, Hasid Bros.' VP for Marketing and Sales, told The Jerusalem Post that "the Katamon area is developing fast. It is close to the center of Jerusalem and, in consequence, I have reason to believe that prices will rise in the future as demand grows. "I believe that in the near future Katamon will be the preferred address in the capital of the affluent segment of the population."