Heritage house

In 1492 the Parnass family fled the Spanish Inquisition. They settled here in this unique Old City home.

Heritage House 88 224 (photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
Heritage House 88 224
(photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
Homes here don't come more historic than this one, today belonging to famed architect Motty Ben-Horin but in the past the place where Titus watched the destruction of the Temple, the home of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, the place the first woman Arab terrorist, Fatma Barnawi, lived and - perhaps its most appealing claim to fame - the place which hosted Jerry Seinfeld on his recent visit. Motty and his wife, Aviva, have their home in Savyon, the town in which Motty has designed and built some glorious homes. Twenty-seven years ago they were looking for a small place in Jerusalem where their daughter, a medical student, could stay. They came to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and were entranced by its vibrancy and atmosphere, so different from the bucolic peace and quiet of their home. They decided this would be the place they would search for their Jerusalem pied-a-terre. "We opened the door of this house and it was in a terrible state," recalls Ben-Horin. "Ten cats were living here, the walls were covered in posters and it was just awful. But I knew I could transform it with minimal intervention." While not beautiful in the conventional sense, the history of the place is quite remarkable. On my visit Motty made me climb up onto the roof via a series of metal staircases and finally a rather rickety ladder. Once on the roof the view is stunning. You look straight ahead to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, with the Mount of Olives to the right and Mount Scopus to the left. "This is the spot where Titus oversaw the destruction of the Temple. I read the description in the book of Josephus and as an architect I worked out that he was here and saw it," he says. As to the house itself, the Ben-Horins were always under the impression that it was a hundred years old. They even met an Arab vendor in the market who said it had been his house and he had been driven out in 1967, which made them feel slightly uncomfortable. Then one day they discovered the truth about their home. A group of tourists in the street was listening to a learned professor talking about the Jewish Quarter and Motty overheard him and asked about his house. The professor knew the house well; it was famous for having the largest dome of any house in the quarter and he described it in detail. Then he told the story behind the house. In 1492 the Parnass family fled the Inquisition in Spain and reached Constantinople. They were builders and in 1517 the sultan sent them to Jerusalem to help build the walls of the Old City. They built the house three years before the walls and it has stood ever since, surviving earthquakes and even Motty's early attempts to open up one of the walls to make a bedroom niche. In 1938 during the Arab riots, the house was broken into; a 17-year-old girl was raped and killed as was her mother. The family ran away to Tiberias and are still there today. "I was in shock when I heard the story of my house," says Ben-Horin, "but I felt better that it had been a Jewish not an Arab house originally." He later discovered that Fatma Barnawi, the woman who planted a bomb in the Zion cinema in 1968 and later was in Arafat's government, had also lived in the house. Finally it was the turn of Jerry Seinfeld who had asked if he and his party of Hollywood personalities could be taken to see a Jewish home, quietly, without any paparazzi even knowing about it. The Ben-Horins were approached and at first declined, wondering if they could host a party of 10 people. "I haven't even got 10 chairs," says Motty. Motty is anxious to point out that the home has hosted many VIPs in the past - presidents, ministers, great writers and musicians - so this proposal did not faze them. In the end they agreed and a table was set up on the roof, and all the food and drink brought in and up those narrow metal steps. Seinfeld was impressed with the bedroom that Motty had literally carved out of the three meter wall for himself and Aviva. He peeked behind the curtain to the niche wide enough to hold two single beds and a television set. "It's very romantic," he said. Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail: [email protected]