In Jerusalem, Even a Temporary Pool Is Cause for Controversy

The city's call for proposals to restore and develop Mamilla Pool draws protest.

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A call for proposals to restore and develop an ancient reservoir in downtown Jerusalem — earlier suggestions for which have included the installation of a giant Ferris wheel and a landing strip for hot air balloons — has drawn opposition from environmentalists, preservationists and people who fear a disruption of relations between Jews and Arabs in the city.

Mamilla Pool is a precious archaeological site and also the city’s only vernal pool, a temporary pond that is dry for most of the year and is filled by rain in the winter, providing an important habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. In addition, the pool lies within Jerusalem’s biggest Muslim cemetery.

The municipality will award a prize of 25,000 shekels ($6,550) for the winning proposal.

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Located between Agron and Ben Sira streets in downtown Jerusalem, Mamilla Pool was built during the Second Temple or late-Roman period, and for nearly 2,000 years it was an important component of Jerusalem’s water supply system. It was operational until the British Mandate period, and historic photos show that at least until 1946 it filled up with water every winter. Aggressive development in the area blocked the flow of water into the pool, and in recent decades it has been no more than an ephemeral pool, tens of centimeters in depth.

Neglected, many Jerusalemites are unaware of its existence. But it is home to an exceptional array of flora and fauna. The latter include primitive crustaceans, amphibians such as toads and tree frogs, many species of birds and hedgehogs as well as other mammals. The Sicilian snapdragon (Antirrhinum Siculum) that grows along the walls of the pool is an endangered species. It was not until a number of years ago that it was determined that a tree frog of the Hylidae family living in the pool was a previously unrecognized species. Known officially as Hyla heinzsteinitzi, it is often called the Mamilla tree frog. In recent years it has disappeared from the pool, presumably as a result of massive spraying of pesticides by the city.

Over the years, all sorts of ideas were proposed for the site, including building a landing strip for hot air balloons for tourists and installing a giant Ferris wheel. As part of a comprehensive plan to develop Independence Park, which the pool borders to the east, the architectural firm of Shlomo Aronson submitted a number of proposals, including flooding it with water. But the architects admitted to Eden the Jerusalem Center Development Company, the municipal company responsible for developing the downtown, that they weren’t happy with any of them and urged the city to issue a call for proposals to develop the pool and to make it more accessible to the public.

Galia Lulko

Soon after the call was issued, a group of residents organized to protest what they said was the anticipated harm to the pool. They said they were particularly worried by a short animated promotional video distributed by the city and depicting ideas such as a water park or a giant soap-bubble installation on the site. The opponents argue that even though the video was clearly meant to be humorous, it reveals the city’s lack of awareness as to the importance of preserving the nature and history of the pool.

A petition circulated by the group says the move, “could lead to irreversible destruction, disturb the ecological balance, ruin the important historic site and cause tension between Muslims and Jews.” The Waqf, or Islamic religious trust, and the Islamic Movement are extremely sensitive about construction in the area, especially after losing a legal battle against the erection of the Museum of Tolerance on the other side of the cemetery.

“This worries me a great deal,” said Michal Shaw, one of the organizers of the protest. “We’re talking about a valuable site that many elements want to take bites out of.”

Eden CEO Alon Speiser suggested that the protesters read the provision in the call for proposals stipulating that the site’s archaeological and environmental importance as well as the presence of the Muslim cemetery must be taken into account, and that the jury includes a representative from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

“People think we’re going to build a water slide from the cemetery right onto the head of a toad in the winter pool. It’s not like that at all,” Speiser said.

In a written response, the municipality said that the site’s historic elements will be preserved as part of whatever development is carried out. “The goal is to turn it from a neglected place into a pearl that combines preservation with renewal of the area. Similarly, the jury includes representatives from SPNI and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The video was intended purely for the purposes of humorous illustration.”