The millions of visitors to Jerusalem's Old City every year are usually seeking the sacred - a prayer at the Western Wall, the Temple Mount or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - or more earthly pursuits, like a good price on a rug or an olive wood camel. Few imagine that between these ancient walls they can also enjoy the beauty of nature.
After thousands of years of urbanization, it turns out that animal and plant life still thrives in the Old City - including 44 species of birds, toads, bats and martens, and about 100 types of plants. That is the harvest of data yielded by a survey of flora and fauna, conducted jointly by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
The study, meant to serve as a conservation tool, is a continuation of a previous survey that studied plant and animal life on the Old City walls themselves.
"Some of the plants we found are very rare and were preserved in the city thanks to the delicate balance between humans and nature," says Ido Wachtel, who conducted the survey together with Amir Balaban. One such plant is the Sicilian snapdragon, considered rare elsewhere in Israel.
The Old City is considered to provide an ecological link between two climate zones - the edge of the desert and the Mediterranean region - and this can be seen in its flora and fauna. Gardens and orchards thrive amid the crowded quarters on rooftops, while in abandoned areas, old walls, ancient pools and winter rain pools are home to plants, reptiles and birds.
Only 50 meters away from the Jaffa Gate is Hezekiah's Pool, which can be reached only with the help of neighbors and which fills every winter. The pool, though neglected and filled with garbage, still contains a surprising variety of toads. The common swift, as well as bats, can also be seen dipping and darting over the water.
Two unexpected avian residents of the Old City markets are the booted eagle and the common quail.
At the top of the food chain is the carnivorous marten. Although it did not appear on this survey, evidence indicates it still makes its home in the Old City.
The Jewish Quarter is the poorest part of the Old City in terms of flora and fauna, according to Balaban and Wachtel, as it contains mainly new construction and hardly any open space. The richest area is The Temple Mount, with "a richly developed system including an olive grove and many planted and ancient trees," the survey states - citing its domes, towers, embrasures (firing slits) and other architectural elements as perfect places for nests or hideouts for agama lizards and other species. The Western Wall is home to about 40 nesting pairs of swifts.
The Christian Quarter has many well-kept gardens next to its churches and homes. The Muslim Quarter's ancient foundations sustain a variety of plants, and its underground spaces shelter bats. The Armenian Quarter, with its relatively generous open spaces, is likely to harbor a variety of animals and plants, but most of it was not surveyed due to opposition from residents.