Google Street View Catches the Beauty and Hardships of Jerusalem's Old City

Jerusalem was photographed by the Google team in October and November of 2011, using its specially-adapted vehicle.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Street View, the Google maps technology that allows users to pan 360-degree views of streets and sights, was launched Thursday in Israel with views of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Jerusalem was photographed by the Google team in October and November of 2011, using its specially-adapted vehicle, the soft autumn light and puffy clouds imparting a special grace to the city.

A Google street view car is displayed at the Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., on Oct. 13, 2010.Credit: Bloomberg

Most users of the new service will probably be virtual tourists looking forward to getting a unique look at the Western Wall or other monuments. But there will also be real tourists who will try to use it to find their way through the Old City's alleyways.

But the software also provides a glimpse of Jerusalem that goes beyond simple directions. A look at the details also reveals the deeper veins of political and social tensions running through the capital. For example, the Google vehicle unknowingly documented the birth of a new enclave in East Jerusalem, when, as it navigated the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, it encountered the right-wing activist Aryeh King. King was being interviewed by a camera crew near the home of the Natsheh family. Last week, King managed to bring about the family's eviction after the court ruled that the home had been legally purchased by Jews in the 1970s; settlers have since moved in, and on Saturday, stones were thrown at the home. In Google's Street View, King is seen standing at the entrance to the home with his trademark motor-scooter nearby.

Sharp-eyed street-viewers will also be able to see two mysterious men who appear in almost all the shots taken in the Old City. They are seen standing next to a tour group, among souvenir shops, one in a light-blue checkered shirt and the other in a blue shirt. It is easy to spot the ear-piece dangling from their ear, basic equipment of security guards. One may assume that Google rented their own protection to move with them as they accomplished their mission in the streets of the Old City.

Street views have also taken in remnants of the summer's social justice protests, in the form of graffiti. One can see the word "revolution" in Hebrew sprayed on the walls at Jerusalem's two largest protest campsites, one in Sacher Park and the other in Independence Park.

Jerusalem also hosted another protest at the time Google Street Views was documenting the city - and the protest tent of the family of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit near the Prime Minister's official residence can be seen. The scene takes in the placard showing the number of days Shalit was in captivity, which on the day of Google's filming read 1,929. Six days after the shot was taken, a prisoner exchange was brokered with Hamas. Shalit was released two weeks after that.

Google's cameras also reveal Jerusalem's endless ruptures - the separation fence in Abu Dis with graffiti in English reading "the hands that build can also tear down." On Yoel Street, at the corner of Habbakuk is another spray-painted slogan: "Gerer = murderers," a reference to the ongoing struggle for control of Batei Warsaw, a section of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim, between the Gerer Hasidim and an extremist sect known as the Sicarii.

The problems of daily life do not escape the all-seeing Google cameras. These include overflowing trash receptacles in East Jerusalem and that area's pot-holed roads and missing sidewalks. The municipality says things are getting better in this department, but that is not the tale being told by the pictures.

As in real life, a Street View attempt to navigate along Agrippas Street to the Mahaneh Yehuda open-air food market is difficult. Changes in public transportation in the capital have brought hundreds of buses to Agrippas every day, and most of the "street view" is blocked by a solid wall of those buses, sitting in traffic. The pollution being produced by the exhaust doesn't photograph.

In the Jerusalem Forest the trees that were burned in last July's fire can clearly be seen, and above Gazelle Valley rises, in all its ugliness, the Holyland luxury housing complex.

Not everything Street View takes in is negative. For example, near the Old City, the cameras captured a car festooned with ribbons and an entirely different form of graffiti - the words "soon a groom" are splashed across it. And in a little playground in the Nayot neighborhood, a little girl jumps off a see-saw.



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