The outskirts of Jerusalem, like the rest of the city, are a combination of the ugly and the beautiful. After Har Hamenuchot cemetery, under a heap of construction debris dozens of meters high, between a gigantic sewage main and the police firing range is a green valley though which the historic road to Jerusalem once ran. Very little has survived – a few curbstones, hints of ancient paving and archaeological remains at either end. The rest has been swept away over the years or disappeared under the cemetery, the range and the sewage main.
In honor of Sukkot, we took a walk along the ancient pilgrims’ route to Jerusalem, known as the Roman Ascent.
The road, about two kilometers long, begins at the complex known as the Red House at the bottom and ends outside the Givat Shaul industrial zone. It once led from Emmaus (in the Latrun area) via Abu Ghosh to the Old City. Until a few decades ago it could still be seen and was a popular hiking trail.
Today, it’s not so easy to follow. The trail begins at an ancient pool apparently used until Ottoman times. Accompanied by Israel Antiquities Authority architect Shahar Puni, we started out along the unpaved road, and after a few dozen meters found our way blocked by weeds and trees that had fallen during last winter’s snowstorm. To continue, we had to climb over the wide sewage pipe laid along the way, sometimes right over the ancient road. Twenty years ago the pipe burst higher up the ascent, washing away the soil and a good many of the paving stones. Some 700 meters higher up, we spot curbstones for the first time, and perhaps some paving stones under the dirt.
Prof. Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who conducted the survey of the Jerusalem area, is not convinced that these stones, or the road itself, is Roman. In any case, it seems that this road was not built by the Roman army to the same standards familiar elsewhere in the empire.
Prof. Vassilios Tzaferis, an archaeologist formerly with the Israel Antiquities Authority, studied the fortress at the end of the road, now within the grounds of a hospital in Givat Shaul. He discovered that the tower in the center of the fortress dates from the Hasmonean period. Later, during the Byzantine period, about 1,500 years ago, a wall was built around the tower. Logically, the fortress was built to guard the road and if so, the road may have been built by the Hasmoneans and was used by pilgrims at that time and later.
To continue, it’s back on to the sewage pipe, moving ahead until our way is blocked by branches. Here, the valley squeezes through an abandoned quarry that has become the police firing range. The sound of bullets echo clearly between the valley slopes. Now that Har Hamenuchot cemetery is full, the dead require new accommodations, and part of the ancient road has apparently disappeared under heaps of debris left over from the construction of a high-rise burial structure, and further up, debris left over from construction of the Begin highway in the 1990s.
Jerusalem’s new master plan, which has been awaiting final approval for years, mentions the Roman Ascent along with dozens of sites requiring restoration. Puni, who wrote a report on the condition of the road a decade ago, even then called its state of preservation “the very worst.” Nevertheless, Puni believes it can still be restored: “The issue here is not the material and the number of remains from the Roman period. What is really important is the road and its significance,” he says.
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