New Jerusalem Promenade Offers Best View of a Powder Keg

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A child on the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.
A child on the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

New touches in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City, arouse suspicion. Some places are left well enough alone. Experience has proved that “development” of almost any kind in the most sensitive place in the world doesn't end well.

But a few weeks ago, after five years of work, the eastern section of the northern Ramparts Walk, a stretch about a kilometer long, or two-thirds of a mile, was reopened. And lo and behold, the result is both minimalist and pleasing to the eye.

When you stroll down the walkway behind the top of the wall, you get a different look at the city, at its ancient history, at the complexity, at life in Jerusalem both inside and outside the walls. And when I visited the day “the deal of the century” was announced in Washington, it was clear that there’s no connection between the authors of the plan and the reality.

The Old City wall in Jerusalem, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The northeastern section of the Ramparts Walk, from Herod’s Gate to the Lions Gate, was closed years ago for security reasons. Its reopening reminds us that it’s possible to tread the Old City wall and look down on the Christian and Muslim quarters and the Temple Mount. The possibility of exploring the Old City that way had been almost forgotten.

The sprucing up of the Ramparts Walk, an 11-million-shekel ($3.2 million) endeavor, was initiated by Zeev Elkin's Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry and carried out by the East Jerusalem Development Company.

Several dozen steps, squeezed into a corner, lead from the Jaffa Gate to the top of the Old City wall. You can walk from the Jaffa Gate to the New Gate, and from there to the Damascus Gate, then descend to the Roman square and continue on the wall to Herod’s Gate and from there, in the new section, up to the Lions Gate.

A path on the Ramparts Walk at the Old City in Jerusalem, February 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
A cemetery in the Old City of Jerusalem, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The end point is the Temple Mount entrance for Muslim worshippers, which is next to the Lions Gate. The new section includes the wall of the moat and the Stork Tower (Burj al-Laqlaq) at the wall’s northeastern corner.

This route, about 3 kilometers long, surrounds about half the Old City from the north and allows a fascinating look at one of the most interesting, important and sensitive places in the world. Few tourist attractions in Israel can compete.

Still, on the day I visited, the cliché was true: You could have counted the tourists on one hand – and virtually all were foreigners. The southern section of the Ramparts Walk, which is shorter (1 kilometer), leads from the Jaffa Gate to the Zion Gate.

Shameless voyeurism

The first wall around Jerusalem went up in the Canaanite period over 4,000 years ago. The wall on which we walk today was built less than 500 years ago at the order of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan.

Throughout history, the route of the walls surrounding Jerusalem was similar. The stones of one wall were used by the builders of the next. At street level and in the moat you can clearly see the remains of the wall that was built during Herod’s reign 2,000 years ago. Such vestiges can also be seen in the Roman square below the Damascus Gate.

Tourists on the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Tourists on the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The Ottoman-built wall is 4.5 kilometers long. It surrounds the Old City, which is about 1 square kilometer large (0.4 square miles). Up to 20 meters high, the wall isn’t especially wide – only about 2.5 meters. It was built at top speed and took four years, from 1538 to 1542. According to one legend, the architects were executed because they forgot to include Mount Zion within the walls.

When you stroll on the northern Ramparts Walk you look down onto the Christian Quarter in the northwest of the Old City and the Muslim Quarter in the northeast. I know of no other way to view the courtyards of convents, mosques, schools, preschools and homes next to the wall.

If you’ve walked in the Old City, it was probably on typical tourist routes; for example, along the Via Dolorosa and the marketplace that leads to the Western Wall or to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If you’re on a fixed tour, there’s rarely an opportunity to ply the more remote alleyways between the walls of church property in the Christian Quarter and the courtyards of the Old City’s residential areas. If you’re not on a tour, you might not strike up the courage.

A view onto the Old City in Jerusalem, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

From the wall’s lookout towers you can see the main attractions of the Old City. The Dome of the Rock always looks beautiful, the roofs of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre look massive, and in the distance you can see the white dome of the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. During the entire walk, the Western Wall Plaza is completely hidden because of the density of the nearby construction and the city’s topography.

The Ramparts Walk includes plenty of stairs. On one side looms the wall, with occasional openings, windows and apertures. On the other side a metal railing has been installed so you can tread fearlessly on the narrow stone path. The only change in the past 500 years is that now the soldiers are posted at the foot of the wall; in the past they marched on top.

For three hours I walked along this not-very-long section, and I constantly wanted to stay where I was – simply to stand and observe, with shameless voyeurism, the lives of the people of the Old City.

There were monks in long robes and preschool children in blue uniforms and ties. Women were hanging laundry on the roof. Teenagers were playing soccer in a school courtyard. Peddlers were selling tempting strawberries. A strong smell of ground coffee wafted in the air.

Some 40,000 people live between the walls of the Old City. How little we know about their lives. The most obvious and pleasing fact is that there is no performance for tourists here. The city and national authorities apply a light hand regarding the view from the Ramparts Walk.

A view from the Old City wall in Jerusalem, February 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
A tourist at the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Few things you'll see can be called pretty; in most cases it's not even clean. Many courtyards are filled with junk and the plastic that eternally litters the eternal city. Among the antiquities and World Heritage sites is plenty of garbage. Here a dog is tied up, there sits a washing machine that remembers the Arab Legion, the Jordanian Army.

There are windows with well-tended plants and lounge chairs on a pretty roof. There are children riding bicycles and mothers shouting. It’s not always pleasant, but there’s never a dull moment. Looking at the areas surrounded by the wall is half the experience. The other half is looking outside the wall that was designed to protect the city from invaders.

There was very little outside the walls 500 years ago, and now Jerusalem is spread out there, with huge buildings like the Chapel of Notre Dame, the Italian Hospital and the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. A view onto them from the Ramparts Walk is no less interesting than what’s happening inside the walls.

Another kind of barrier

The wall marks several boundaries; it’s the boundary of a UNESCO World Heritage site – the Old City and its walls – that was declared at the request of Jordan in 1981. Also, the section of the Ramparts Walk from the Jaffa Gate to the Damascus Gate marks the 1949 cease-fire line that divided Jerusalem between Jordan and Israel.

A man visiting the Ramparts Walk at the Old City in Jerusalem, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Over 50 years have passed since the fences were removed, and today it’s hard to find evidence of the line where for 19 years members of the Arab Legion stood face to face with Israeli soldiers. A walk on the wall lets you view the city from the angle of those legionnaires.

In many cities around the world the old city or the medieval quarter is surrounded by a wall; Dubrovnik, Fez, Marrakech and Tallinn are examples. Jerusalem is the only one where another wall surrounds the city in several directions and isolates neighborhoods – and their people.

The new wall is called the separation barrier. It looks different from the 500-year-old wall built by the Ottomans, and there’s no promenade along it. And the same army operates on both sides.

Hannah Bendcowsky is a veteran tour guide in Jerusalem and runs programs for Jewish-Christian relations at the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. She has doubts about the Ramparts Walk. She calls it “an amazing attraction that could turn out to be a treasure for families,” but then explains what’s thwarting its success.

“Israelis don’t walk around there. I have great doubts about whether Israeli families will dare to walk up to the Lions Gate, go down from the wall there and return via the streets of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City,” she says.

Credit: Emil Salman

“Israelis are still very afraid to wander around in part of the Old City. The foreignness is frightening and the city in this area, east of the Damascus Gate, is still a foreign place. Few Israelis on their own come as far as the Lions Gate.”

Bendcowsky says that even tourist groups won’t try the Ramparts Walk because the experience is very time consuming and for many people physically challenging. She says the site’s future depends on tourists from Israel and abroad who aren’t with groups. She believes that a possible solution, especially for Israelis, is the initiative to organize tours with an escort on the way back from the Lions Gate to the Jaffa Gate.

As Elkin, the Jerusalem affairs minister, said at the dedication ceremony for the Ramparts Walk's new section, “For years, the Old City in Jerusalem failed to fulfill its tourism potential – the new section will let millions of tourists experience Jerusalem with a route that allows them to look into the Old City and at the views that can be seen from the walls.

“This project joins a series of tourism projects that will increase the number of visitors each year, like the cable car, making the Old City accessible and renovating the urban space of the Old City. The Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry will continue to work to turn the Old City into a bustling and attractive place.”

It’s easy to agree with the first part of Elkin’s comments. The Old City has far from fulfilled its tourism potential. But the second part raises serious doubts. Will the millions of tourists coming to Jerusalem have a chance to experience a stroll on the Ramparts Walk? Remember, on the day I visited, only a few tourists were there.

Tourists at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, February 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

About 200,000 people, both Israelis and foreign tourists, have already walked the walk, as it were, on the sections already open before the dedication of the northern section. That’s a very small number. Only about 30,000 people have visited the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum next to the wall – an embarrassing figure.

About 4 million foreign tourists visited Jerusalem this year; the number is at least as high for Israeli tourists. The wall didn't attract all these visitors. The Old City deterred many of them, especially the Israelis.

The last part of Elkin’s remarks, about the cable car, is the most questionable. If the Ramparts Walk project proves anything, it’s that there’s no need for this grandiose cable car planned to pass right near the southern part of the wall.

The Old City needs people who will experience it from up close without intermediaries. These visitors will enjoy contact with the local people, walk in the marketplace, go down from the wall at the Damascus Gate and get something to eat at the nearby plaza. And they'll end up at the Ramparts Walk at the Lions Gate and return to the Jaffa Gate via the alleyways.

The last thing Jerusalem needs is another observe-from-a-distance experience, this one from a cable car enclosed in protective glass. The Ramparts Walk is a good example of a minimalistic project that doesn’t interfere with the landscape. The cable car is exactly the opposite.

Tourists on the Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem's Old City, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

If you plan to go

The Ramparts Walk, open 9 A.M. to 4 P.M., is divided into two routes: the northern one, from the Jaffa Gate to the Lions Gate (about 3 kilometers), and the southern one, from the Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall (about a kilometer). You can visit both sections with the same ticket. The ticket – 20 shekels ($5.85) for an adult, 8 shekels for a child – is valid for two days. The routes are not accessible to the disabled or to strollers.

The northern part of the Ramparts Walk is closed Fridays, the southern part is closed Saturdays. For the northern section, entry is from the Jaffa Gate. You can descend at the New Gate, the Damascus Gate, Herod’s Gate or the Lions Gate. You can also go up from the Roman square below the Damascus Gate. The ticket also includes entry to the Roman square.

Tickets for the northern section of the Ramparts Walk can be bought at a store after passing through the Jaffa Gate or at the ticket office at the Roman square at the Damascus Gate.

For the southern section, entry is from the right of the Jaffa Gate Plaza. Tickets are sold at the back entrance of the Tower of David.

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