It may have the best set of views in Jerusalem. At an elevation of 850 meters (2,574 feet) above sea level, Tel el-Ful rises commandingly above the communities of Beit Hanina, Shoafat and Pisgat Ze’ev in the far north of the city, offering a 360-degree panorama that on a clear day can offer glimpses of both the Mediterranean and Dead seas and the Jordanian capital, Amman.
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It’s no wonder that when, in 1965, King Hussein wanted to make a material statement regarding Jordan’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem, after declaring it to be the Hashemite Kingdom’s second capital, he decided to build a vacation residence on the summit of Tel el-Ful. Presumably, he didn’t anticipate that two years later, the hill – along with the other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem – would come under Israeli control.
Today, a half-century after the Six-Day War, Tel el-Ful is a place where time appears to have come to a standstill. There, the abandoned concrete frame of what was supposed to become a royal palace stands untouched – little changed since day two of the war, when Israeli forces captured the northern approaches to the city.
Israel has been careful not to antagonize the Hashemite royal family, which owns the site, and for the past five decades has respected its status as absentee property, neither demolishing the shell of the palace nor undertaking any other work there.
Which is not to say the site is sterile. Though it is unmarked, a visitor can find it with minimal effort, and no effort has been made to keep people out. Parking next to the educational complex on El-Mercaz Street in Beit Hanina, it’s just a short walk up a steep dirt path to reach the summit, above which rises the reinforced-concrete frame.
The columns that hold up the floor of the second level have been tagged with what appear to be several generations of graffiti – some in Arabic, most in Roman letters, including the names “Mustafa,” “Ramo” and “Rana.”
Both inside the shell and on the rocky plateau surrounding it, one sees the remnants of bonfires – though judging from the lack of smoldering embers or the smell of smoke, they are not from Jews visiting the site on Lag Ba’omer.
There is also a large water reservoir belonging to the Jerusalem water company, Gihon, down the hill a bit, to the east of the palace remains.
Hussam Wated, director of the community council of the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, confirmed that those who frequent the site usually do so in order to drink or smoke, and also that it has served as an ad-hoc dump for construction waste, which the visitor sees in mounds surrounding the palace.
Wated says it was a desire to keep the location – which is adjacent both to the school and a community center – from serving as a magnet for illegal or antisocial activity that led the Waqf, the custodian of Muslim property, and which represents the Hashemite family in Jerusalem, to fence off the area in 2011.
Israeli authorities responded immediately by stopping the work and dismantling the fence. News reports at the time said they feared the Waqf was attempting to make a political statement by disturbing the status quo.
According to Wated, the entire matter was a “misunderstanding,” caused by the fact that Waqf officials neglected to coordinate their plans with the Israelis.
The name Tel el-Ful (literally, “Hill of Beans” in Arabic) denotes the fact that the hill – the “tel” – is an artificial mound, built up over the centuries in layers, the earliest of which date back thousands of years.
The biblical name for the hill is Gibeah, according to many archaeologists, and is identified as the central town of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Book of Judges (19-21) records a horrific episode in which the other tribes of Israel united to punish the tribe for the rape and murder of the concubine of a visiting Levite to the town. Revenge was the slaughter of all but a “saving remnant” of Benjamin. Saul, whom the Bible describes as the first monarch of the united kingdom, was descended from that remnant; he made his capital in Gibeah in the late 11th century B.C.E.
In modern times, archaeologists who have excavated at Tel el-Ful include Charles Warren, in 1868, and later W.F. Albright. Their findings have included remnants of an Iron Age I fortress and, according to an Israel Antiquities Authority fact sheet about the site, the head of a plow – one of the oldest iron tools found in ancient Israel. Gibeah is also said to have hosted the Roman 10th Legion in the year 70, before it besieged Jerusalem. And in December 1917, during World War I, it was the location of a renewed assault on British forces by German and Turkish soldiers, after the surrender of Jerusalem to the Allies.
When King Hussein chose the site for his summer residence, it wasn’t just because of the wonderful view and refreshing breezes. According to Eran Tzidkiyahu – a scholar of religious nationalism who is a research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a Jerusalem think tank – the late Hashemite monarch (1935-1999) had a need to demonstrate his kingdom’s rule over East Jerusalem, which it had occupied during Israel’s War of Independence when Israel took possession of West Jerusalem and made it its capital.
Tzidkiyahu notes that Hussein had to fear not only Israel but also the growing Palestinian national movement. He had, after all, become crown prince and then king after the assassination of his grandfather, Abdullah I, at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque in 1951. The shooter was a Palestinian.
“When the Hashemites got Jerusalem,” said Tzidkiyahu, “they again attained the status of protectors of Islam – which they had lost when the Saud family became the rulers of Mecca and Medina, in the Hejaz. At the start of the ’30s, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, great-great grandfather of the current king, was buried in Al-Aqsa. The Dome of the Rock still appears today on Jordanian currency and the Jordanians still pay the salaries of the Waqf.”
Both before and after the Six-Day War, Hussein faced opposition to his annexation of, and subsequently his claim to represent, the Palestinian West Bank. By the time he decided to build a palace north of Jerusalem, he had already declared the city “amina,” giving it the status of a capital – second only to Amman. Nonetheless, Jerusalem was actually treated as a backwater and received minimal budgets for development. Even militarily, the city was little prepared for the Israeli offensive in June 1967, and was overrun with minimal resistance.
According to Tzidikyahu, the modern history of Jerusalem has been characterized by a struggle between its importance as a symbol and the material interests of its residents. “Hussein decided to build the framework of a palace, in place of transferring operational budgets to the city. And we still suffer from this politicization today,” he argues.
Community council head Wated describes his situation in similar terms. “We would love to do something with the site. It’s a large area and an excellent location. You could build a school or a community center or visitors center. But it belongs to the royal family, and no one can do anything.”
Half-seriously, Wated adds, “I don’t think the royal family even remembers it has a property here.”
Any initiative to develop the site would require the agreement of both the royal Hashemite house in Jordan and the Israeli authorities. “All I can imagine is maybe an international body acceptable to both sides doing something,” says Wated. As of now, that body does not exist. “It would take a big investment, and they would have to have good enough relations with the royal house to be able to get it to agree. Maybe via the queen dowager,” he says, referring to Hussein’s widow, Queen Noor (the former Lisa Halaby). “She has always had an interest in welfare and educational matters.”