Jerusalem Construction Plans Threaten Picturesque Christian Pilgrimage Site

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Gorny Muscovite Russian church in Ein Karem, jerusalem.
Gorny Muscovite Russian church in Ein Karem, jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal
Doron Koren
Doron Koren
Doron Koren
Doron Koren

The Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, in the southwestern part of the capital, is an exceptional place. Not only is this beautiful village the only one in Israel that remains much as it was centuries ago, but it is also identified with the Biblical Beit Hakerem, from which, according to the Talmud, stones were quarried for the Second Temple, as well as being a sacred site for Christians, where Jesus’ mother Mary is said to have met with John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth. 

'Above the golden domes of the Russian Monastery they’re building an eight-meter-high concrete rail overpass. It will look as if the train is riding on the domes.'

Its residents live in houses that are 100, 400 or even 800 years old. Scattered among them are monasteries and churches, synagogues and a mosque. But today, all this is in danger: Various development plans threaten to strangle the neighborhood.

Pnina Ein Mor is a tour guide, an environmental activist and a former chairwoman of Ein Karem's neighborhood association, who has lived here for 42 years. One of the plans now threatening the beautiful neighborhood, she says during an interview in her lovely home, with its arches and high ceilings, is an old proposal to build a hotel next to the spring that lies at the heart of the neighborhood. “Six stories, 60 rooms, with no parking, and the government hydrologist wrote in his report that the hotel will block the tunnel to the spring, which is sacred to Christians as Mary’s Spring,” she explained.

Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, jerusalem. Credit: Michal Fattal
Ancient terraces, seen from Notre Dame de Sion. Credit: Ron Havilio

That’s the spring where Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth met?

“Yes. It’s a scene shown in every Catholic and Orthodox church in the world.”

And right there, on that site so important to Christianity, they want to build a hotel?

The Visitation, from Altarpiece of the Virgin by Jacques Daret, 1434-1435.

“Still! Our life is very Sisyphean.”

So this is the plan that most threatens you now?

“No, it’s the most minor.”

The other proposals are for the construction of a large army base; a huge, noisy pumping station on the slope below the main monastery and 1,800 apartments on the site of the former Carmit boarding school. A new light-rail line is already being dug, just 50 meters from the golden onion domes of the Russian church. There are also three additional plans for construction in the surrounding area (including Ramat Hadassah and Mordot Ora).

The site of the future army base is a hill 150 meters from the easternmost houses of the neighborhood. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot attended the September 18 cornerstone-laying ceremony.

Ein Mor says she can’t understand how a project whose roots were in a cabinet resolution aimed at strengthening the city and that was originally planned for the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Mount Scopus ended up in Ein Karem instead.

During the 1948 War of Independence, some 5,000 Arab residents of Ein Karem fled within a week due to the combination of rumors of a massacre and an order by Arab leaders to evacuate

Pnina Ein Mor.Credit: Michal Fattal

“This a huge base for the military colleges, which will move from Glilot [outside of Tel Aviv]. A plan was approved to put them near the Hebrew University, which actually wants them — on Mount Scopus, or alternatively in Givat Ram,” she said, referring to the university’s two campuses.

“But now they want to build the college in woodland with tons of archaeological sites from the First Temple period — quarries, storage caves, wine presses — a real Biblical park. That’s where they’ll put a base whose parking lot alone is designed for 500 cars.”

A figure in the Defense Ministry who asked to remain anonymous said that because the university’s proposals were too inflexible and didn’t suit the army, the decision on the location was passed on to the Jerusalem Development Authority, which proposed only the Ein Karem site. The ministry opposed the location for several reasons, including the hilly topography, but the development agency insisted on that site.

First Temple-era terraces

Ein Mor's recent book, “Ein Karem: A Walking and Cooking Tour of the Biblical Village (with photos by Michal Fattal, who also photographs for 'Haaretz,' published by LunchBox Press, in Hebrew), is a mix of wonderful stories and local recipes provided by her daughter, the chef Atalya Ein Mor. Ein Karem, she says, was recognized as worthy of preservation by both the International Council on Monuments and Sites and Israel’s UNESCO office. She thinks the international headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization would extend its recognition if the city government were to commit to preserving the site. Three justifications have been advanced for placing Ein Karem on the World Heritage List.

The first is the landscape, with its ancient terraces, some of which date to the First Temple era. There are also ancient guard posts and waterworks. Together, they display the entire history of agriculture in this area, including during the Muslim and Crusader periods. 

Nuns at Notre Dame de Sion.Credit: Michal Fattal

The second is the site’s sanctity to Christians, along with the artworks that have been inspired by it — from “Salome,” both the play by Oscar Wilde and the opera by Richard Strauss, through the churches whose art depicts the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth to the Magnificats composed by Bach, Vivaldi, Verdi and others.

The third leg is the unusual architecture of the houses, which combines Crusader, Byzantine and Arab elements along with European and Moorish influences.

And who knows more about all these treasures than local residents? But the city refuses to listen to them

“The municipality isn’t willing to discuss anything with us,” Ein Mor said. “They see us as an antagonistic group because of our struggle to create a holistic plan for the place. The only time Mayor Nir Barkat came to Ein Karem — two years ago, with a deputy mayor — it was on the condition that he not meet with any residents or neighborhood association members.”

The situation was completely different when Ehud Olmert was mayor, she said, from 1993 to 2003. “He met with us several times, and he’s the one who announced a plan to turn the place into a car-free site. Hundreds of buses per day sometimes go down our narrow main street; it makes you fear for your life. Alongside them are private cars, which park anywhere they can on weekends. We love the tourists, but what conveys them here is harmful.”

Ein Karem, jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal
Miriam's Spring n Ein Karem, jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal

Ein Mor has a detailed plan to turn the place into an ecotourism village, with a cable car that would bring visitors from Mount Herzl, modeled on similar plans in Europe.

But meanwhile, instead of an ecological village, you’re getting a noisy pumping station.

“They approved a plan for Israel’s largest water facility ever, on the slope below the Notre Dam de Sion. This is Jerusalem’s fifth water line, including a storage facility with a pump that makes a huge racket, and a large gas storage facility alongside it.”

And who’s responsible for this plan?

“The National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration. It just shows, once again, how our planning vision here isn’t comprehensive. And now, we need to say, ‘Stop!’ That’s what I ask of Mayor Barkat, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the city engineer.”
Off in the distance, I could hear banging. “That’s the fifth building plan in the village,” Ein Mor explained. “Above the golden domes of the Russian Monastery they’re building an eight-meter-high concrete rail overpass. It’s right on their ridge, 50 meters away, but from here, it will look as if the train is riding on the domes. 

Walking through Ein Karem. Soon the scenery will change.Credit: Michal Fattal

“It’s the light-rail line from the Ora Junction to Hadassah,” she continued, referring to Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. “The idea of the light-rail is welcome, but they could have done it differently here. In any case, to calm the Russian nuns, they told them, ‘What do you want, it’s 50 meters from your rooms.’ In other words, ‘We’ve kept our distance.’ And they added cynically — and this is true — that passengers will have a wonderful view.”

Arab ghosts

During the 1948 War of Independence, some 5,000 Arab residents of Ein Karem fled within a week due to the combination of rumors of a massacre in the neighboring village of Deir Yassin and an order by Arab leaders to evacuate. In her book, Ein Mor tells several stories about encounters with relatives of those refugees who returned to visit.

Is it uncomfortable to live in houses abandoned by Arabs?

“I was born in an Arab house in Jaffa, and my heart aches for every refugee, no matter who he is. Look, I’m already tearing up. There are no winners in wars. But today, I don’t see any possibility of removing the people from Lod or Ramle or the moshavim or Jaffa and telling the Arabs ‘Come back.’ I do see a need to make an agreement and give them financial compensation.” 

One of the families that returned to visit, she recalled, “thought it important to ask me how long I’d lived in their house — that is, if I came in when they fled. But that’s also irrelevant, because whoever was brought in their place didn’t want to live here. The border with Jordan was close by and dangerous, and most of the houses had no bathrooms or kitchens.”

For whom, in your view, is it easier — you or residents of Ramat Aviv, who live in what used to be Sheikh Munis, which was razed?

Atalya Ein Mor, Michal Fattal and Pnina Ein Mor.Credit: Michal Fattal

“It’s not just Sheikh Munis, it’s the whole country. It’s clear that we feel the physical presence more strongly, but I wouldn’t define it as ‘hard’ or ‘easy.’ There was a situation, and fortunately, we won. The Palestinian people were badly hurt by this. We need to find a way to live with them in peace.”

Regarding the army base, the Jerusalem municipality said, “The historic core of Ein Karem is important and will be preserved. The land designated for building the colleges isn’t close to the village and doesn’t undermine its preservation. It has been legally zoned for public buildings for several years now. 

“The option chosen through an architectural contest run by the army has a modest architectural appearance,” it continued. “Planning has just started, and as usual, there will be a process of public involvement. We regret that extremists are misleading the residents and disseminating erroneous information due to extraneous interests.”

The Defense Ministry said, “In planning the campus, great weight was given to preserving nature. It will be built on just 30 percent of the land, comply with green standards and involve low-rise construction that integrates into the landscape.”

Yoni Shaked, the head of the Ein Karem neighborhood association, said, “The hill in question is within the boundaries of UNESCO’s decision and has been put on the tentative list,” for official recognition. “Construction is liable to thwart this decision. 

“The claim by the army and the municipality that people coming to the base will use public transportation seems ludicrous to us,” he added. “There will be more than 1,000 additional cars on our narrow roads during rush hour. We demand that the alternatives of Givat Ram and Mount Scopus be reconsidered.”

With regard to the hotel, the city said, “The plan was approved in 2009, and it specifies conditions for protecting the spring. This May, a licensing file was opened for the hotel’s construction.”

The neighborhood association said, “The current plan is better than the previous one, but it still includes massive excavation, and according to an opinion by hydrologist Gabi Shaliv, there’s still a serious concern of impeding the flow from the spring to the point of stopping it. We issued a letter opposing [the plan] this month.”

Regarding construction in the old Carmit compound, the city said, “In the new master plan, this compound is earmarked for municipal development, for expansion of the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. The developers and the landowners want a comprehensive ‘urban renewal’ plan for five high-rises on Olsvanger Street. The plan hasn’t yet been submitted. The municipality supports the plan.”

The neighborhood association said, “We’re talking about 18 apartments in towers of up to 28 stories high. We’re working on an alternative plan with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, one that would leave Carmit’s grounds as a hotel complex on green land. This plan, on land purchases by Shlomo Dery and other buyers, which has been advanced in various constellations, will create a severe transportation problem and harm the landscape of the Ein Karem basin.”

Regarding the waterworks, the city said the plan was approved by the National Planning and Building Council. 

The neighborhood association said that after losing a case against the facility in the High Court of Justice, it began working with the Mekorot Water Company, “which agreed to make the changes we requested, and with the municipality (where we found an attentive ear in city architect Ofer Manor) to reduce the damage to the landscape, and especially the acoustic damage, this facility will create.”

Regarding the light-rail, the city said, “The plan to continue the railway line to Hadassah Ein Karem was approved after legal proceedings due to the church’s opposition. A minor widening of the existing road to include the track is preferable to creating a new road that would harm the landscape. The light-rail is a very environmentally friendly means of transportation, which usually runs three to four meters from houses and institutions. Here, it will run 50 meters from [the Russian Monastery].”

Regarding the refusal to meet with the neighborhood association, the city said, “The mayor holds regular meetings with the Yovelim community administration, which represents the residents.” The administration in question covers several neighborhoods of southwestern Jerusalem.