Peeking Through the Highrises: Famed Jerusalem Street's Old Architectural Glories

Late-19th century buildings on famed Jerusalem street are being blocked from view by construction.

Here lived Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the poet Rachel and Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, there stands a Swedish religious center, an Ethiopian church, a French convent, a mosque. These beautiful buildings in the neighborhood of Jerusalem's Hanevi'im (Prophets ) Street, built in the late 19th- through early 20th centuries, will soon be surrounded by a suffocating ring of high-rise apartment buildings. Not that we bothered to nurture them until now.

When I drove to Jerusalem this week I planned a short farewell visit to Sergei's Courtyard. The lovely courtyard, which has a blossoming garden in the center, is being evacuated before its return to the Russian government in about a week. At the end of the visit I discovered that the farewell party is much bigger; in effect we are about to part from the entire neighborhood.

Although nobody is (yet ) destroying the old buildings, some of the most wonderful in the city, the new construction around them is depressing. Next to Hanevi'im Street, in a square of about 500 meters on each side, we are witnessing a major and overly energetic construction spree that is dwarfing the houses, parks and other attractive sites, putting them in the shade like a kind of backyard than can be seen from the new balconies.

The most common sign in the neighborhood these days is written in English, in huge red letters: Luxury Apartments. It looks bad. Hanevi'im Street, in the city center area between Strauss Street on the west and Shivtei Yisrael Street on the east, adjacent to Mea Shearim, between the Habashim neighborhood and the Russian Compound, will no longer be the same modest place surrounded by 19th-century houses. Part of the attendant regret stems from knowing that nothing helpful was done in this neighborhood, certainly not since 1948. Today there is a tremendous gap between the dirty streets covered with signs and advertisements, and the lovely, heart-wrenching houses and their interior courtyards built 80 to 150 years ago.

Tabor House, 58 Hanevi'im

Lotan Tudor has been volunteering for the past three months in Tabor House. She arrived here with her husband from a small town near Stockholm. They are both devout Protestants who fell in love with the place when they visited Jerusalem. Only later did they discover that Tabor House, which since 1951 has been a Swedish religious center, accepts volunteers for stretches of four months to a year. "This is the nicest period in our lives," says Tudor after opening the gate and taking me on a tour of the building.

Conrad Schick, architect, archaeologist, pilgrim and maker of clocks and models, built the house in the 1880s. Schick came to Jerusalem in mid-century and acquired a reputation as one of the city's greatest builders and archivists. Among other things he designed the Mea Shearim neighborhood, the Talita Kumi orphanage and the lepers' hospital. Tabor House, where Schick lived until his death in 1901, is today considered one of Jerusalem's most beautiful buildings. The front gate, with its turret, looks like the entrance of a German fortress. The walls of the main building are thick, and the design is like that of many Arab houses, with a long central room that leads into side rooms.

Tudor takes me to two libraries, a small church, a balcony that opens onto the roof and the shaded interior courtyard. The detail that stands out in all these rooms is the furniture: the light-colored chairs, tables and bookcases of the Swedish firm Ikea. They are especially prominent next to the stones of the building. As with several sites along on the Hanevi'im route, a moment after one enters Tabor House, he feels as though he is in another country, another continent. It may not be logical, but the air in the Swedish Theological Institute is unnaturally cool and pleasant. Tabor House is open to visitors Monday-Friday, 9 A.M. to 1 P.M.

Saint Joseph Convent, 66 Hanevi'im

A few buildings to the west of Tabor House, behind a fortified wall, stands the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, an order of French Catholic nuns that operated in the Old City before moving in the late 19th century to Hanevi'im Street. Construction of the large, neoclassical building was completed only in 1930.

The elderly nun who opened the gate after asking several times over the intercom what I wanted, smiled politely but explained that it was impossible to go inside the actual building, where five nuns were living. She invited me to walk around some more in the courtyard and garden, in which several huge palm trees were growing, although she recommended a visit to the church on nearby Kook Street. The convent has no regular visiting hours.

Bikur Holim, 6 Strauss

The veteran Bikur Holim hospital, which was dedicated at the corner of Hanevi'im and Strauss in 1925, is a lovely building whose function will probably change in the coming years. It's worthwhile to look at the impressive bronze doors facing the street; they were designed by Ze'ev Raban, one of the outstanding artists in Jerusalem and a teacher at the Bezalel Academy in the 1920s. The metal etchings on the doors represent animals, the fruits of the Land of Israel and the symbols of the 12 tribes. There is something naive and hopeful about them, and they don't belong to the busy street filled with speeding buses.

There are no restrictions on hours or days for visiting.

Nebi (Prophet ) Akasha Mosque, junction of Strauss and Hanevi'im

Several ultra-Orthodox children were playing with a red balloon next to the playground facilities in the park when I visited. On one side of the park stands a 19th-century mosque with a turret. On the other side is a tomb from the 12th century. The mosque, which is used as a warehouse of the Jerusalem municipality (closed to visitors ), provides an explanation for the name of Hanevi'im Street. Here lies Nebi Akasha Bin Mohsin, one of the disciples of the prophet Mohammed. According to another Muslim tradition, at this site the three great prophets, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, were buried. British High Commissioner John Chancellor nodded to this claim when he decided to name the adjacent street Hanevi'im.

In the past 80 years the mosque building has served as a target of the anger of Jewish residents. In 1929 it was set on fire in reaction to Arab massacres. In 2000 local Jews tried to set it on fire again, and in December 2011 it was sprayed with anti-Muslim hate graffiti by people who again tried to burn it down. The graffiti was erased, the mosque-turned-warehouse now looks clean, even serene now, until the moment when the balloon burst and the little boy with the long sidecurls burst into tears.

Ethiopian Church, 10 Ethiopia Street

The experience of moving between religions, nations and continents on this tour is particularly vivid here. The Ethiopian church (Dabra Gannat, or Mountain of Paradise ) is one of the most fascinating places in Jerusalem. At the threshold, immediately after I removed my shoes, one of the worshippers flung his arms wide and invited me to enter. The inside of the circular church is enchanting, enveloped as it is in strong colors and filled with paintings, sculptures and decorations. Several dozen worshippers in white were in attendance in the morning.

The faithful of the Ethiopian Church, about 25 million the world over, believe that their royal family originated with the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The Ethiopian royal dynasty, which was strong and wealthy in the late 19th century, built several interesting structures in the Habashim (Ethiopians ) neighborhood, with the church in the center. The place is open every day, all day long. At 38 Hanevi'im Street stands the Ethiopian Consulate building, used today as a residential building and looking very neglected.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda House, 11 Ethiopia Street

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of the Hebrew language who died 90 years ago, lived in the building opposite the Ethiopian church. Here he wrote his famous dictionary. Unfortunately, the building is closed and contains no hint of the honor its one-time tenant deserves. A small sign with a quote from Yaron London's poem about Ben Yehuda is the only evidence of the place's historic importance. The Hebrew Language Academy reconstructed a room on the Hebrew University campus at Givat Ram, which contains Ben Yehuda's library and his desk, with the following verse above it: "The day is short and there is a lot of work."

Holman Hunt House, 64 Hanevi'im

The house, built by British artist William Holman Hunt in 1869, provides a wonderful opportunity to understand the original building style on Hanevi'im. Surrounding the huge courtyard are several one-story residences and a larger building at the end. The poet Rachel (Bluwstein ) lived here in 1925, and in the courtyard one can still see the great pear tree planted by Hunt that inspired one of Rachel's poems.

Another famed resident was Helena Kagan, a Jerusalem pioneer in pediatrics, who lived in this house for about 60 years. Whatever the plans may be for this site, its appearance is sad. The large courtyard is neglected and the well in the garden is almost entirely covered with foliage.

The courtyard is open to visitors, while the houses inside are private.

@Rabbi Kook House, Ticho Street, behind 39 Hanevi'im

Rabbi Kook House is now a small museum with photographs and information about the life of the rabbi who adapted Orthodox Judaism to Zionism. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook lived on the second floor of Beit David, a square compound that surrounds a courtyard, a common building style in 19th-century Jerusalem. The compound, named after philanthropist David Reis, was built in 1873. The second floor was built in 1922 in honor of Kook, who later established the country's Chief Rabbinate and served as the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi. The courtyard, in which a statue is covered with a prayer shawl, is dirty, neglected and gloomy.

The museum is open Monday-Thursday, 9 A.M.-4 P.M., and on Friday until noon. Entrance fee is NIS 12.

Ticho House, Ticho Street, behind Hanevi'im 43

This lovely, well-kept museum, a branch of the Israel Museum, stands as an example of the way many of the neighborhood buildings should have been preserved. The building was built in 1864 by a wealthy Muslim named Aga Rashid Nashishibi. Dr. Avraham Ticho, a famous ophthalmologist, purchased the house in 1912 and lived there with his wife, artist Anna Ticho. The house was renovated by architect David Kroyanker in the 1980s and the garden that surrounds it provides is a source of enjoyment to the public, but all this is now being overshadowed by the two huge apartment buildings that block the light and air on both sides of the garden.

The museum is open Monday-Thursday from 10 A.M.- 5 P.M., and on Friday until 2 P.M. Closed on Shabbat. The cafe and garden are open every day except Shabbat from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M., and on Friday until 3 P.M.

Sergei's Courtyard, 13 Heleni Hamalka

The yard, about 100 meters south of Hanevi'im Street, was built in 1890 to host Russian pilgrims. It bears the name of Prince Sergei, son of Czar Alexander II. The architect was Frank Gia, who built an exemplary Renaissance building around the closed courtyard with towers, round turrets and passages that seem to come from a fairy tale about a prince imprisoned in a palace.

Currently the last remaining offices on the site - those of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel - are being evacuated. Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu all approved the agreement to return the compound to the Russian government, at the personal insistence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Avraham Shaked, a senior SPNI official in Jerusalem and old friend, suggests drily that I'm attracted to sentimental farewells. Shaked, who in his time served as director of the Santa Catarina field school in Sinai, is, as he puts it, a "veteran evictee," so the departure this time isn't particularly hard for him. "Let them give it to the Russians if they want," he says. "Maybe that way we'll cause less damage in the future."

A street scene on Jerusalem's Hanevi'im Street.
Moshe Gilad
The Ethiopian church, "Mountain of Paradise."
Moshe Gilad