Remnants of an empire: Visit Ottoman-era buildings revamped for modern Jerusalem

On October 30, 1946, members of the Jewish underground in Palestine blew up the waiting room at the Jerusalem Train Station. The railway station was considered a legitimate objective because the trains were used by the British to redeploy their forces. And the British, who ruled the country, were keeping desperate Holocaust survivors from entering Palestine. When the bomb went off, the building was partially destroyed and an Arab policeman and a British sapper were killed.

Inaugurated on September 26,1892, the Jerusalem Station was a joint French/German project that served the very first trains to run from the Holy City to the coast (and back). And while the trip took nearly four hours to complete, the railroad’s opening was a cause for celebration. According to a contemporary newspaper called HaOr (the light), there were “masses of people on Emek Refaim [a street nearby]… Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Europeans, Asians… carriages running back and forth… and the square, almost always desolate, humming with people, their faces joyful… voices crying, ‘the steam engine is coming!… Jerusalem is connected to the world!’”

The First Station

Jerusalem’s historic station operated until the summer of 1998. For some years it sat empty, until restoration began in 2010 on what today is known as the First Station. Open seven days a week, it is one of the most popular sites in the city and features restaurants, free entertainment, bazaars, a wide variety of activities and a scenic running/bicycling/walking path along the old tracks that is over seven kilometers long.

The First Station is only one of dozens of outstanding structures built in Jerusalem during the Ottoman era in Palestine (1517-1917) that are used, today, by different sectors of the population. Constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Jews, Arabs, Ethiopians, Germans, French, English, and Italians, their histories, functions and architecture are widely diverse.

Jerusalem Print Workshop

Among them is the Jerusalem Print Workshop, located at 38 Shivtei Yisrael Street in one of the very first buildings to appear outside the walls of Jerusalem. Dating back to 1865, and designed by an Arab architect, it was constructed in two stages. Over the years it housed all kinds of fascinating residents.

The first was wealthy contractor Hassan Bey Turjeman, who operated a floor tile factory on the first floor. Later residents included a North African Jew living in Paris who used it as his summer home, a survivor of the horrific Kishinev pogroms known as the Red Rabbi (in whose synagogue you could find large pictures of Lenin and of Marx), a sweatshop that produced children’s clothes and jeans takeoffs, and the dormitory of the girls’ school across the road. During the War of Independence and later, the Six-Day War, the beautiful structure was ravaged by bullets and partially destroyed.

In 1976, when artist Arik Kilemnik purchased the building for the non-profit Jerusalem Print Workshop, it was unsafe and in terrible shape. Kilemnik explains that there is a long tradition of printing in the Land of Israel — and he wanted that tradition to continue. Therefore the non-profit invites local and international artists to create prints and artists’ books, financing the entire creative process. They even have the use of old printing machines — including the historical machine built in 1854 in Italy, on which Moshe Yoel Salomon published the first Hebrew-Language newspaper in the country (the Levanon).

Artists’s creations are exhibited in the JPW’s two galleries — enhanced by the arched interior of the building. At the moment a Scottish printer, Stuart Duffin, is showing works that combine etching and Mezzotint, and mainly feature Jerusalem. A second gallery displays prints from a group of artists using a wide variety of techniques. If you visit, look on one of the original doors for a very unusual handle.

Beit Davidoff

Located northwest of the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, the Bukhara Quarter was established in 1891 by wealthy immigrants from Bukhara (a city in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan). It was to have spacious homes on tree-lined boulevards, with main roads a generous width of 10.5 meters and side streets five meters wide. A traditional bunch, they called their neighborhood Rehovot (wide spaces) after a well dug by Isaac in the Valley of Gerar: “He named it Rehovot, saying ‘Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land.’” [Genesis 26:22].

Very little is left of the original neighborhood today, as most of the elegant buildings have been torn down or are in ruins. Descendants of the original residents moved out, and have been replaced almost entirely by Haredim. Even some of the street names have changed (perhaps unofficially). On our last visit, we learned that Rehovot Habukharim Street has become David Street.

However, at least one jewel of a dwelling remains in the neighborhood. Built by Joseph Davidoff in 1914 Street, it is reputed to be a copy of his elegant family home in Bukhara. We know it as Beit Davidoff.

Windows are lined by mini-columns and topped by beautifully carved gables. The exterior boasts floral patterns and an unusual gutter pipe, made of stone instead of tin. A pattern of asymmetrical windows and Stars of David decorate this fabulous building, which was the home of Jerusalem’s first Hebrew High School in the 1920s. Most unusual is its double red-tiled roof, which rises above the building.

After being neglected for decades, Beit Davidoff was restored as the Moksel Center, where ethnic handicrafts were faithfully preserved. Today it houses the Geula Bukarim Community Center, and serves 55,000 area haredi residents.

An excellent permanent exhibit inside the building tells the history of this, and adjacent neighborhoods. The Pa’am (for “in the past”) Visitors’ Center offers a variety of guided tours as well as headphones and maps for audio tours of the Bukharan neighborhood.

Bridges for Peace

Less than two kilometers away, the lovely edifice at 7 Shmuel Adler Street was built by the Royal Ethiopian family at the very beginning of the 20th century. It may have been meant as a winter palace for the Queen, but later was turned into apartments whose rent would lighten the burden of poverty-stricken Christian Ethiopians in Jerusalem.

In 1999 the building was rented to a Christian non-profit called Bridges for Peace and today serves as the organization’s international headquarters. Bridges for Peace was founded in 1976 by Dr. G. Douglas Young, who had earlier established the Institute for Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion (today the Jerusalem  University College).

According to CEO Rebecca Brimmer, Bridges for Peace strives to provide Christians all over the world with a new perspective on Israel. “Most people outside of Israel only know what they read or see in the media,” she explains. “They haven’t been here, they don’t know any Israelis, and may even never have met a Jew. Positive news never makes it past the borders of this country.”

Bridges for Peace raises its funds through offices in nine countries all over the world, in each of which it distributes a lively pro-Israel magazine. The organization is responsible for bringing thousands of tourists to the country each year and, working with nearly two dozen Israeli municipalities and local councils, provides food banks for Israelis in need. In addition, each year 400 Israeli schoolchildren have their educations — from lunches, to supplies to field trips — completely covered by Bridges for Peace.

“We are trying hard to bridge the chasm created between Christians and Jews over 1,700 years of bad history. We can’t change the terrible wrongs that have been done to the Jewish people in the past,” explains Brimmer, “but we can change both the present and the future.”

Geula Bukharim is open Sunday to Thursday 9:00-21:00. Phone: 02-5815463.

Opening hours at the JPW are Sunday-Thursday 8:00-15:00. Visitors, and donations to the non-profit, are welcome.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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