by: Sarah Yoder, BFP Staff Writer
One of my favorite things about living in Jerusalem is the seemingly never-ending layers of history that coexist with the style and energy of the modern capital of Israel. This city is a treasure trove of ancient history ever present amidst the contemporary everyday hustle and bustle of life. Let’s take a look at a few lesser known examples.
Nestled in a valley between the Knesset (Parliament), the Israel Museum and the upscale neighborhood of Rehavia lies a magnificent monastery called the Monastery of the Cross. This medieval structure, which stands in stark contrast to the modern architecture around it, derives its name from a legend that the wood used for Jesus’ (Yeshua’s) cross came from an olive tree in the valley where the monastery resides. With an appearance more akin to a fortress than a spiritual haven, the monastery is strikingly formidable despite its small size. The reinforced walls and high windows tell of a need for security, seeing that it lies outside the ancient city walls of Jerusalem.
The monastery was originally built during the fifth century, although sources disagree about whom to credit with its creation. The Persian invasion of AD 614 destroyed much of the original structure, and the site remained vacant until a Georgian monk rebuilt it in the 11th century. Over the next few centuries, the monastery flourished as haven to monks, scholars and poets. It was also during this period that many skilled Georgian artists painted intricate frescos in the grand halls of the chapel.
When the Crusaders left Jerusalem in AD 1267, the monastery fell under the control of the Mamelukes, who added a mosque inside the complex. The Georgian monastery was eventually sold to the Greek Orthodox church, who restored much of the compound and remains in control of it today. The monastery is still active, with a few monks in residence. Visitors are free to roam the fortified Crusader walls, be enthralled by the frescoes in the chapel and catch a glimpse of the fragments of the mosaic floor still intact from the original fifth-century structure.
The Rehavia neighborhood is one of the most upscale residential neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Since its conception in the 1920s, this lush neighborhood has been home to respected noblemen, doctors, professors and politicians—including the official residence of the prime minister. But something quite unexpected resides in the midst of these high-end homes: a tomb from the second century BC.
As is common with ancient treasures unearthed in Jerusalem, this tomb was accidentally discovered in 1956 when detonating a charge to make way for new apartment buildings. Excavations of the structure began right away, and soon the tomb was unveiled, along with coins from the Hasmonean and Roman periods. This rock-cut tomb is dated to the time of the Maccabees, and carved inscriptions on the walls indicate that the tomb belongs to a man named Jason.
Jason was a Hellenistic high priest who served in Jerusalem from 175–172 BC under the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes—the same king against whom the Maccabean revolt took place. Jason’s service was corrupt and short lived, while his successor, Menelaus, was even greedier. The book of the Maccabees details accounts of how Jason and his successors were fueled by a lust for power rather than a genuine devotion to God. In fact, it was their corrupt policies that ultimately inspired the Maccabean revolt that liberated Jerusalem and purified the Temple.
One of the trendiest hubs of activity in Jerusalem today is the First Station. Located near city center and less than a kilometer from the Old City walls, this vibrant outdoor mall is built on the legacy of the first Ottoman-era train station. The story begins in the 19th century, when Jerusalem was rapidly growing beyond its Old City limits, propelled by an increase in visitors and the first wave of aliyah (immigration to Israel). Jerusalem was on the cusp of modern development, yet hindered by a lack of advanced transportation. Camels, donkeys and caravans were still the primary means of travel, and the journey from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem would take well over ten hours. All this changed when a Jewish entrepreneur named Joseph Navon initiated a project to construct the first railroad line in British Mandate Palestine.
On September 26, 1892, the first train from Jaffa made its way to Jerusalem and came to a thundering halt at First Station. The train was gleefully received by a tremendous crowd that included Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known affectionately as the “father” of modern Hebrew. When recalling that historic day, Ben-Yehuda later wrote that the sound of the train’s whistle was like that of a loud shofar (ram’s horn). The welcome stage at First Station was lined with Turkish ambassadors and dignitaries from the city of Jerusalem as both Jews and Arabs celebrated the monumental occasion together.
The Jaffa–Jerusalem railway line radicalized travel. The line remained active until 1998, when the First Station closed. It remained abandoned until the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority teamed up to revive the station. The original buildings underwent extensive renovations, and in the spring of 2013, the station reopened as a center for shopping, leisure and culinary delight. The effort was a booming success, and today the First Station is a popular hang-out spot among local Jerusalemites and tourists alike. With its plethora of diverse food options, family friendly activities and variety of entertainment specials, the First Station is nearly always abuzz with activity.
These are a few examples that remind us of the way this modern city was built upon layers and layers of history. How unique it is that here in Jerusalem, you can simply walk down the street on the way to work and pass by a structure from centuries ago. This city has worked tirelessly to preserve, celebrate and repurpose these sites, and it is something I am grateful for every day that I get to traverse these beautiful streets.
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