by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
Crowning the ridge overlooking the Hinnom Valley is a white-sailed windmill called the Montefiore windmill, a seemingly out-of-place landmark near Jerusalem’s center and directly across the valley from the Old City and Mount Zion. At its base lies one of the oldest and loveliest residential neighborhoods in the city: Yemin Moshe. Next door and considered part of Yemin Moshe is the neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Take a stroll along the cobblestoned alleyways and one is struck by the tranquil atmosphere that hints little at Yemin Moshe’s tumultuous past as the first Jewish neighborhood built outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
Escaping the Squalor
In the mid-19th century, the Old City was a dismal place. Small, filthy houses were inhabited by several Jewish families at one time, and the rampant overcrowding meant the city was a prime breeding ground for disease. Yet for most residents, the safety within the walls of the Old City far outweighed the squalor they had to endure. The fortress-like walls offered protection from bandits that preyed upon those unfortunate enough to be caught outside the city walls at night.
In 1857, British Jewish philanthropist Moses (Moshe) Montefiore determined to use his fortune to help the impoverished people of Jerusalem. Montefiore was the executor of US $60,000 bequeathed to Jews in the Holy Land by an American Jew, Judah Touro. With it, Montefiore purchased some acres of land across the valley from Mount Zion to establish a hospital. Though the hospital never came to fruition, he decided to use the land to alleviate the housing crisis facing the poor Jewish population in the Old
City. On the hillside, he built a long building which housed 28 two-bedroom apartments. To reassure prospective residents of its safety, Montefiore built the houses of limestone with crenellated rooflines to mimic the Old City walls and enclosed the area with its own high stone wall. Six years later, he built a second building on the hillside above the first. He also built a windmill for milling flour, a textile factory and a printing press, intending to provide employment opportunities for the residents.
Outside the Walls
Montefiore called this first neighborhood Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which means “Dwellings of Tranquility.” He drew the name from Isaiah 32:18: “My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places…”
But neither the high stone wall nor the peaceful name nor even the offer of payment to live in the new neighborhood was enough to convince the inhabitants of the Old City to leave its safety. It took a cholera epidemic inside the walls to eventually persuade families to venture out and take up residence. Even then, some of the inhabitants moved back into the Old City every night, too frightened to face the hostile bandits roaming the area.
By 1892, Mishkenot Sha’ananim was well established, and more homes were added in an extension of the neighborhood called Yemin Moshe (The Right Hand of Moses). The neighborhood was named in honor of Montefiore, who died in 1885 at 101 years of age and did not live to see the development of Yemin Moshe.
Yet even with its growing population of 900 people by 1920, Yemin Moshe was a dangerous place to live. The residents were targeted during the Arab riots in the 1920s and were in the sights of Arab snipers perched on the Old City walls during the uprisings in the 1930s. During the War of Independence in 1948, Yemin Moshe had to defend against violent Arab and Jordanian assaults. The area just below the neighborhood delineated the border between Israeli and Jordanian forces, and the residents, having already endured so much, decided to abandon their homes and move out. For 19 long years, Yemin Moshe and Mishkenot Sha’ananim lay moldering in squalor, serving as a shelter for destitute Turkish and Iraqi immigrants.
Then in 1967, Israeli troops reunited Jerusalem in the Six Day War. Yemin Moshe was no longer on the border separating Israel and Jordan, but the conflict had left it in tatters. Plans for its rehabilitation included having the Turkish and Iraqi immigrants moved to other parts of the city while well-heeled residents moved in with money enough to renovate the neighborhood to its current glory.
Yemen Moshe Today
Yemin Moshe’s quiet, pedestrian streets (there are no cars allowed) echo with the sounds of birdlife, the
footfalls of walkers and the laughter of families enjoying its serene gardens. The original limestone homes gated with colorful wrought iron and draped with bougainvillea are located on multiple levels as the neighborhood climbs gracefully up the hill. The narrow alleyways are a popular place for those who want to get away from the bustle of central Jerusalem and take in the views across the valley to the Old City. A short walk down into the valley and up the steep path to Mount Zion will put you in the Old City in a matter of minutes.
The restored buildings of Mishkenot Sha’ananim have been transformed into a cultural center, providing accommodation for visiting artists, authors and musicians, and a home for the prestigious Jerusalem Music Center.
Today, Yemin Moshe’s windmill also stands restored and is a striking testament to Montefiore’s efforts to build up Zion. He chose to be the “right hand” of the Lord, and the biblical vision for a prosperous, restored Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6–9) has borne fruit in the beautiful neighborhood he inspired.
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