The Phasael Tower offers visitors a 360 degree view of Jerusalem. To the east lies the Old City of Jerusalem and its ancient and historical heritage. But looking west shows a no less momentous and important view – the new city of Jerusalem encapsulating the growth and development of the city.
Luxury apartments, modern shopping centers and hotels lie directly across the road from the museum. However, 53 years ago, anyone standing on the tower would have seen a very different reality – a harsh reality of substandard housing, barbed wire and concrete walls. The capture and unification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, that we celebrate each year on Jerusalem Day, would change the face of Mamilla and the city.
A Growing Commercial District – 1880’s
The Mamilla quarter began to develop in the 1880’s as an unplanned commercial area during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. As Jews began establishing neighborhoods beyond the city walls and European powers established footholds in Jerusalem to stake their claims on the Empire regarded as the “Sick Man of Europe” – shops, residences, religious buildings, workshops and offices began to spread outside the walls of the Old City. The first shops were actually adjacent to the walls themselves as an immediate extension of the crowded Old City. In 1907, the Ottomans built a 14 meter high clock tower on the city walls itself to commemorate thirty years of the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. As more and more residents moved outside the walls, commerce spread to create a growing, somewhat haphazard Mamilla commercial district of patronized by Arabs and Jews alike, adjacent and across from the Old City. Among the houses built there was Stern House where Theodor Herzl stayed on his only visit to Jerusalem in 1898 to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The British Mandate
With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 and the start of the mandatory period, the British conquerors were keen to transform Jerusalem from what they considered a backward Levantine city into a model of European style elegance. As early as 1918, plans were made to clear the walls of the Old City of all the structures that had been built next to it and create a green space around the historic Old City. The British dismantled the buildings that had been erected on and near the walls and even destroyed the famous Clock Tower of Abdul Hamid in 1921. In their stead, they encouraged the building of independent structures across from the Old City Walls.
Between 1918 and 1948, Mamilla developed and expanded. It was the most vibrant commercial center in Jerusalem with both public and private offices, hotels and high end shops, stretching as far west as the Muslim cemetery and the ancient Herodian pool. Jews and Arabs owned over 250 shops in the area and engaged in various commercial ventures. The attractiveness and success of the area however did not save it from destruction. On December 2, 1947, a few days after the United Nations decision on the partition of Palestine into both a Jewish and an Arab state, Arab mobs stormed Mamilla Street and robbed, murdered and set fire to 40 Jewish owned stores.
The War for Independence
As Israel’s war for independence raged, the area came under increasing bombardment until it was abandoned by all the merchants, Arab and Jewish alike. By the end of hostilities, the bombed out area had become a no-man’s land between Jordan and Israel. The armistice agreement kept the eastern sector as a no-man’s land of walls and barbed wire but allowed Israel to populate the western area of Mamilla. But it lay at the foot of the Tower of David, the bastion of the Jordanian Legion and the hostile border open to shelling and attacks. Only poor, immigrant families, with no choices or resources, took up occupancy in the abandoned buildings to raise children among the ramshackle auto repair shops which had taken over the once elegant shops. For nineteen years, they served as the human bulwark and barrier to protect Jerusalem. So Mamilla remained until June 1967.
The Six-Day War and After
The Israeli success in the Six-Day War redrew Jerusalem’s boundaries. The Old City was now part of a unified Jerusalem and the Tower of David, rather than representing a looming threat to the children of Mamilla was now the symbol of the unified city. No longer living on the hostile outskirts of the city, they now found themselves in the very heart of new Jerusalem.
At the same time, however, city planners were devising an ambitious plan to revitalize Mamilla in a way that would merge the Old and New cities to give Jerusalem a much needed vibrant center. The plan presented to city officials included the nationalization of 100 dunams of land as well as the relocation of 700 families and businesses to completely change the essence of the area. Despite local protests at the scope and consequences of the plan, it was accepted by the Jerusalem city council in 1972. The protests continued however, and only in 1988 were the last residents evicted and moved to outlying neighborhoods in Jerusalem. And, only in 2008 was the Mamilla area completed as we see it today.
Viewing the scene from the top of Phasael Tower, Mamilla can be perceived as both a success and a warning. The hotels, shops and restaurants cater to all Jerusalem’s residents and visitors – Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. The walkways are crowded with shoppers and merchants, and tourists wander among the outdoor art exhibits. Mamilla has become a popular passageway that links the ancient and the modern. It has revitalized not only the New City but the Old City as well by providing parking and services for all who visit the Tower of David Museum and the Old City beyond.
But Mamilla also serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when the rights of the least among us are disregarded despite commendable aims and good intentions. The beautiful residences and apartments viewed from above, many bought by foreign visitors who also see Jerusalem as their home, replaced the homes of the large families who originally lived here. Too often, they remain vacant and empty and the lanes deserted, echoing the footsteps of those who lived here before.
Since the 19th century, the story of Mamilla has been a story about buildings and growth but the heart of the story is about the actual people who lived and worked here. That story is still being written. When the Tower of David reopens after the Covid-19 crisis, we invite you to join one of our organized tours to revisit history and to learn about and listen to the many voices of Mamilla.