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Jerusalem Strolls: HaNeviim and Ethiopia St.

by harry September 03 2008
Jerusalem strollsThings to do
Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem

Only a couple minutes' walk removed from the night-and-day bustle of Jaffa Road is one of Jerusalem's most serene and most picturesque boulevards, HaNeviim ("The Prophets"), a stately thoroughfare cutting a mostly straight line from Davidka Square near the Machane Yehuda shuk right up to the walls of the Old City at the Damascus Gate. HaNeviim stretches not only across Jerusalem's geography but across her demography and across her history; to walk down its narrow sidewalks is to walk across the lines that separate secular from religious, modern from traditional, Jew from Arab, and to walk through the past 120-odd years of Jerusalem history, the century-and-change that turned the city from a dusty Ottoman backwater into the vibrant national capital it is today.

The story of HaNeviim is intertwined with the development of modern Jerusalem, which began in the latter half of the 19th century as Jews and Christians began to pour out of the overflowing Old City, building new neighborhoods and cultural and religious institutions in the one-time no man's land outside the city walls. The Christians especially took to the area around HaNeviim, multiple denominations building churches, monasteries and hospices along the road. The street flourished under the British Mandate, but after the British abandoned their claim to Palestine and let the Jews and Arabs fight it out for themselves, HaNeviim was split in two in 1948 by the Seam Line, which separated Israeli west Jerusalem from Jordanian east Jerusalem. Even now, 41 years after unification, there are two distinct parts of HaNeviim, corresponding exactly with the former border - but at least now you can travel between them without having to worry about concertina wire and snipers.

Start at Machane Yehuda, because time spent being harangued by the pushy merchants of the shuk is time well-spent. Buy some of that juicy, ripe, fresh-off-the-kibbutz in-season fruit that Israel is so justly famed for - it'll fortify you for the meandering journey ahead.

Neviim starts at Davidka Square, where the city mounted one of the few remaining Davidkas, a makeshift mortar built by Israeli forces during the 1948 War of Independence that served essentially as a glorified noisemaker. Its destructive power was almost nil, but the little cannon that could made such a tremendous boom that it often caused the opposing side to flee (the Arab population of Tzfat abandoned the city because they mistook the Davidka for an atomic bomb). Davidka Square is currently going through massive renovations in order to create a public space, so the the Davidka itself has been temporarily removed and the area is congested and dusty.

Between the Square and the city center, you'll be skirting the heart of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox sector, the combined Haredi super-neighborhood of Meah Shearim and Geulah. While HaNeviim doesn't enter Meah Shearim/Geulah per se, you can't miss the air of increased religiosity - even though Jaffa Road is only a few meters away. On the corner of HaNeviim and Strauss, one of the main arteries of Geulah, is the venerable Bikkur Cholim hospital, which specializes in treating religious Jerusalemites of all stripes (and was recently purchased by Oligarch and Jerusalem mayoral candidate Arcadi Gaydamak). Its deference to issues of modesty makes it the go-to place of healing for fervent Jews and Muslims all over the city.

Make a left onto Ethiopia Street, a quiet respite from the heavily trafficked city center. Named after the church on which the street resides, Ethiopia Street features dozens of houses that were built in the 1880s by long time Jerusalem families the Husseinis and the Nashashibis and hide behind high stone walls, a security necessity back in the day. These luxurious houses were rented out and sold to local luminaries such judges, scholars, as well as Dov Frumkin, the father of Hebrew journalism and recently deceased preeminent woodcut artist Jacob Pins. The street was also once home to the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (formerly known as the American School of Oriental Research). Take a gander at the house located at number 8. Look up above the balcony on the top story and you'll see a emblem of The Lion of Judah. This house, along with other houses was built by Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia during the turn of the century in order to bring in rental revenue for the Ethiopian Church located nearby. These buildings once housed a orphanage as well as the original nursing school of Hadassah hospital.

Walk a bit further up the street and you'll see a somewhat dilapidated building. This housed Ethiopia street's most famous and certainly most influential resident - Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. Sadly, his house is unkempt (abandoned even) and even the sign that once told the story of the house has disappeared and was never replaced.

Cross the street and you'll be welcomed by the iron gated entrance to the Ethiopian Church compound (Debra Gannet). The foundations for the church were laid in 1882 and the site was competed ten years later. Visitors from the West can appreciate its style of construction, different from the standard layout of churches in the West; instead of the usual corridor leading up to the altar, Debra Gannet is a circular structure, radiating outward from the altar in the church's very center. The monastery is home to several dozen monks and nuns, and the entire complex is erratically open to visitors, free of charge (although donations are encouraged).

Ultra-Orthodox couple take a walk on HaNeviim str.

Head out of the quiet church compound and make your way back to HaNeviim street and hang a left.

Once you make it to the messy intersection where HaNeviim abuts the Russian Compound, it's time to stop for a well-deserved treat. All that absorption of history has doubtless made you hungry, and you're lucky enough to now be located right outside one of the best falafel joints in Jerusalem: the Yemenite Falafel Center, a tiny shop specializing in the Yemenite variant of falafel, drier and yellower than the herb-laden standard Israeli version. Upon entry, you will be presented with a piping hot falafel ball to sample. That alone lets you know you've come to the right place. If you show up on a Friday, you just may have the option of getting your falafel wrapped in your choice of one of the two Yemenite staple breads, saluf and laxoox. After leaving falafel-land, you'll start down a hill and eventually hit Highway 1, which happens to run along the former route of the aforementioned Seam Line. While Jerusalem is unified, the difference between HaNeviim on either side of Highway 1 is still palpable. Once you cross over to the far side, Hebrew yields to Arabic, churches yield to mosques, and the atmosphere shifts subtly from "downtown" to "Old City." Eastern HaNeviim Street is a major shopping area for Arab Jerusalemites, with dozens of small groceries and restaurants lining the street as it winds its way down to the Damascus Gate. If you've still got some room for food in you, this is a great place to pick up some gooey Arab sweets. Be sure to stop at Jaffar's sweets just inside the Damascus gate for the city's best kanafe, a deliciously sweet dessert .

Make sure to get a-tourin' while the scene lasts, because the Municipality intends to repurpose HaNeviim as a major traffic artery after Jaffa Road becomes pedestrian-only, a transition, according to Municipality estimates, slated to occur two years after the sun, having depleted the heavy elements in its core, expands into an angry red colossus and swallows up the Earth.

Image of Ethiopian Church by Harry Rubenstein for Jerusalemite. Image of HaNeviim Street courtesy of Creap under a Creative Commons license. 

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