The Jerusalem Post

City of David has Israel's new ancient attractions - but visiting is hard

 The steps now visible at the Pool of Siloam in the City of David.  (photo credit: Koby Harati/City of David Archives)
The steps now visible at the Pool of Siloam in the City of David.
(photo credit: Koby Harati/City of David Archives)

While a cable car today suffices to bring tourists to Masada, it will likely fail miserably at moving the throngs coming to the Old City and the adjoining City of David.

In Jerusalem, archaeology, transportation planning and tourism can result in a trifecta of trouble. Witness recent controversial plans announced for the historic City of David National Park.

Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists there are engaged in twin massive projects – to excavate the debris-filled Pool of Siloam measuring 69 meters wide; and open the 600-meter-long stepped Pilgrims’ Ascent along which the pious ascended to Herod’s Temple 2,000 years ago after first attaining a state of ritual purity by immersing in the mikveh fed by the Gihon Spring.

Both stellar attractions, slated to open in 2025, promise to jump-start tourism in the holy city afflicted by the COVID-19 epidemic. Unresolved is how the masses of visitors and pilgrims will reach them.

How will visitors get to these new ancient attractions in Jerusalem's City of David?

Licensed tour guides such as this writer are shaking their heads in bewilderment at the area’s ill-conceived transportation plans. Currently, buses, taxis and private cars are routinely stuck in traffic inching along the two-lane Ophel Way at the southeast corner of the Old City’s Ottoman ramparts. In frustration, many drivers give up trying to reach the Dung Gate – the most popular access point for the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Painfully executing a three-point turn, they slink back northward toward Sultan Suleiman Street, where equally sclerotic traffic jams await them.


Infrastructure work now being carried out in the vicinity by the municipality; the Moriah Jerusalem Development Corporation, which it established in 1987 to carry out development work for the local government; the Ministry of Tourism; the Western Wall Heritage Foundation; the Jerusalem Development Authority; and several other bloated bureaucracies is unlikely to cut the Gordian knot of too many vehicles navigating too few roads. Site manager Abed Hawash explains that while bollards may prevent cars from illegally parking on sidewalks, cosmetic changes won’t improve traffic congestion.

 An artist’s rendering of the Pool of Siloam in the Second Temple period.  (credit: Shalom Kveller/City of David Archives)
An artist’s rendering of the Pool of Siloam in the Second Temple period. (credit: Shalom Kveller/City of David Archives)

The solution proffered? A pie-in-the-sky cable car being touted to zip visitors from Remez Square and the Turkish train station there, now re-purposed as the First Station entertainment complex, to a rooftop terminus crowning the yet-to-be-built offices of the City of David national park,  which will be erected atop the archaeological wonders uncovered beneath the former Givati parking lot.

The problems here are manifold.

Firstly, it remains unclear if the cable car will be able to transport the myriad throngs who regularly flock to the historic area.

Secondly, the extension of Israel Railways’ Jerusalem line to two new stations – one at King George and Jaffa, and the other by the Khan Theater – is only scheduled to be inaugurated in 2030. Thus for the better part of a decade, the chaos by the Dung Gate will only be transposed to a new location a few kilometers to the west.


Thirdly, although the cable car was originally proposed to continue eastward across the Kidron Valley (also known as the Valley of Jehoshaphat) to reach the Mount of Olives, where it would connect with the terminus of the Green Line slated to open in 2025, the light rail was truncated by the Ministry of Finance and now will end at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Patients wanting to reach al-Makassed Hospital, the residents of several east Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the many tourists/pilgrims trying to explore the area’s myriad Jewish, Christian and Islamic sites will be out of luck.

Currently, travelers must negotiate the muddle of three bus stations in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate to find the No. 275 bus to the Mount of Olives. In a small step toward normalization, buses operating from there now accept the Rav Kav transportation card. Similarly, maps in Arabic, Hebrew and English have been posted in the area, and have been buses renumbered so they don’t confusingly bear the same number as their counterparts in west Jerusalem.

No less importantly, the specter of a cable car supported by monumentally ugly pylons desecrating the sacred landscape has been decried by Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On October 6, a cornerstone laying ceremony was held for the 200-meter-long suspension bridge over the Hinnom Valley/Wadi Rababa that will facilitate the cable car. Present were Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion; IAA director Eli Eskosido, then-minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage Ze’ev Elkin; and then-tourism minister Yoel Razvozov.

At the event, Elkin declared: “The suspension bridge is an important strategic project led by the Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs and other partners. We are working to turn the Hinnom Valley into a developed tourism zone and, in so doing, achieve two additional goals. One is to strengthen the sense of security and sovereignty in the area; the other is to ease access to the Old City.”

But glitzy artists’ impressions and fatuous words are no substitute for expensive engineering and infrastructure. While Rome was not built in a day, the Colosseo station on Line B of the Eternal City’s Metro opened in 1955. A second line will begin service in the archaeologically rich area in 2024.

Similarly, Israel’s Ministry of Transportation bureaucrats and politicians must understand there are no shortcuts to building the new Jerusalem. Just as planners in the 1960s envisioned future roads that would unite the Israeli and Jordanian halves of the city divided by barbed wire and minefields, so too Israel today must plan for a time when politics has been trumped by peace.

Instead of a boondoggle cable car going nowhere, planners must envision Israel Railroads extending its tracks underground eastward from the Khan to the Dung Gate, and on to Ma’ale Adumim, Jericho and Amman, and south to Manger Square in Bethlehem, Gush Etzion, Hebron and Beersheba.

While a cable car today suffices to bring tourists to Masada, it will likely fail miserably at moving the throngs coming to the Old City and the adjoining City of David.

THE CITY of David is Israel’s largest ongoing archaeological dig. Every time this writer visits, something new has been uncovered. For a decade, hundreds of IAA archaeologists and workers have been toiling underground to uncover the monumental 2,000-year-old Pilgrimage Road that led from the Pool of Siloam at the bottom of the hill to Herod’s Temple at its peak. Two millennia ago, during Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, millions of Jewish pilgrims ascended in joy along the ancient path to reach Herod’s shrine.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, the stepped street became buried under rubble. Over the centuries, the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan grew up on top of the now-hidden pedestrian-only road. Excavating the underground path has meant buttressing the houses on top as rubble has been cleared away below. While the site is not slated to open to the public for another two years, sections are already open.

“We still have approximately 100 meters left [to excavate] to open the entire road for tourists,” said Ari Levy, director of excavations at the site for the IAA.

Discovered in 2004 after a sewage pipe burst in Silwan, IAA archaeologists under the direction of professors Roni Reich and Eli Shukron have been excavating the site since 2013. While some residents have complained that the dig was undermining their homes, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the tunnel is safe and is being carefully supervised by a corps of engineers.

Earth sifted at the site has revealed a plethora of artifacts, including cookware, jewelry, and money the pilgrims brought to purchase the half-shekel silver coins they would offer up at the Temple.

“Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period was a flourishing city with a lot of people,” Levy related. “It was a Jewish city and a Roman city. It was built by the Romans for the Romans and for the Jews.”

While Herod the Great (circa 37 to 4 BCE), Rome’s vassal king, is widely credited with having rebuilt Jerusalem as a luxurious Roman metropolis, in fact the work continued beyond his lifetime. Levy suggests it was Pontius Pilate, who served as the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, from 26 to 36 CE, who built the Pilgrimage Road.

Elegantly laid out with a sewer beneath the limestone paving stones, it functioned as one of Jerusalem’s main arteries. A bustling market serviced the pilgrims’ needs, with vendors offering animals for sacrifice, as well as food and souvenirs.

The road began at the Pool of Siloam, and the excavations there are the second great project now underway at the City of David. Originally built by King Hezekiah some 27 centuries ago, the pool collected the water of the Gihon Spring, diverted by a snaking tunnel he burrowed under his capital. Herod enlarged and remodeled the holy ghat [passage leading down to a river], which was surrounded by steps on three sides to facilitate the masses entering the water.

While Israelis and Jewish tourists will likely appreciate the site for the splendor of ancient Jerusalem, for Christians it has another meaning. It was here, according to John 9:1-7, that Jesus miraculously restored the vision of a man born blind. Similarly, it was at the Gihon Spring that Mary washed out newborn Jesus’s diapers.

That biblical connection has attracted archaeologists from around the world since the end of the 19th century. In the 1890s, a group of British-American archaeologists led by F.J. Bliss and A.C. Dickey uncovered some of the steps of the pool. And in the 1960s, British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated the site.

Mayor Lion said, “The Pool of Siloam in the City of David National Park in Jerusalem is a site of historic, national, and international significance. After many years of expectation, we will soon begin uncovering this important site and make it accessible to the millions of people who visit Jerusalem every year.” ■