A New Year Is Just Around The Corner

Shame on me, allowing almost three months to pass without writing about anything. And now, lo and behold – Rosh Hashana is less than a fortnight away, the children are all back at school (the almost “traditional” teachers’ strike having been averted – as usual – at the last minute), choir rehearsals have started again (we are working on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which it has long been an ambition of mine to sing), and earlier this month, I took part in an afternoon walking tour with Yad Ben Zvi – my first in a very, very long time (thanks to the impact of COVID-19).

This tour was (for me) a very local tour, from the old Ottoman Railway Station (now converted into a restaurant and cafe quarter), to the Bible Hill opposite (so called because Ben Gurion wanted to open a Bible Institute on the hill but now, best known for the wildflowers that cover it in spring and autumn, especially the squills which bloom there at the end of the summer and are known as harbingers of the Fall), past the Khan Theatre, taking in St. Andrew’s Scottish Church with its rather tenuous connection to Robert the Bruce, an ancient necropolis dating back to the First Temple period, and ending with a monument to peace made of the debris of war.

Opposite the old Railway Station is a piece of street art, which many people pass by without noticing, except maybe to ask themselves, why anyone would park a car in such an awkward place.

Actually. whenever I see this statue, the work of the sculptor and painter Gavriel Klasmer, I am reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and the painting of the boa constrictor digesting an elephant, which the undiscerning mistake for a picture of a hat.

A few yards further on is a drinking fountain, donated as a parting gift to the people of Jerusalem by General Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, who served as the British High Commissioner for Palestine between 1931 – 1938.

By the way – it doesn’t work!

Not much further along the road is the Khan Theatre, which I have always been given to understand to have been originally built in the Ottoman Turkish period as a caravanserai – a roadside inn where caravan travellers could rest overnight on their way to Jerusalem in the days when the city gates were closed at sunset. However, it appears there is some disagreement about that. Even the Jerusalem Municipality seems to be unable to make up its mind about the origins of the Khan, which would explain the existence of not one, but TWO plaques, one at each side of the entrance. One of them claims that the building dates to the Mamluk period (1250 – 1517 C.E.):

The other dates the building to 1853 and claims it originally served as a silk factory, before being converted to a hostel for Christian and Jewish pilgrims on their way to Hebron and Bethlehem.

The latter story does seem more likely, as the present building does not bear the distinguishing characteristics of Mamluk architecture as found elsewhere in Jerusalem, such as alternating layers of different coloured bricks, for example. Moreover, the date, 1853, is very specific indeed.
I imagine that there are elements of truth in both stories and it is entirely possible that the present building (which was, itself, renovated in the late 1960s and early 1970s) was built on the site of a pre-existing caravanserai.
Nowadays, as I already mentioned, the building complex houses the Khan Theatre repertory company and serves as the venue for various cultural events in its courtyard and restaurant cafe.

Just beyond the Khan, passing an old stone building which, until quite recently, housed the British Consulate in Jerusalem (well, in western Jerusalem, at least), is the turn-off to what is known to every Jerusalemite as “the Scottish Church” – St. Andrew’s, where I have appeared many times with my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir. The church, also known as the Scots Memorial Church, was built as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers killed in the region while fighting the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday, the foundation stone was laid on the 7th of May 1927 by Field-Marshal Lord Allenby himself and the church opened its doors in 1930.
Built on a rocky outcrop high above the Hinnom Valley, the church and adjoining hospice, designed to evoke a Highland castle and keep, enjoy a magnificent view of the Old City.

One of the most poignant legends associated with the church is connected to the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. The story goes that the king had taken a vow to undertake a crusade to fight the “Saracens” in the Holy Land. As he had failed to fulfil that vow, on his deathbed, he instructed that after he died, his heart was to be removed from his body and brought to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Accordingly, after his death on the 7th of June, 1329, his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket, which was entrusted to Sir James Douglas (Black Douglas). The latter, for some reason, was sidetracked to Spain where he joined a campaign against the Moorish kingdom of Granada, in the course of which, he was killed. King Robert’s heart was found and brought back to Scotland, where it was buried at Melrose Abbey, but the Abbey was sacked during the Reformation and later fell into complete disrepair. Over the years, the King’s heart was lost and found and then lost again – and not found again until 1996. It was finally reburied in Melrose Abbey, in 1998. For this reason, there is a plaque set in the floor of St. Andrew’s Church, commemorating the Scottish king’s pious wish for his heart to be buried in Jerusalem – reminding me, at any rate, of the poem by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “My heart is in the East, Whilst I am in the utmost West”.

Adjoining the church is the guesthouse, which contains some beautiful examples of Armenian ceramics created by the artist David Ohanessian, whose tiles also decorate other Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Rockefeller Museum, and the Jerusalem House of Quality:

Ohanessian, a Turkish-born Armenian, survived the genocide wreaked by the Turks on his people and came to Jerusalem as an almost penniless refugee in 1918, to work on the restitution of the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. He founded the Dome of the Rock Tiles ceramic workshop in the Old City’s Via Dolorosa and almost single-handedly, created the Jerusalem Armenian school of ceramics, on the basis of Turkish Ottoman ceramics.

The church and guesthouse are surrounded by a beautiful and well-kept garden, in which one can find the graves of two dogs:

Popular legend has it that these are the graves of two dogs that fought with the Scots troops in the battle for Jerusalem, but according to our guide, they were actually the faithful pets of the guesthouse’s House Mother. Since one of the tombstones states that the dog known (fittingly) as Bruce was born in 1942, this seems much more likely.

Sandwiched between St. Andrew’s Church and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre lies the small, but fascinating, Ketef Hinnom Archaeological Park, housing a network of tombs from the First Temple period. During that time, it was customary to place the dead on stone benches hewn around the walls of the burial cave. The head would repose in a hollowed out space, as if on a pillow. After about a year, when it could be assumed that the flesh had decomposed, the bare bones would be collected and placed in a chamber hewn under the “bench”, where they would rest with the bones of family members who had gone before. Hence the expression “he was gathered unto his fathers”.

Seven family tombs were discovered here in the 1970’s, containing the bones of 95 people, obviously people of means, to judge by the objects found with them. The latter were discovered almost accidentally, by a 13-year-old boy. They included pottery, coins and jewellery. One of the most important finds was a pair of silver amulets in the form of scrolls. These were so fragile, it took several years before it was possible to open the tiny scrolls without damaging them. When they were finally opened, they were found to be inscribed with the words of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6: 23 – 27), still recited by Jews today. Dating back to the 6th century BCE, they pre-date the Dead Sea Scrolls by several hundred years and are the oldest Hebrew texts known to be in existence. They are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Leaving the archaeological park by the back gate, we now ascended the Bible Hill as the sun slowly sank behind us.

From the ridge, on a clear day, one can see far out into the Judaean Desert. But it was starting to get dark, so we descended the hill on its eastern side and proceeded to the Jerusalem House of Quality.

The building which, nowadays, serves as a centre for showcasing art and artists, was originally built as a wing of St. John’s Eye Hospital – which explains why the entrance courtyard is covered with the coats of arms of Knights of the Order of St. John (the Hospitallers), and why the Cross of the Order (the famous “Maltese” Cross) features prominently among its decorative features:

Like the Scottish Church described above, this building was also designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday – and like the Scottish Church, here too can be seen fine examples of David Ohanessian’s Armenian ceramics:

After an all-to-short twenty minute period to enjoy the more modern art and crafts displayed in the building, it was time for our last stop. Between the Jerusalem House of Quality and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre is a monument to peace designed by the controversial Israeli painter and sculptor Yigael Tumarkin. and made out of pieces of broken weapons:

You could not say more clearly: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – and that verse is, indeed, engraved on the pillar.

Nearby, reminiscent of the famous handprints in the Hollywood Boulevard, are the handprints of those who contributed to the cost of erecting the monument, the largest being that of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek:

With that, our tour ended. I hope you have enjoyed reliving it with me.



I started writing this article a week ago today, and before I was even half way through, I was stunned to hear the news of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She was Queen before I was born and I always imagined her living to be 100 at least, like her mother – but it was not to be. I left England 48 years ago, but for me, she will always be THE Queen. Talking about King Charles III still feels surreal to me. I suddenly feel very old. It sounds trite but an era has, indeed, ended – the Second Elizabethan Age.
Rest in Peace, Your Majesty. You’ve earned it.


About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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6 Responses to A New Year Is Just Around The Corner

  1. Your country is so seeped is ancient history. Our country is so very young and really only has rather modern buildings and artifacts, except for the Native American history. I really enjoyed seeing your walking tour and look forward to seeing more. I am too old and set in my life to think of traveling outside of the USA, I really have not done much of that in the last 10 years with Precious here. I pray for a good and safe New Year for you. Lynn and Precious

  2. Rick Bailey says:

    Wonderful tour report! I felt like I was on the tour also. We would love a trip to Jerusalem some day. There is so much history in every square foot of Israel.

    We lived in Napoli for three years, and we had a similar view of that area. Just scratch the surface, and thousands of years of history is in view.

    Thanks for posting this!

    • Thank you for your kind words.
      Now that life is more or less back to normal (whatever that means in this part of the world), I hope to be able to post a lot more like this.
      I would love to hear more about your stay in Napoli. I have been there a couple of times. In fact, I remember that on my first visit, many, many years ago 😉 , I visited Vesuvius in company with a couple of young men who were serving in the US Navy and whose ship happened to be in port. I got to visit their ship too.

  3. Thank you for a truly stunning and highly informative tour. So much history in such a small area. I guess I should come sometime. But until I do, please keep sharing such wonders and delights.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the tour, Erin. Starting in November, a new series of Biblical tours will begin and I have every intention of writing about them. Till then, you are cordially invited to read about the many other places I have visited, both in Israel and abroad, described in previous posts.

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