Transforming the Face of the Holy City: Political Messages in the Built Topography of Jerusalem (part 2 of 2)
Full text: 

Originally delivered at the Fifth International Conference at Birzeit University entitled "Landscape Perspectives on Palestine"(Bir Zeit University, Palestine, 12-15 November 1998). The first part of this article appeared in the previous issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly File.



In the panorama of Jerusalem today, numerous contrasts leap to the eye. Perhaps the most striking is that between the usually blue sky and the light-colored local stone of which Jerusalem has always been built, and which has always reflected the bright sun, luminating holy areas like the Haram al-Sharif.[1] This contrast between stone and sky is a feature of the city which has been manifest for many centuries: we know that it has certainly been the case since the beginning of the Islamic era, and it was undoubtedly also the case before. It was picked up and amplified visually by some of the city‘s great master builders through their impressive use of blue and gold--the colors of sky and sun--in the Dome of the Rock, and perhaps in earlier structures.[2]

But there is another contrast which is immediately apparent to the viewer today. This is the troubling disjuncture between the older structures in the city, in particular the traditional Islamic fabric of the built topography of the Old City, surrounded by superb walls built in the 16th century by the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, Sulayman, and the newer, mainly Israeli, modern buildings which march along the hilltops on the horizon. There is a certain harmony with the site and with each other of the weathered stone buildings of the Mameluke and Ottoman eras, which constitute the bulk of what is visible in the Old City, together with a plethora of earlier Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Crusader and Ayyubid structures. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of much of the built topography outside the walls of the Old City dating from the late Ottoman and British Mandate periods.

Among the graceful villas, government and commercial structures, and apartment buildings outside the walls in Arab neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, Ras al-Amud and Silwan, formerly Arab neighborhoods like Talbiyyeh, Baq‘a and Qatamon, and in the many older Jewish neighborhoods to the west and north

west of the Old City, there are certainly a number of indifferent, undistinguished, and unimpressive pieces of architecture.[3] But by their generally modest height (few are over two or three stories high), their use of rough or finished stone in traditional ways, and their responsiveness to the terrain, these buildings seem to have an integral connection with the rectangular medieval Old City which is at the core of Jerusalem.

None of this is true of the structures erected by Israel since 1967, especially the residential areas for Israelis--called settlements by the Arabs and neighborhoods by the Israelis--built in the Arab Eastern sector of Jerusalem,[4] and it is here that the disjuncture is most apparent. These buildings are quite unlike any of those we have just been talking about, most of which seem to have an organic relation to their environment. Instead, some of these new structures look like sentries, some like watchtowers, others like fortresses, set off sharply from the terrain on which they stand. They loom on the horizon, massive, bulky and square, filling space and covering land, often giving the impression of having been dropped onto their sites with no respect for the topography, except for careful attention to the need to be high up, defensible, and in a strategic position.

The contrast could not be plainer with such architectural gems as the city walls built by Sultan Sulayman, and the Haram al-Sharif and the buildings it contains (these include a sequence of Mameluke structures catalogued by Burgoyne[5] which have not been touched on in this paper, but which brilliantly complete the ensemble of the Haram). This is a contrast between on the one hand an adornment which is meant to attract people, whether adornment of the landscape with a built topography, or the adornment of specific buildings, and on the other a military austerity, a stark plainness, and a dullness which are manifestly repellent. In fact, in all that Israel has done in East Jerusalem since 1967, perhaps only in three areas can one feel any sense of adornment and an attempt to please the senses rather than the dour and cold efficiency of superior power and strategic necessity. These are the gardens and walks around the newly revealed walls of the Old City[6]; the Western Wall plaza, whose austerity is stark indeed, but nevertheless moving beneath the huge and impressive bulk of the Western Wall of the Herodian temple enclosure; and parts of the renovated Jewish Quarter, with its newly paved streets, ar

Read more