Israeli Life: Old-New Mall

April 2014 Home Column List 1

Israeli Life: Old-New Mall

Rochelle Furstenberg


The Mamilla Mall at night.

Since its opening in 2008, the bustling Alrov Mamilla Avenue Mall has been a high-end Jerusalem haven. Couples with baby carriages and young students with knapsacks stroll through its open air promenade and stop to look at the bronze, marble or steel sculptures that dot the area.

Shoppers go from store to store, choosing from the pedestrian mall’s 140 businesses, including global franchises like Tommy Hilfiger,
Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap and a selection of Israeli design boutiques such as Castro, Dorin Frankfurt and Ronen Chen. At a café with a magnificent view of the Old City and the Valley of Hinnom, a group of young Muslim women in headscarves sit gossiping and giggling. Nearby, college students sip coffee while working on their laptops.

"It’s like a mall in Europe,” declared Ortal Ben Yisrael, the lively maitre d’ at Greg’s restaurant in the Clark House. “It attracts loads of tourists. It’s also a meeting place for people of different religions.”

The Clark House, built in 1898 by American Protestants living in Jerusalem, is one of five ancient structures that have been restored and integrated into the 2,000-foot-long mall. Along the avenue is another picturesque 19th-century building, the Saint Vincent de Paul Church and Monastery. The avenue turns into the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, creating a convenient, though for some disconcerting, juxtaposition of the old and the new, ancient history and modern commerce.

Indeed, many have criticized the Alrov Mamilla mall (combining the name of Jerusalem’s Mamilla neighborhood, which means “from God” in Arabic, with that of the developer, Alfred Akirov, whose firm name is Alrov) as a vulgar commercialization of the holy city. “It looks like a mall in any other part of the world, with the same homogenized franchises you see all over,” noted Rina Rosenberg, a Jerusalem-based psychologist.

Commercialization, however, is not foreign to this area. In the 1860s, a long building—later destroyed by the British—was built outside Jaffa Gate with booths for merchants. This soon became a popular extension of the market inside the overcrowded and cholera-infested walled city. The stores and the nearby station where wagons were loaded and unloaded foreshadowed today’s Mamilla mall.

“Until the mid-19th century, Jerusalem was a desolate city at the edge of the Ottoman Empire with a few scattered olive trees in the area near Jaffa Gate,” writes architect David Kroyanker in Mamilla, a volume in his monumental work on the development of Jerusalem.

By the dawn of the 20th century, Mamilla was an important business area, extending from Jaffa Gate along the Old City wall to Jaffa Road, and west to the Muslim cemetery and Sultan’s Pool, an ancient water reservoir. Then, too, tourists came to Jerusalem, though they stayed at much less comfortable facilities than exist today. Contemporary Mamilla boasts the luxurious David Citadel Hotel, across from the mall, and the upscale Mamilla Hotel, designed by Habitat architect Moshe Safdie and Italian interior designer Piero Lissoni. Connected to the mall, it includes a rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of the city. The hotel fuses a restored Jerusalem stone building with metal and glass; the interior displays photographs of Old Mamilla.

According to Kroyanker, in late-19th-century Mamilla, Jews, Arabs and Christians opened stores, workshops and even travel agencies. The German Templers, an evangelical Protestant group that left Germany for Jerusalem in the 1870s, built coffee shops and a beer hall opposite Jaffa Gate. But the British, who ruled after World War I, removed the shabby stalls. The Arab riots of 1929 and 1936 also helped push Jewish merchants out of the area.

“On December 2, 1949, after the United Nations declared the partition of Palestine, Arab gangs came out of the Old City and burned down the stores in Mamilla’s commercial center of Tannous,” says Uziel Hazan, a lawyer who lived in the Mahane Yisrael area bordering Mamilla, an early residential Moroccan neighborhood that developed outside the Old City. “Many Jews fled from Mamilla to Mahane Yisrael for safety, and during the War of Independence, the Haganah was stationed in the Tannous building. After the war, the Jewish immigrants from Arab countries began arriving.” They settled into a neighborhood that was located along the armistice line between the Israeli and Jordanian controlled sections of the city.

Yossi Mizrachi, a former army communications officer, was 5 years old when he and his family, originally from the Kurdish area of Iran, moved to Mamilla.

“When we came to Israel in the ’50s,” he explains, “the Jewish Agency wanted us to settle in a moshav, but the community insisted on going to Jerusalem. We wanted to remain together and be as close to the Old City as possible. We have a unique language, Aramaic, and wanted to preserve our language and customs.” Over 1,200 people lived in Mamilla at the time, 750 of them from Mizrachi’s community.

“We lived on the border, right off no-man’s land,” adds Mizrachi. “Cement walls and barbed wire blocked Mamilla Street.”

Mizrachi heads an organization of Mamilla evacuees that seeks to connect the scattered remnants of the Kurdish Jews who once lived in the area. They were evicted, along with a number of small businesses and shops, in the 1970s to make way for new construction. Many of the Kurdish Jews resettled in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Baka and Neve Yaakov, while the shops moved to Talpiyot. Mizrachi has a large collection of photographs from that period, including images of Beit Tannous, a half-ruined building where a number of Kurdish immigrants had squatted. The photographs show boarded-up windows that had been blown out by Jordanian shelling and walls riddled with bullet holes.

These people were the “halutzim of Beit Tannous; they held the border,” says Mizrachi, pointing to photographs of women hanging laundry on the roof and children playing with marbles on the street. “We played soccer, and a well-known soccer player, Uri Milmalia, began [playing] here,” he recalls. “My family lived at Hotel Fast, built by the Templers across from the northwest side of the Old City walls. There were sacks of sand between the rooms to protect us when there was shooting. In spite of the poor conditions and the danger, we loved every corner of Mamilla and, most of all, we had a very close community. There were five synagogues.”

“We continued the holiday customs and foods we had known in Iran,” says Shlomo Darberry, a retiree who had also been part of Mamilla’s Kurdish community.

Darberry had owned a coffee shop on Jaffa Street across from the post office—“It took me five minutes to get to work.” He recalls with joy the excitement in the area after the Six-Day War, “when the concrete barriers went down, and we could go in and out of the Old City without fear. We bought fruits and vegetables, shoes in the Arab market and went to the Kotel.”

“[My husband and I] were in Europe when the Six-Day War broke out,” says psychologist Sheila Meier, “and when it finished and we saw pictures of Jews walking straight up Mamilla into Jaffa Gate, we just packed up our things and flew to Israel. Every day, we would watch the concrete dividers coming down and the city being united.”

“On Simhat Torah in the first few years after the Six-Day War, Israelis from Western Jerusalem would dance with Torahs through Mamilla toward the Kotel,” recalls Rosenberg. “And as we went down Mamilla, women would watch from their balconies and throw candies.”

In 1963, David Guttman opened a garage in Mamilla. “I went in for two reasons,” he says. “I needed the space and the rent was cheap because it was on the border.” But for many what started as practical necessity flourished into patriotic feeling—that the area should not stand empty. After 1967, business picked up. People no longer feared coming to the area.

“In the early ’70s, the city began to pressure us to move out,” says Guttman. “I was compensated for only 8 percent of my garage and we were relocated to Talpiyot.”

The initial municipal policy was to destroy all of Mamilla except for Saint Vincent de Paul and the Marx-Stern House built in the 1870s, where Theodor Herzl slept when he visited Jerusalem. That meant evacuating hundreds of people and leveling historic buildings. The task was given to Karta, a municipal company, and they chose Safdie as head architect with Gilbert Weil. They developed a grandiose plan to create a new modern center for Jerusalem with a network of underground roads, upscale housing and businesses.

Although approved in 1976, it aroused opposition. Meron Benvenisti, deputy mayor to Teddy Kollek, argued that the city did not have the resources to take on such a huge project at once. It must be done in stages. A more modest plan was suggested by a city planning group that included Kroyanker, and Safdie scaled down his original plan.

It took from 1976 to 2006 until the planning differences, legal and economic issues, religious and archaeological objections could be overcome. Alfred Akirov bought the property in 1996 and finished the first stage, the residential area of David’s Village, in 2006. Karta had originally convinced people to vacate their homes and businesses, claiming the land would be for public use.

“But after David’s Village was built, the residents who had been evacuated felt deceived,” says Mizrachi. “They thought it was to be used for public purposes, but instead Mamilla became real estate for rich Jews from abroad. They took a breathing, living community and wiped it out to make a ghost town.” Mizrachi has been trying to keep the memory of his Mamilla community alive. In 2003, he organized a conference and exhibit of 130 pictures of old Mamilla as well as artifacts from women’s embroidery to children’s toys.

“Now we would like to make a museum,” says Mizrachi. “We lived 40 years facing the Jordanian Legion. Is it possible that nothing will be preserved for our children and grandchildren to see?” Recently, he notes, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has listened with interest to the idea of creating a Mamilla museum.

Amir Shoham, an architect who was involved in the preservation of the historic buildings in Mamilla, explains that when “the Mamilla project was begun in the 1970s, the view that prevailed all over the world was to build megastructures. As time has gone by, there’s greater attention given to the culture attached to the place.” Shoham notes that many fought to retain Mamilla’s historic buildings, with varying degrees of success. Today, things would have been planned differently. The complex cultural, urban texture that had existed between 1948 and 1967 would have been maintained.

“I became involved in 1995 when they began taking apart the Stern building, numbering and documenting where every stone went,” says Shoham, who is happy with Mamilla’s most recent incarnation. “When we restructured it, the Alrov company took it very seriously. In the last years, Israeli preservation has developed tremendously. We might have created more of an enclave around Alrov Mamilla Avenue, not just one main street. But the mall functions well, not only economically. There is a good open feeling, where all types of people feel comfortable. And that’s a great accomplishment.”

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