What religion and politics put asunder, let consumerism bring together

Sep 13, 2010
*Special to asia!
-A +A

For a moment, leave behind what divides Jersualem and take a walk through the new Mamilla with its creator, envisioned as a meeting place across cultures.


Inside the store, Lady Gaga's “Poker Face” is playing. Outside, an old man sits, singing Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah”.

This is Mamilla, the stretch of development outside Jerusalem's Old City. It is Friday, which means it is more crowded than usual here.


Old man singing along Mamilla

An old man sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah on the walking boulevard of Mamilla


It's just past one in the afternoon, and Muslims are passing through with their prayer mats on their heads, on their way back from the al-Aqsa Mosque after Ramadan prayers. Friday is also the day before the Jewish sabbath. Israeli families with their strollers of babies, young people sipping lattes in the alfresco cafes, and fashionable women perusing the latest collections in the boutique windows, some with headscarves, both Jewish and Muslim, some without.

This is a bit of a rare sight in Jerusalem, which tends to remain a segregated city between the Jews and the Arabs. The former tend to keep to West Jerusalem, and the latter to the eastern parts of the city. Mostly it is a tenuous but civilised enough coexistence, but Israelis have been well-advised to keep away from Palestinian neighbourhoods like Silwan. There, tensions are high, because of Jewish attempts to take it over for the construction of an archaeological park.

But that is another story for another time.

Back to Mamilla.


With Safdie

Safdie looks up at the residential part of his Mamilla development


I am here today with Moshe Safdie, one of the most prominent architects in Israel, who has had his name connected to some of the most high-profile buildings here in Jerusalem.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. He designed it.

This precious plot of real estate that cradles the southwestern wall of Jerusalem's Old City which overlooks the panorama of  the hills on which West Jerusalem is laid out? He designed it.

Today, I take a walk with him through Mamilla as he shows me this masterpiece which took him 40 years to complete.


The History of Recreating Mamilla

Restored Arch

An old archway that has been integrated as an entrance to the New Mamilla


Mamilla has come a long way to become the stylish high-priced neighbourhood of today.

During the Ottoman era, it was little more than a cemetery which contained the remains of some of the Muslim warriors that fought during the crusade in Sala-hadin's army, as well as reputedly the Prophet Mohammad's companions. Then it became an extension of the markets of the Old City as they grew more overcrowded.

It remained pretty much this way as the territory was transferred to the British Mandate at the start of the 20th century, till the 1947 Partition Plan came into effect.

This was the Plan that would divide British Palestine into two states, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. Local hostility towards the plan escalated into riots in Jerusalem and Mamilla was looted and burnt.

It remained an unsafe neighbourhood after the 1948 war which led to the creation of the State of Israel, eventually degenerating into a no-man's land between the Israeli-controlled part of Jerusalem and the section administered by Jordan, that included the Old City, exposed to militant sniper attacks.

The 1967 Six Day War brought the Old City and the Mamilla district under Israel, and the area was in Safdie's words “ a complete slum”.

“Only very poor people came to live here, and the buildings were falling apart,” he added.

Deciding to develop Mamilla, the Israeli government  expropriated the land, resettled the residents elsewhere and approached Safdie to create a master plan for its development. This was his vision for Mamilla,

“I felt that potentially, this could be the new meeting place for all the different people of the city, because it is the bridge between the old and the new city. Rather than make it a park, I said this should be hotel, housing, shopping, all the things that bring people together, particularly the shopping.”

It took 40 years for the plan to develop into reality.

Safdie came up against much opposition, as always is the case when it come to construction in a place like Jerusalem, where every piece of land has some conceivable significance and sacredness to one of the three monotheistic faiths that hold this city holy.

The objections to the Mamilla plans came from religious Jews who deemed a locale right outside the Old City too sacrosanct to hold a cinema – there still isn't a cinema here today; archaeologists who were uncovering artefacts in the ground, and environmentalists who wanted the area to be a green zone.

Most recently just last year, ultra-Orthodox Jews protested at the opening of the car park here on the Jewish sabbath. For them it is forbidden to drive on the holy day which God set aside as a day of rest, all the more in this, yes, piece of holy Jerusalem land.

War of course took its turn at intervention as well. Work was interrupted by the first Palestinian uprising in the 80s. Through all of it, Safdie says he stuck by his plan, sometimes as the only one who still believed in his vision for Mamilla.

And today, it is perhaps he who has the last laugh.


Moshe Safdie's Mamilla

We meet at the David Citadel Hotel, one of the two luxurious hotels that sit at the entrance to Mamilla. It sits at the start of King David street, across from the ancient Muslim cemetery that still occupies its austere place in this busy junction.

There are currently plans by an American Jewish organisation to develop a Center for Human Dignity - Museum of Tolerance. It is facing severe criticism against this desecration of the Muslim cemetery, which some say would not have been constructed over, had it been a Jewish burial site.

Such is the story in Jerusalem, the holy city, but that controversy is miles away from the minds of those are spending their Friday afternoon here in Mamilla proper.


dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi