Every neighborhood has it's charm and I suppose, it's drawbacks. My current neighborhood in Yerushalayim is no exception, except I can't really think of any drawbacks, to be honest. Charming, picturesque, and quintessentially a Yerushalayimi kind of place, it is close to, even within walking distance of, most everything I want. I have to move within a month or so, and my hope and prayer is that I can find another apartment in this same "hood".
It is known as Katamon, Greek for "below the monastery" - referring to the San Simon Monastery. Katamon at one time was divided into several sub neighborhoods, which still remain. They are called the Katamonim and the monastery sits in the one called San Simon, adjacent to a huge and lovely public park.
While I still call it Katamon, as habit and tradition dictates, for many reasons I really prefer the Hebrew Gonen, meaning defended, because that tells the Israeli story.
Katamon in general, and San Simon monastery in particular, played important roles in the 1948 War for Independence and was the scene of several strategic battles and events. Additionally a large swath of the Katamonim or Gonenim was the armistice line between Israel and Jordan prior to the Six Day War ... hence this area was called (he who defends or the defenders) - Gonen or Gonenim.
The Greek church sold some of the land surrounding the monastery to wealthy Christian Arabs, thus at the outset of the 1948 War of Independence, San Simon had become both an Arab neighborhood and headquarters and home for many British officials of the Mandate. This change developed in the midst of the surrounding Jewish neighborhoods, and during the 1948 War itself, the monastery became a stronghold for Iraqi volunteer fighters supporting the Jordanians.
A fascinating battle was fought here during the '48 War, when the Palmah captured the monastery, turned it into a hospital for wounded soldiers and at the same time, continued to fight a fierce and victorious battle from within it's walls. It was here Raphael Eitan was shot in the head on "death alley" and yet miraculously picked up a gun and kept fighting from within the building.
All the streets from Jabotinsky to HaPalmach are rich with history from our Wars for Independence and our Land.
Ah...but I digress a little. The "battle" area has been an intimate part of my life and my neighborhood for many years but lately my walks are to the area and gardens next to Hansens Hospital- the hospital which for many years treated patients with leprosy (Hansen's disease).
It's a place I love to go to when I am just "walking" and not trying to get somewhere, catch a bus, or run an errand.
There is something memorable and extraordinary about this place, a picture of another era painted against the hillside. It should stay forever. In fact, perhaps it will.
But for now it is still a poignant remnant of the past and perhaps why I like to walk there. The struggle for survival in this Land is sometimes so intense that maybe I feel a connection with the will of those who were here, simply to survive. I am sure they felt isolated and rejected, a feeling not so unknown to both Israelis and to Israel herself.
Maybe it because I had an introduction to her already, in 2001, when I visited the grounds with a friend who wanted to purchase the compound for a healing center.
When I saw it then, it reminded me - and still does - of the childhood book Secret Garden. I fully expected to see Colin, Mary and Dickon in the corner, watching the robin build his nest, planting and playing, laughing and whispering their secret. :)
...Or maybe i am simply drawn here because the entire area is stunningly beautiful, untouched by recent time...the landscape left alone and natural, especially - and where I walk the most - in the land surrounding the compound itself.
Last month, on a Shabbat, I snuck onto the grounds of the hospital and wandered quietly in the stillness and through the hushed campus, peering into the hallways and alleyways that wound their way into the building. I am certain hidden treasures of days of old are there, waiting to be discovered.
This charming atmosphere won't last long however, as the good news is that the site was finally recognized by the Jerusalem Municipality as a historical site to be preserved. As such it is now beginning to undergo major renovation, but hopefully not destruction. It will be turned into a huge Multimedia Art Center, including exhibitions, labs, theaters, studios for artists, a guest house, cafe and restaurant and will be a center for research and development.
Before all these changes take place, I will try to do a photo shoot inside the grounds, for who knows how much of the original charm of the terraced gardens and the grounds will be retained.
It is said that all the species of Eretz Yisrael are found here and on the adjacent grounds. Looking, one might think so, but I don't know if it is fact or legend. I simply walk and think and find peace.
But I do know that it is here that fig and olive, rimon and sabra grow side by side and abundant in the hot Jerusalem sun. Grape vines, still trained on yesterday's trellises produce their fruit, providing visitors with a refreshing treat. Wild roses, tall Jerusalem pines and date palm trees mingle with crab-apples and bridal-like white flowering bushes.
Scenes from the gardens adjacent to the Hansens Hospital Grounds (the garden is Bustan Lior - the Orchard of Lior - named for a victim of a terror attack in 2004) and other scenes from the streets, alleyways and ganim (parks) en route to them can be seen as a slide show below.
Enjoy your walk through this Jerusalem neighborhood !!