Walking along Derekh Hevron towards the Old City you pass the Mount Zion Hotel on your right. Without a guide it is doubtful that you will notice the coat of arms sculpted in the stone of the building or recognize its significance. This is the emblem of the Order of St. John, a British charitable organization dating back to the time of the Crusades. They arrived in the Holy Land in 1882 and purchased land opposite Mount Zion overlooking the Hinnom valley with the aim of establishing an eye hospital. The hospital served Muslims, Jews, and Christians from all over the Middle East until WWI.
During the war the Ottomans took over the building for use as an arms warehouse and parts of the hospital were destroyed by British shelling. An earthquake with epicenter near Jericho on July 11, 1927 damaged buildings in Jerusalem, including the hospital. British architect Clifford Holiday was in charge of the renovations of the hospital in the 1930s adding two new wings, the second on the other side of the road (today the Jerusalem House of Quality, a gallery and artists’ workshops, worth a visit). Holiday also built the nearby Scottish Church on Ketef Hinnom and the original Jerusalem City Hall.
Without a guide it is doubtful that you would notice a box hanging on a cable from the corner of one of the buildings or understand its significance. During the Israel War of Independence the terrain and Jordanian sniper fire made it difficult to move men and supplies between the western part of the city and Mount Zion, both in Israeli hands. A tunnel was dug crossing the wadi but this only provided limited access. So in December 1948 Uriel Hefetz, an engineering corps commander at the Etzioni Brigade, conceived of the idea of stretching a 200-meter steel cable across the Hinnom Valley from a room in the hospital to the Israeli post at the Eretz Hatzvi school on Mount Zion. It was used during the night to transfer medicine and arms to Mount Zion and the wounded to the hospital. During the day the cable was lowered to the ground so it would not be discovered by the Jordanians. The cable was inclined with a maximum height of about 50 meters above the wadi. The cart that ran on the cable was just large enough for one person but could carry a weight of about 250 kilos. The original room has been made into a small museum housing the winch mechanism and other period artifacts.
You won’t find this anecdote in any of the guide books, another advantage to hiring a guide. In 1987, Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem invited the French high-wire performer, Philippe Petit (earlier, on August 7, 1974 Petit had walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City), to walk the inclined cable across the Hinnom valley as part of that year’s Israel Festival. The performance, A Bridge for Peace, drew a crowd of 50,000 people from all parts of the city who stood in amazement. An Israeli, Uri Dromi wrote an Op-Ed piece in the December 16, 2009 edition of the New York Times where he reminisces about watching Petit.
This was just few months before the first Intifada, but the excited crowd that gathered there on a sunny day had no clue of the lava ready to erupt below. Their eyes were glued onto the brave Frenchman and they held their breath for an agonizingly long time until he finally touched the safe ground on the other side.
From the hotel you look across the Hinnom valley at Mount Zion, the Arab-Jewish neighborhood of Abu Tor and the Arab villages on the surrounding hills.
“This was a very important memory for me,” said Petit. “That’s what the wire can do, when you link two mountains, you link the people who live on those mountains.”
Actually, the northeast end of the cable is embedded in the wall of one of the rooms of the women’s dormitory of the Jerusalem University College (old Bishop Gobat School) and in the garden below is the crank that was used in the ferrying process.
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