Jerusalem: holy and cool

You may think you know Jerusalem, but there’s always something new to see.

By Lydia Weitzman, December 4, 2008
Jerusalem by night: David’s Citadel, site of the new Night Spectacular, a higher-tech son et lumiere

Jerusalem by night: David’s Citadel, site of the new Night Spectacular, a higher-tech son et lumiere

regular visitors to Israel are familiar with the road into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, with its sweeping views of the hills. Now, as the road makes its final turn into the city, there’s a new vista — the eye-popping Bridge of Strings, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to carry the city’s latest work-in-progress, the light railway.

Even though the railway is millions over budget and years behind schedule, the spectacular bridge, with its suspension cables supposedly evoking the strings of King David’s harp, is a 21st-century landmark set to compete with Jerusalem skyline staples such as the Dome of the Rock and the Old City Walls, and just one more reason to revisit Jerusalem.

At another much-loved Jerusalem landmark, the Tower of David in the Old City, new light is, quite literally, being thrown on old stones. By day, you can explore the ancient citadel’s excavated courtyard which dates back to the time of Herodcan and get to grips with 4,000 years of Jerusalem’s history in an interesting mix of exhibits, models and multi-media displays in the magnificently-restored citadel just inside the Jaffa Gate. But visit at night, and the experience is quite different.
The recently-opened Night Spectacular allows you to experience Jerusalem with all your senses. Forget the old son et lumiere that played there. The newest extravaganza, produced by French specialists Skertzo, takes you on a wrap-around, multi-sensory journey through Jerusalem’s history from creation to the present day. Wear warm clothing in winter (and take a cover-up in summer) and be prepared to be wowed.

As you file into the citadel courtyard to take your seat, you get a hint of what is to come with small tableaux of computer-generated moving images projected onto the archeological ruins. Using special film techniques, mega sound and lighting systems and trompe l’oeil, the Night Spectacular plays tricks with the citadel walls, ruins, bridges, steps and pathways, making them into the backdrop and screen for the vivid, lifelike images.

There’s King David playing his harp atop the city walls; the Queen of Sheba making her way up the stairs to King Solomon’s palace; a canoe glides along the rivers of Babylon; the Second Temple is rebuilt and then destroyed; Mohammed makes his night journey in a blaze of blues and golds. The tableaux continue to unfold, each one more magnificent than the next, set to stirring orchestral music. The narration is limited to a few biblical verses translated into English, but if Jerusalem’s history is not your strong point, and you want to know what is going on, pick up an explanatory leaflet in English at the ticket office.

When the show moves to the present, it sidesteps politics by ignoring anything contentious, jumping from the British Mandate to a powerful image of thousands of children climbing the citadel walls to release thousands of doves and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Leaving the virtual for the real world, you can stroll along the recently-opened Mamilla Boulevard, just below the Tower of David, with its designer stores, Israeli fashion and eateries and cafés with spectacular views across the Old City Walls. You can even catch Israeli dancing, communal singing and live performances in the boulevard, which is fast replacing the centre of town and Malcha Mall as the place to shop, stroll and schmooze.

Designed by Israel-US architect Moshe Safdie, the renovated boulevard, complete with original facades fronting ultra modern buildings, provides a vibrant thoroughfare from King David Street to the Jaffa gate and includes apartments for the mega-rich, as well as the soon-to-be-opened, ultra-luxury Alrov Mamilla Hotel.

Many old facades have been preserved or reconstructed, including Steimatzky’s book shop which is in a building taken apart and rebuilt brick by numbered brick. Known as Herzl’s House (the Zionist leader stayed there for one night), the bookstore-cum-café includes Herzl memorabilia, including his trademark hat.

For a more comprehensive understanding of Theodor Herzl, head to the Herzl Museum, where, in the style of Tel Aviv’s Palmach Museum and the Begin Heritage Centre in Jerusalem, the museum has been transformed into a must-see 21st-century site. Eschewing showcases and wall-mounted memorabilia, instead there are four life-like room exhibits and a 55-minute film (dubbed in English) telling Herzl’s life, from the Viennese café where Herzl learns of the Dreyfus affair, through the First Zionist Congress in Basel and into his office, ending with Israeli actor Lior Michaeli’s portrayal of Herzl as he contemplates modern-day Israel.

For another fresh look at historical material, it is well worth trying to catch the Blue and White Pages exhibition at the Israel Museum, on view until February 7.

The exhibition, mounted in conjunction with the Israel State Archives to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary, offers fascinating glimpses into key moments in Israel’s history. A number of original documents are on display, including the Declaration of Independence, Law of Return, the order to establish the Israel Defence Forces and the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt.

But perhaps the most fascinating exhibits are the less exalted, such as a January 1948 postage stamps with “Jewish State” as the country name; proposals for the emblem and flag of the new state with instructions on the exact colour blue; and the documentation telling the astonishing finding of spy Avshalom Feinberg’s body, 50 years after his death.
An Israeli officer, who had heard the legend that a Jew was buried under a palm tree in Sinai, led a search there in 1967. At the spot where a lone date palm grew, he found a skeleton, identified as Feinberg. The tree had grown from date stones in Feinberg’s pocket.

Other chilling artefacts include Adolf Eichmann’s handwritten diary from the time of his 1961 trial, two pages of the diary of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, which miraculously survived the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster; and the blood-stained song sheet found in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s pocket on the night of his assassination in November 1995.

The bar of Jerusalem’s new Dan Boutique Hotel

The bar of Jerusalem’s new Dan Boutique Hotel

There’s also a new hotel in town. With a £2.5 million investment and creative interior design, Dan Hotels have transformed the old Ariel Hotel into the sparkling, 129-room Dan Boutique Hotel, a cool, intimate property designed for picky individual tourists in the 20- to 50-something age group. The hotel has teamed up with the nearby Bezalel Art Academy to create an animation concept, involving silent, contemporary cartoons playing continuously on giant plasma screens.

While there’s no entertainment team or kids’ club in this Dan, you will find a bar (open to non-residents) with a full size snooker table, the occasional live jazz band and a fitness room that leads out on to a wooden sun deck with great views. Guestrooms are spacious and well-appointed with an eclectic and attractive mix of warm eastern colours, textures and furniture alongside sleek, contemporary lines.

The Old City view rooms are worth the supplement (even the bathroom in my suite had a view of the Dome of the Rock). And in place of bland bedroom art, you’ll find cartoon stills on the walls.

In a bold move that reflects the fact that this hotel won’t cater to groups, it offers only breakfast, though dinner is available on Friday night and festival eves. That helps to keep room prices down and means you can take advantage of the hotel’s great location.

It is just a 10-minute walk from buzzy Baka, with its restaurant-café drag, Emek Refayim (check out Luciana, the elegant, new dairy Italian-style restaurant owned by the popular Joya Grill and Beer across the street) and, even closer, the renovated old Turkish railway station with its bars, festivals and events.

Travel facts

Dan Boutique Hotel (00972 972 3 520 2552; has double rooms from $170 (£110) based on double occupancy, with breakfast. West End Travel (020 7629 6299) offers 7 nights at the Dan Boutique from £580 per person based on double occupancy, including El Al flights. Night Spectacular:; Israel Museum:; Herzl Museum: www.herzl.orgprice

Last updated: 3:49pm, March 11 2009