Life & Culture

How has a £40 million investment transformed Jerusalem’s Tower of David?

The iconic attraction in Israel's capital has many big historical secrets


The Tower of David Citadel in Jerusalem sits within the Old City’s inner walls close to the Jaffa Gate and holds the secrets of 4,000 years of the city’s history. Its past still visible in the different layers of the building built by a revolving door of rulers.

Here Crusaders dug trenches, Mamaluks created a mosque and the Ottomans added minarets. Herod built three towers between 34 and 37 BCE — one of which became known as the Tower of David by Byzantine Christians in the 5th century who believed King David had lived here.

Thousands of years later, General Allenby stood on the Citadel’s steps when he entered the city. Every ruling nation left their mark.

In 1989 it became a museum, a project initiated by then mayor, Teddy Kollek, supported in part by Dame Vivien Duffield and the Clore Israel Foundation.

“When I originally saw it, it was every young girl’s idea of a magic castle,” says Dame Vivien, describing it as her “first real project” — started the year her father died. Her support has been crucial to the renovation project unveiled this week.

When the museum’s trustees started planning a $50 million refurbishment, they turned to modern technology to ensure visitors of all ages would continue to engage in the ancient building’s history.

As well as archaeologists, architects, curators and researchers, the multi-disciplinary project team included Golden Globe-winning animators, digital media directors and other creatives.

“This is going to be the real gateway to Jerusalem,” said Eilat Lieber, director and chief conservationist.

There’s a new entrance via a brand-new, multi-level sunken building at the Jaffa Gate, which includes a café, toilets and an educational space. It’s a huge change from the previous, unassuming street entrance from the Old City.

Once you’re in the building, you’re encouraged to tap, swipe and touch the exhibits. In the first gallery, one wall is entirely taken up with interactive multi-media display, “Sands of Time”, which allows visitors to discover different time periods by touching them.

Caroline Shapiro, of the museum, gave the JC an exclusive tour of the new site a few months prior to the completion of the works.

“In January 2020, we sat and had multiple meetings about how we would keep the museum open with over 600,000 visitors a year,” she explained.

Then the pandemic took matters out of their hands: “We struck ground on March 1 — and on March 16, we were closed completely.” The decision was made to go full steam ahead with people working day and night resulting in a build time reduced from five to two and a half years.

“It may be the old stones, but it’s a completely new museum” says Shapiro, explaining that the Tower of David is over 84 per cent self-funded.

While the museum was closed, the entire staff were put on furlough, only returning to work in January 2023. “That has allowed us to build a staff tailor-made for this new museum. It’s full of very creative, energetic, visionary people, which is multicultural in every department.”

Turning a historic site into a modern, accessible, and state-of-the-art museum while simultaneously restoring the ancient walls was a huge challenge for architects Kimmel Eshkolot, especially in terms of creating the framework for the new infrastructure.

“They had to work out how were we going to create a modern museum in an ancient citadel without harming anything.”

Lighting wires were fed around the stones and floating floors created — designed so that if the cement blocks were removed, the original flagstones of the Citadel would still be there.

There was also an amount of essential conservation necessary — the 400-year-old tall, grey-white minaret, an iconic landmark itself, was crumbling and needed an eight-month facelift.

Accessibility was a key goal as until now, a tour of the entire complex involved climbing high, narrow staircases, walking on uneven stones, passing through sloping, narrow tunnels and descending into dim water cisterns.

An adventure that was impossible for many. So new ramps and chair-lifts were included and negotiations took place over how to install two glass elevators inside the ancient walls.

Dr Amit Re’em, an archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority explains, “every inch, every centimetre of the Citadel contains archaeology; and it’s forbidden to damage it or move it due to its historical, scientific and archaeological value”.

One lift — with glass walls attached to an outside wall — can be removed, but the second had to break through a vaulted ceiling from the Middle Ages. To install it, an entire upper floor was dismantled, which involved numbering, documenting, and lasers scanning every single stone, then rebuilding them once the glass structure was in place.

A huge model of the Second Temple was rebuilt from scratch when it became clear that it was too high for children and wheelchair users. There is also a visual guide in sign language for the deaf — a first in Israel — and plans are in place for an accessible audio description of all the rooms for blind and sight-impaired visitors.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has been involved every step of the way. It worked with the diary of a British archaeologist called Cedric Norman Johns who excavated the site in the 1930s. His pictures were used as the reference point for the renovation.

But the work still uncovered one or two surprises. “We found additional towers from the Hasmonean period, we just hadn’t seen before, behind a fake wall,” says Shapiro,. And they also discovered a previously hidden Crusader tunnel.

The journey through the museum takes you through a series of rooms, each more breathtaking than the last. In some, windows bring in views of today’s city while you’re learning about its past. The story is not just told through Judaism but includes Christianity and Islam right up to the 21st century.

Golden Globe winner Ari Folman’s three-minute animation 4,000 years of Jerusalem History plays on ancient walls. A montage of images from different religious festivals is projected onto one of the vaulted ceilings in another gallery.

Everywhere, interactive screens encourage you to swipe and scroll through historical timelines.

There’s even an escape-room activity and teen-friendly smartphone tours.
A 360-degree film plays in one room — giving visitors a bird’s-eye view they might not otherwise ever see of the inside the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The museum even has a digital globe.

The idea is to find where you’ve come from, to show you how far away you are from Jerusalem, which, of course, sat at the centre of ancient maps of the world.

In an upstairs gallery sits the Illés model of Jerusalem, which was made for the Vienna World Fair in 1873. It’s a unique bird’s-eye view of the city at that time, but it also has an interesting back story.

Stefan Illés, an Austrian-Hungarian Catholic, was commissioned to make it by Sultan Abdulaziz, then leader of the Ottoman Empire.

The Sultan hoped it would strengthen diplomatic ties if he exhibited it at the World Fair. The model, painstakingly cut, shaped and painted by hand, was bought by a Geneva family but vanished after the First World War.

In 1984, a historian discovered it in the attic of the Geneva University Library. It was reassembled and renovated and is now displayed in the city in which it was created 150 years ago.

Our journey round the museum finishes at the top of the Phasael Tower — a wow moment with one of the most magnificent views in the world.

An area of less than 1 km², with the Dome of the Rock, The Mary Magdalena church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and beyond — the Judean mountains, dyed white by the desert sun.

The top of the Tower is accessible only by foot — up 50 steps — but in keeping with their aspirations on accessibility, for those who cannot make that last journey there’s a 360-degree presentation of the old city on VR and laptops.

What we have seen is a love letter to its host city. “In the past, the building was just a venue for the museum, but the story of the Tower of David is the story of Jerusalem,” says Lieber.

Visit to find out more.

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