Remembering the history Israel swept aside in 1948

In the late 19th century, travelers on the long road from Jaffa to Jerusalem could stop at a rest station to relax and have a cup of (overpriced) coffee. This past, and the story of Jerusalem opening itself to the world, has been lost in the Zionist retelling of history.

By Yonathan Mizrachi

Khan at Bab al-Wad/Sha'ar Hagai, September 5, 2009. (Bukvoed/CC 2.0)
Khan at Bab al-Wad/Sha’ar Hagai, September 5, 2009. (Bukvoed/CC 2.0)

There is an ongoing debate in Israel over whether an Ottoman-era site along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway should commemorate the actions in 1948 of the late, deeply controversial Rehavam Ze’evi, or the Harel Brigade of the Palmach, the pre-state incarnation of the Israel Defense Forces. But the inn at Bab al-Wad, or Sha’ar Hagai in Hebrew, has a pre-Israeli and pre-military past that has been brushed over in the debate.

Built in 1869 by the Ottoman government, the inn was intended as a rest station on the route from Jaffa to Jerusalem; the journey was made by carriage on a dirt road, and took at least 12 hours. The Turks built the inn as part of their efforts to improve the conditions for travelers on the route after many years of neglect, and its construction attests to the significant political and cultural changes that the land — and in particular Jerusalem — underwent in the second half of the 19th century.

The same period was also marked by the increasing involvement of world powers in the Holy Land, with more and more representatives from European countries arriving for short- and long-term stays. The number of tourists and pilgrims also jumped, and that same route from Jaffa to Jerusalem, renovated by the Ottomans and with the Bab al-Wad inn beside it, became the major highway it is today in Israel, which is once again under renovation.

The work on the route back then included widening the road and establishing refreshment and rest stations along it. Bab al-Wad was the first such station, with a stable and water well on the first floor and a cafe on the second floor, which was later joined by a hostel. Written sources describe free parking at the inn, although patrons were required to purchase an exorbitantly-priced coffee — meaning that even back then, the idea of charging astronomical sums in the middle of nowhere was an accepted one.

Bab al-Wad was managed by various Jewish families who had to pay taxes to the Turkish district governor. But the laying of tracks connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem by rail in 1892 effectively erased the need for a rest stop, shortening the travel time between the two cities to four hours and making for a safer journey.

The remains of an Ottoman-era fort at Bab al-Wad/Sha'ar Hagai between Jaffa and Jerusalem, February 14, 2010. (Dr. Avishai Teicher/CC 2.0)
The remains of an Ottoman-era fort at Bab al-Wad/Sha’ar Hagai between Jaffa and Jerusalem, February 14, 2010. (Dr. Avishai Teicher/CC 2.0)

But the importance of the inn at Bab al-Wad isn’t in the price of its coffee, but in its status as a site that signifies the changes undergone by Jerusalem, and the rest of the land, in the 1860s and ’70s. Up until then, Jerusalem had been poor, crowded and technologically backward compared to the rest of the world, in particular Europe. The arrival of the inn symbolized Jerusalem’s evolution into a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city that was the meeting point for criss-crossing political, religious and cultural interests.

During that period Jerusalem saw the establishment of French, German, British and Russian missions, American, German and Greek colonies, and international schools where French was the lingua franca. Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side — sometimes in peace and sometimes in conflict with one another — in a tapestry of dozens of different ethnicities, communities and cultures.

Global political developments also affected the establishment of Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Springing up alongside Jewish areas in the north of the city were Arab and mixed neighborhoods, and international sites, such as the Russian Compound and the German August Victoria Hospital. These changes continue to influence Jerusalem today — the city is home to buildings in German, Italian, French and Russian architectural styles, and many of the churches and historical buildings that have become famous Jerusalem institutions were built or renovated during the latter part of the 19th century.

But instead of remembering the legacy of the inn at Bab al-Wad as part of the story of Jerusalem opening itself up to the world, we are arguing over whether the site should commemorate Rehavam Ze’evi or the Palmach fighters who were battling for the entrance to the city.

Putting aside the question of which of those two legacies is the more appropriate one, the debate itself tells us much about Israeli society today: the sole values considered worthy of commemoration and preservation for future generations revolve around fighting, military heroism, the conquering of territory, recognition of the fallen and the national struggle. Meanwhile, multiculturalism, openness, cosmopolitanism, and stories from other historical periods — such as the pre-Israeli past — are erased.

The Ottoman inn at Bab al-Wad could have been restored, and become somewhere to buy an extravagantly-priced latte, to relax on cushions and smoke a hookah, all in memory of the progenitor of the convenience stores we know so well today. But this idea was never considered.

The 1948 war did, of course, have a dramatic impact on Israel and the region. But do we want to teach our children that wars are the only things worthy of commemoration, and that the only way to create change and human progress is through military battles and cultivating the memory of the fallen? In the case of the inn at Bab al-Wad, the answer is clear.

The author is an archaeologist and director of Emek Shaveh. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth.