Tucked inside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City stands an edifice that personifies the resilience of Israel’s eternal capital.
The Tower of David has served as a Herodian fortress, a Crusaders’ palace, an Ottoman entrance gate, and now hosts the renewed and state-of-the-art Tower of David Jerusalem Museum.
The $50 million renewal and conservation of the museum has transformed a compound designed to keep intruders out to carefully plotted galleries filled with exhibits that explore and trace the history and the spirit of Jerusalem.
Turning the ancient structure into a modern and accessible museum was a formidable challenge for the architects and design team on the project. Using all the original architecture, except for one ceiling, they transformed the first-century fortress into a welcoming, comfortable, and handicapped-accessible modern museum with 215,000 square feet of galleries detailing Jerusalem’s 4,000-year significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
After 10 years of planning, three years of construction and the installation of a mile of fiber optic cables, the museum, originally founded in 1989, was set to officially open June 1, with an additional contemporary art gallery opening in November.
According to Caroline Shapiro, director of external affairs for the museum, the new flow that begins adjacent to the Jaffa Gate takes visitors through the museum in a way designed to showcase the city of Jerusalem. It still offers shady outdoor areas where tour guides gather their groups or where visitors can meet before beginning their exploration.
Eilat Lieber, museum chief curator, understood the nature of the diverse audiences she had to reach, after her son took a school trip to the museum prior to its renovation and pronounced it “boring.” History, he said, is boring. She pondered how to make it relevant to our time — and to the many different communities that converge in Jerusalem.
“We decided to use an interactive process,” she explained. “We have the perfect location, and this building represents all the layers of history and of conflict. We realized that the evidence of the past will tell the story in different ways and engage visitors to find what is meaningful to each different person. The Tower of David is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved fortresses in the world.”
With headsets and audio tours, her son came back on a class trip to experience the “new” museum. This time he didn’t say boring. “This,” he said, “is cool!”
Designers chose a clean, minimalistic look to contrast with the heavy stone structure and enhance the power of the site. Even the cracks between the stones were conserved. Grouting was replaced by limestone. Elevators and ramps were installed.
“The two elevators were six years of heated discussion with the antiquities commission,” recalls professor Tal Roih of de Lange, one of the designers.
“The important design principle was to maintain context with the city,” he explained. “Each space is different in both architecture and context. “Communication cables, electric wires and even lighting fixtures were carefully hidden.”
But how do you light 215,000 square feet of castle without beams and ugly cables strung across the ancient ceilings?
The architects and designers met the challenge using “floating” cement floors with LED lighting in between the crevice between floor and wall. Heating and cooling emanates from under the floors as well. Small but powerful sconces inserted in the limestone cracks between the stones were used to augment the natural lighting of the vaulted ceilings. The glass displays light up as well, offering effective and dramatic interaction.
And don’t think the acoustics in a castle are optimal. According to Architect Yotam Cohen Sagi, they used 3D scans to conduct acoustic studies and tried three different materials until they were able to ensure that the sound traveled properly throughout the galleries.
“I have never been on so many site visits and to so many meetings for a project,” Sagi explained. “There were so many layers, and we used old fashioned methods of measuring and leveling — holding strings. And then, just when you think you know what you’re doing, you find ancient remains or artifacts and have to stop everything and call in the Israel Antiquities Authority,” he said.
Every window and skylight is visible. At one point the visitor looks through a display and a window beyond the exhibit highlights the modern city of Jerusalem. History connects with high-tech Jerusalem itself.
All the 3D models face in the actual direction of their orientation, transporting the visitor to their exact location within the space of the museum. As large as each space is, the exhibits are designed to keep visitors engaged, without fatigue from the constant content. The technology is designed to communicate various content in different ways. Transparent touch screens allow 360-degree close-ups of real artifacts located in nearby cases in one space. Another space lends itself to ceiling projections, and another to multimedia presentations.
The first gallery offers 3,000 years of history in three minutes — a multimedia presentation by Israeli cinematographer and Golden Globe winner Ari Folman. Through classic animation and video mapping, it traces the history and culture of Jerusalem.
A “Bunting Map” from the Middle Ages portrays Jerusalem as the center of the world, flanked by Europe, Asia and Africa; the city on the shores of eternity. As you progress through the gallery, it’s like being in a time tunnel, with a 40-foot-long interactive wall fueled by 12 computers.
As you progress through the Mamluks and Ottomans and finally find the interactive 3D globe, you are brought to almost the present time with a letter from Israel’s first president, David Ben-Gurion, to a young boy
If you enjoy maps, there are 14 interactive ones on offer, including an elevation map of Jerusalem, enhanced by special lighting and a 2.5 minute video that displays the entire city.
Don’t forget your audio guide (it’s in three languages). As you progress through the museum, it will tell you what you’re looking at, because at some point, it can become overwhelming. You will see a five-and-a-half-minute film by Jerusalem filmmaker Yair Moss, and Dale Chihuly glass exhibits adjacent to cannonballs from the Jerusalem revolt in days of yore.
Each religion is given its due. The Jewish room features the mosaic of Bet Alpha’s Binding of Isaac and a large model of the Second Temple, complete with artifacts from that period, including a coin press for Hasmonian coins and a first-century lily coin. A Yeshiva University-created 3D scan of the Arch of Titus has been colorized and animated, capping off the Jewish exhibit.
A Jordanian Madaba Map with crusader coins features the Tower of David on the coins, with some featuring the Crusader kings and queens who took up residence in this very castle.
Underneath the minaret, which served as a mosque at various times during the city’s history, there is a large model of the Temple Mount complex, featuring the Al Aqsa Mosque and a cutaway of the famed Dome of the Rock. For those of us who have never been near or inside it, it is illuminating to see the Foundation Stone and other features of the Mount.
“With all its layers and incarnations, the Tower of David has never been a ‘holy place,’ explains Curator Tal Kobo. “But the artifacts and the history symbolize the yearning to come back to Jerusalem.”
For children who still think “history is boring,” in addition to all the displays and visuals, every room is equipped with fun interactive games and quizzes for children. For the older generation and for those with special needs, the museum is one of the most accessible attractions in Jerusalem.
“We had to get permission for everything,” explained Reut Kozak, accessibility coordinator for the museum. “From hanging signs to buildings and structuring the floors. The Mamluks didn’t make the doorways wide enough for wheelchairs,” she said.
All told, only 15 percent of the museum is not completely accessible, she added.
Famous for its light shows at night, the new museum will feature noise reduction headphones and relaxed performances for people on the autism spectrum or who have sensitivities to sound. An app uses Bluetooth to access hearing aids for the hearing impaired and customizes the sound for each ear, and there are audio descriptions for the sight impaired.
A sensory map provides a guide that details dark, light and the noisier rooms, and there is a special audio tour guide for sight impaired. There are visuals with sign language on the app for the hearing-impaired.
The only area not accessible to anyone who cannot navigate the final 50 steps is the Observation Deck, but the museum has created a Virtual Reality experience for those left behind that will help them enjoy the 360-degree panoramic view from their phone.
And, thanks to the new flow, when you come out of the Tower of David, through what used to be the original entrance, the Old City is at your feet, ready to be explored in real time.By Pesach Benson, JNS
After 30 years of legal and political battles, Israel will inaugurate an elevator to improve handicap accessibility at Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah — the Tomb of the Patriarchs — on June 8.
The site is the burial place of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. It is one of Israel’s most visited tourist sites.
The $1.6 million project includes a sloped path linking the parking area to the tomb, an elevator and an enclosed footbridge connecting the elevator to the entrance of the holy site.
Until now, visitors had to go up “around 30 steps” between the street and the entrance to the Tomb. After entering the building, visitors had to climb another 60 steps to reach the prayer area, said Elimelech Karzen, one of the managers of the tomb.
“We have people who come in wheelchairs, people who can’t walk, pregnant women, old people that want to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah,” Karzen said, using the Hebrew name for the site.
“Even regular people who are tired. They don’t want to climb 60 or 100 stairs. People need elevators. It’s 2023. Each time to go up and down, it’s very difficult,” he said.
Karzen noted that before the coronavirus pandemic, the holy site had 1.5 million visitors a year. Visitors are returning in increasing numbers, making the need for the elevator more acute.
Efforts to build the elevator were mired in legal petitions filed by Palestinians, who claimed that the elevator damaged the site’s archaeological and architectural significance, and that Israel illegally expropriated land for the initiative. A High Court of Justice ruling in November 2021 cleared away the last legal hurdles.
For security reasons, the tomb is divided into Jewish and Muslim areas. A rotation system allows Jews and Muslims to visit each other’s side on certain religious holidays.
Asked about accessibility on the Muslim side, Karzen said the Palestinians rejected Israeli offers to build a second elevator there.
“For 30 years, we’ve been trying to get this and the Muslims didn’t agree, even when we offered to build one on their side,” he said. He added that there are fewer steps on the Muslim side.
Karzen rejected criticism that the elevator damaged the tomb’s character, stressing that the elevator is outside the building.
“We didn’t touch anything old,” he said. “They only took a few blocks off a wall that was built by the Jordanians in the 1950s or ’60s. But we were careful not to touch anything archaeologically important.”
As for the elevator and footbridge’s aesthetics, Karzen acknowledged, “The shape might not be the nicest thing in the world, but it’s okay because so many people will now be able to come. That’s a price we can pay.”
The current structure around the tomb was built 2,000 years ago by King Herod the Great. Byzantine and Crusader conquerors turned it into a church. During the Mamluke conquest, the site was converted into a mosque and Jews were banned from going past the seventh step of a staircase outside the building.
Steve Bloomberg, a long-time advocate for handicap accessibility, lauded the elevator’s completion.
“I can go and pray at Machpelah now,” Bloomberg said. He was left paralyzed from the waist down by a Palestinian drive-by shooting in Samaria in August 2001. The terrorist killed his wife, Tehiya, and their unborn child, and paralyzed his 16-year-old daughter Tziporah.
“I went there quite a few times before my injury. It’s a very important, central place for the Jewish and Muslim faiths,” he said. “There are 89 steps there; it’s impossible to visit in a wheelchair. You need four people to carry you up the steps. That’s not very safe, it’s not very comfortable and not very practical.”
Bloomberg, an optical engineer, is also a one-man activist. He contacts local councils and other authorities whenever he encounters or hears about problems of accessibility.
He said the need for the elevator in Hebron is obvious.
“According to the numbers, 1.5 million people visit the Cave of Machpelah every year. If you think about it, what percentage of them are in wheelchairs or are old and just can’t get up the steps? It’s a fight for people who are disabled and can’t get up so many steps, people with baby carriages and anybody like that,” Bloomberg said.
He noted that accessibility problems extend beyond ancient holy sites to more modern buildings.
“I recently went to a hall for a ceremony for injured terror victims and injured soldiers. There were no accessible toilets. It was unbelievable,” he said.