Jerusalem’s clash between historic and modern-day rose to new heights last month with the opening of an information center introducing the public to HaRakhval, the planned Jerusalem cable-car project.
Within five years, dangling gondolas will carry passengers aloft above the picturesque Hinnom Valley, floating over the Old City walls to the Western Wall. And it’s all for the price of your everyday Rak Kav public transport ticket.
The $50 million project, approved by the government in May and scheduled to be operational during 2021, will provide aerial access to Jerusalem’s Old City. The route will begin at the renovated old train station near Liberty Bell Park, and terminate at the Dung Gate parking lot adjacent to the Western Wall.
The cable car will cover a not-quite-a-mile route at up to 13 miles per hour, making the trip within five minutes; 41 cars will carry up to 10 passengers each. An estimated 3,000 people could be transported per hour in both directions.
As with all things Jerusalem, the project isn’t without controversy. The line passes over the Arab neighborhoods Wadi Hilweh and Silwan, as well as the Armenian and Jewish quarters of the Old City. The final stop will be adjacent to the Kedem Center, itself a controversial project located above archaeological excavations and operated by the equally controversial Ir David Foundation-Elad, a non-profit dedicated to the excavation, preservation, and development of the biblical City of David and its environs.
Critics have charged variously that the Kedem Center will control the tourist experience to present a narrow national-religious narrative, that the cable car will “Disney-fy” holy sites, and that it will conflict with the aesthetics of the Old City. In addition, it’s unclear whether the cable car will operate on Saturdays — another potential Jerusalem hot potato.
The parties involved — the city of Jerusalem, Jerusalem Development Authority, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the Ministry of Tourism, and the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety — say that in addition to being an exceptional tourist attraction, the cable car is a quiet, non-polluting transport solution that does not require road expansion or infrastructure relocation, will reduce private vehicle traffic by 30 percent and bus movement by half, will not harm archaeological sites, and will provide optimum access for the 130,000 weekly visitors to the Old City, a number they hope to increase.
This isn’t the first time a cable car has ridden over the Hinnom Valley — which, by the way, is also known as Gehenna (Hell). The valley gained its hellish reputation during the First Temple period as the infamous site of pagan child sacrifice by fire to the Ammonite god Molech. In modern-day Israel, its reputation has been rehabilitated as the location for the Israel Cinematheque.
But during the siege of Jerusalem initiated by the Arab militias immediately after approval of the November 1947 UN partition resolution, a cable car was the only way to get food and supplies to residents within the walled city.
The Hinnom Valley was dangerous territory. Jordanian snipers were positioned on the Old City walls, able to spot any movement and shoot at it. At first, Jews on the western side of the city used a tunnel to smuggle goods and evacuate the wounded, but it didn’t work very well. (The entrance to the tunnel still can be seen at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, leading up to Mount Zion via the Sultan’s Pool traffic intersection.)
Uriel Hefetz of the Etzioni engineering brigade solved the problem of how to evade the siege when he came up with the idea of a cable car connection. On one side was St. John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital (today’s Mount Zion Hotel) on Hebron Road, a structure that had been turned into an arms warehouse by the Ottoman Turks during World War I, then damaged by a 1927 earthquake. On the other side was the Bishop Gobat School (today’s Jerusalem University College), a Protestant institution on Mount Zion, outside the Old City walls.
The car, on a 600-foot cable, rose up to 150 feet above the ravine, carrying fighters and equipment weighing up to 500 pounds on a risky two-minute journey. Three soldiers on each side were responsible for hand-winding the cable. The operation, code-named “Avshalom Road,” was conducted at night. During daylight hours, the cable was lowered onto the ground, out of sight.
The clandestine facility was used for only half a year but its existence remained secret even after the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. That’s because officials knew that if the city were to be recaptured, they might want to use it again. It was not revealed to the public until 1972.
Today, Mount Zion Hotel houses a small museum dedicated to the cable car. Visitors can see the actual car and transport mechanism, as well as photographs and souvenirs from the period.
In 1987, by invitation of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, famed high-wire artist Philippe Petit opened the Israel Festival by crossing the Hinnom Valley on a high wire. The cable he walked linked the Jewish and Arab sections of the city.