The Jerusalem cable car

 
An illustration of the planned Jerusalem cable car
(photo credit: JERUSALEM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY)

Undermining the capital’s historical and cultural heritage.

The Israeli interim government’s approval of the contentious cable car plan that is set to dominate the sky-line on its route through ancient valleys, hills and sites that are so central to the historical and cultural heritage of Jerusalem – need be vociferously contested. A recent petition in the Supreme Court argues that the rushed: National Infrastructure Committee: hearings on the cable car plan were flawed, the approval by an interim government to a plan having significant budgetary and other ramifications was illegitimate and that its proponents significantly distorted and underplayed the serious harm it would cause to Jerusalem’s cultural and historical heritage.
We all wish to live in functioning societies – with access, transport systems, roads, electricity and sewage systems – but ways have to be found to bring the advances of modernity without undermining timeless values of ancient scenic vistas and historic structures. It is quite incredible that in Jerusalem – with mounting political pressures and interests to improve access to certain Jewish historical sites that have been wrongly disregarded in the past – the required balance has not been found, as officials have high-tailed the process to serve interests in ways that would baffle the objective, enlightened observer.
In the rushed-through hearings on the objections to the cable car, all those who brought forward arguments based upon the harm to cultural or historical heritage or landscape were summarily ignored. The political groups backing this project did not wish vague concepts such as cultural assets being undermined to impede them in pursuing their goal: facilitating the bringing of visitors in greater numbers to the “City of David” and the Western Wall, via the Qedem visitors’ center (itself a modern multi-story building close to the Old City walls, approved also in rushed proceedings).
A large number of world-famous architects voiced their objections – yet these were ignored. In their objections, they stated that it “will completely alter the ancient skyline and the character and landscape of the Old City walls”; that “Jerusalem’s traffic problems should not be solved by cable cars, which mar the image of Jerusalem with a technology reminiscent of a Swiss mountainside”; and that “it goes over the pristine Hinnom Valley, a site held in awe since ancient times that needs to be preserved as it is, untouched.” Moreover, “it is a matter of international consensus that the choice of a cable car is not appropriate for ancient cities with a skyline preserved for hundreds or thousands of years”; and “Jerusalem’s ancient landscape is a precious heritage to all of humankind. Its religious and cultural values must not be overruled by short-term interests.”
The project is fatally flawed in relation to the fundamental principle of preservation of ancient sites: Making sure that there is an appropriate distance between aspects of modernity and the site. Thus, for example, it would be untenable to permit a falafel stand or a taxi rank in close proximity to the Western Wall, or stores on the Temple Mount or – similarly – close to St. Peter’s Cathedral or the Taj Mahal. When seeking this balance between access and preserving the historical character of a site, undue encroachment need be prevented. The clash with modernity, if at all, need be as minimal as possible. Thus, at the famous mountain fortress of Masada, when a further eastern access route was contemplated, a cable car was approved that could only reach a concealed part beneath the top plateau, so as not to extrude above the mountain.

IN THE cable car project, however, the route, carriages, stations and attendant machinery (pillars, overhead cables and continuous movement of carriages) freely imposes upon the unadulterated historic vistas and structures. If the cable cars would be a non-imposing means of access, one would hardly object. But these patently clash with the setting: the ancient landscape and proximate sites. In the past, the structures and sites of earlier regimes were invariably destroyed by their conquerors. This has been the path of history – Rome destroyed Judean structures and subsequent rulers destroyed the edifices of earlier regimes. The respect accorded to cultural heritage to-day must promote the reverse, the preservation of landscape and the edifices of earlier cultures: whether Herodian-Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Arab or others.
The ungainly cable car station (“Station C”) to be set upon Mount Zion will dominate an ancient scenic vista/setting and the churches at this hallowed site. It is a modern imposition that no enlightened planner would contemplate or seek to justify.
Over the ancient, awesome Hinnom valley, the continuous movement of overhead carriages is an act of modern intrusion indifferent to the historic landscape, converting a deserted, wild valley into a Disney-style European setting, disturbing its stony, frightening silence by busy modernity.
The cable cars then pass quite low over Mount Zion’s slopes, near ancient churches and cemeteries and the homes of Silwan’s residents, to reach finally “Station D” – part of a multi-story structure (the Qedem visitors’ center) close to the Ottoman walls, again intruding upon the vista of the ancient walls and the Al-Aqsa Mosque behind.
The objectors say that modern structures need be distanced from ancient sites, and that the cable car project is untenable. You can’t have tall pillars along this route; you can’t have the eye-sore “Station C” altering Mount Zion’s scenic vista; you can’t have overhead cables and continuously moving cable cars over the Hinnom Valley; you can’t have these close to Mount Zion and its churches, over Silwan houses or near the Ottoman walls; and you can’t build a multi-story visitors’ center in such close proximity to the Ottoman walls.
As regards facilitating access different outlooks and other options need be examined – primarily such as involve the Old City as a whole – and connecting transport systems between the modern city and the Old City. These options ought to have been examined in priority to the cable car project, as well as curtailing illegal building in proximate areas and designing a non-intrusive southern access road to Wadi Hilweh, for the benefit of all. The Old City needs increased accessibility, from/to its northern, eastern and southern sides – and without elevation. There is virtually no public-transport and limited direct road access (or parking facilities) to any side of Jerusalem’s Old City – an ongoing vestige of Jerusalem’s past as a divided city: Not to Herod’s Gate, Damascus Gate, or Lions Gate; it is only the link to the Jaffa Gate that been enhanced via the Mamilla mall (and parking).
Greater access to the Old City’s gates, on all sides, enabling increased (pedestrian) passage within the Old City should be the goal. An elevated cable car to facilitate access to Jewish sites at the south, primarily above disgruntled Arab residents evades the issues on the ground & the needs of Jerusalem’s population. It’s time to relate to the Old City, bringing it – its infrastructure, access and economy – into the fabric of Israel’s capital. By pursuing other goals, the so-called “patriotic” groups promoting the cable car plan are ironically doing the reverse of what is needed. The benefits of the cable car project are few and arguable compared to the significant damage it brings. This project would best be put aside.

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