The Ministry of Health building in Jerusalem was the scene of a macabre wedding in 1881. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
A government building, a zoological park, a bird observatory and a residential city street: What do these four Jerusalem locations have in common? In fact, each place is shrouded in mystery. Each conceals secrets. Each is part of Jerusalem’s landscape of spooky sites.
Back in 1881, the Ministry of Health building at 86 Jaffa Rd. (located across the street from the Mahane Yehuda market) was destined to be the villa of a well-to-do Christian Arab groom and his new bride. Unfortunately, the old adage “money does not buy happiness” came true. Personal wealth did not prevent personal tragedy; the young man died right before his wedding.
Making a macabre decision, the bereaved parents decided to go ahead with the gathering. At the party, the deceased groom was propped up next to his bride-to-be. Before everyone went off to the funeral, the bereaved mother supposedly honored “the couple” by performing the traditional wedding dance and dabbing the bride with henna.
Not surprisingly, this story had a chilling effect on local residents. The building remained empty for 10 years. After that, the Ottomans turned it into a general municipal hospital, a mustashfa. But because of its morbid history, even the most destitute patients were afraid to go there. It took a long time for people to forget its spooky beginnings, but eventually Jerusalemites, particularly from Lifta, Malha and Silwan, began to use the 30-bed facility.
Although financially strapped, the hospital stayed open until the British took over in 1917. They turned it into the Mandatory’s offices of the Ministry of Health. After 1948, the Israeli government made the building the Jerusalem regional offices of the Health Ministry. Today, Jerusalemites know it as the place to get their anti-rabies shots or their inoculations for the big post-army trip to South America or Asia.
Unfortunately, today the inside looks like many other old Jerusalem buildings: modern fixtures rudely stuck to old structures in utilitarian rather than esthetic fashion. Yet, some of the intriguing architectural additions remain outside: the winding, exposed staircases at the front of the building, for example, still shine. At one point, the stairs led to a roof from which guards had a good command of the comings-and-goings on Jaffa Road, at that time the main artery to the coast.
Some animals also bear the brunt of unearned labels and gossip. Take bats, for example. At one time or another, many of us will have heard fears about bats biting people, as well as the mythical association of bats with vampires.
While some might take points off due to the fact that bats are not considered kosher (see Deuteronomy 14:18), bats deserve credit for keeping our environment in check by consuming copious amounts of insects. Besides that, close up, bats are rather cute.
Strange as it may seem, if you stroll past 83-87 Bar Kochba St. in residential French Hill at dusk (or near HaChayil 41, close to midnight), you might notice some of the small, winged creatures (not larger than an adult hand) darting through the air. At this time of day, bats leave the east side of the street and head for the park on the west side. Look quickly before they disappear from view.
If this subject drives you batty, the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo offers explanation and viewing of both insect-eating bats and fruit-eating bats. The zoo takes part in the research and conservation of the dwindling insect-eating bat population. Moreover, some time ago, the zoo acquired a new male Australian fruit bat. He was apparently quite the hit with the ladies, who evidently enjoyed “hanging out” with him.
In past years, the zoo has hosted summer’s eve tours focusing on bats and other night-active animals. Pre-registration has been mandatory and there is a charge. For more information, call 972-02-675-0111. Children 8 years old and over are welcome to participate.
The Jerusalem Bird Observatory near the Knesset also offers bat- (and other night-active animal-) watching activities for children ages 5 and above. For more information, call 972-02-653-7374 or 972-052-386-9488, or email [email protected]. There is a small fee for the walking tour.
Remember when you visit Jerusalem, keep an eye out for surprising sights and historical facts; things are not always what they appear to be and surprises are in store.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.