Surreal, 100-year-old footage shows Jerusalem as you’ve never seen it

May 9, 2013

JERUSALEM – Though it's only a few seconds long, the video of a bustling street within Jerusalem’s Old City walls – caught in black-and-white footage shot exactly 100 years ago this month – may be what makes this recently restored film most striking.

“The heart of Jerusalem is inside its walls, beyond the Jaffa Gate, where ultra-Orthodox Jews make their way to the Wailing Wall,” the film’s narrator says in Hebrew as men, women and children dressed in traditional Ottoman-era and classic religious garb (still visible today in some parts of this ancient city) mill about between the large stone walls.

Uploaded onto YouTube this week to mark Jerusalem Day, the film was restored and preserved by a researcher and historian of Hebrew cinema named Yaakov Gross. It is part of a longer film called “Lives of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael,” originally filmed in pre-British mandate Jerusalem for a screening at the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna, held in 1913.

The film, which begins with visuals from a pre-Passover train ride from the coastal city of Jaffa, through the foothills of Jerusalem and into the holy city, shows an almost exclusively Jewish way of life from 100 years ago, although Muslim sites such as the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Omar also feature briefly in the footage.

Gross’s restoration work on the reel makes the old black-and-white images eerily clear and the Old City’s pastoral surroundings, which today are packed tightly with ever-expanding neighborhoods, high-rise buildings and modern highways, seem peaceful and conflict-free 100 years ago.

The visuals of the past, in contrast with the present, are surreal, with many of the city’s landmark sites almost unrecognizable. In the area that Jews today call the Western Wall Plaza and that was once the densely populated neighborhood of al-Buraq, the film shows hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews crowding a narrow strip alongside the Wailing Wall (also known as the Western Wall), hedged in between houses, to pray to the holiest of holies.

Today, the area next to the wall opens out into a bright plaza, allowing hundreds of tourists from around the world to visit the site, as well as enabling Jews to recite their prayers with a little more personal space — an entirely different feel than 100 years ago.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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Max Fisher · May 9, 2013