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The Garden by: Ronit Svirsky,

The Gate
The Gate

The “Moon Grove” brings up images of foxes baying in the moonlight or a pair of lovers strolling among the trees. However, neither of these pictures have any connection to the pine grove below the Jerusalem Theater in the Talbiyeh neighborhood.

In 1887, the Jesus Hilfe Hospice (literally, “Jesus Helps” in German), which specialized in the then-untreatable skin ailment which was erroneously identified as “tzaraat”, or the Bible’s leprosy, was founded at this spot. Eventually, the disease was named after Dr. Gerhard Henryk Hansen, a Norwegian physician who discovered the condition’s causative agent in 1879.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the disease struck many throughout the Land of Israel. Due to fear of contagion, patients were refused entry to area hospitals. As a result, in 1886, a group of German Christians established the first hospital designed to treat the disease, near Jerusalem’s Mamilla Pool.
However, the site soon proved insufficient for the patient load, and, following several fundraising efforts, ten acres were purchased in an isolated spot northwest of the German Colony.

Reportedly designed by architect Conrad Schick, the comfortable building contained both a patient ward as well as housing for the medical staff. The two-storey structure was built with Jerusalem stone and included an attic and a basement; an inner courtyard surrounded by open passages to the garden; and vaulted ceilings in the Classic-European style.

An ornate staircase, flanked by a pair of cypress trees, adorns the façade. Elongated windows admit daylight to the interior, and a decorative wood carving sits above the entrance on the top floor. Molten iron heaters were installed in the rooms.

“Jesus Hilfe”, the hospital’s original name, is engraved in stone over the front door. The detached bathroom, reflecting a modernistic architectural approach, was originally accessible via a stone and wooden bridge, which was replaced by iron beams during the 20th century. An additional two-storey structure, situated in the plot’s northeast corner, served as an isolation ward for serious cases.

The entire complex was engineered to efficiently collect rainwater. Drainpipes carried the water from the sloped tiled roofs to a central water cistern; steps and water channels drained the rainwater from the garden; and rainwater falling towards the external road was absorbed via holes in the wall.

The amount of water collected in the eleven cisterns was sufficient for the site’s drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. Almost two acres of land were surrounded by a high stone wall; approximately one and a half of these acres were subsequently transformed into one of late 19th century to early 20th century Jerusalem’s most beautiful exotic gardens.

Hospital patients and administrators tended the garden. Patients mainly occupied themselves by working the land, an activity which was considered to be highly therapeutic. The garden included both ornamental and fruit trees, and a large portion of land was designated as a vegetable garden, which supplied the hospital with produce.

The hospice operated continuously until the War of Independence. Following the state’s founding, the complex became a governmental hospital. Once a cure for the disease was discovered during the 1980’s, the hospital was transformed into an outpatient clinic, until Hansen’s Disease was fully eradicated.

Although the structure and the garden were neglected through the years, favorable climatic conditions preserved some of the plants and trees. Today, the building serves as an outpatient clinic for preschoolers.

Due to the site’s reputation as a hospital for ill-fated lepers, many Jerusalemites refrained from peeking inside. Rivka Regev, the daughter of a physician who worked in the hospice and continues to reside in the complex, is working to change the compound’s image.

In 1964, Dr. Moshe Goldberger began volunteering in the hospital and continued to do so until an effective antibiotic cocktail was developed. Subsequently, the building became his private residence.

Regev thus lived in the compound for many years and became intimately familiar with every nook and cranny. She possesses photographs and illustrations of the hospital, the ministering nuns, the patients and the garden. These images superimpose the past on the century-old paths and stones.

In order to restore the garden, Regev recruited a group of volunteers, including environmental activists, and enlisted the help of the municipal garden supervisor, landscape architects, and the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

The goal is to create an onsite garden based on the original plants and trees, with the addition of both curative as well as typical Biblical and modern Land of Israel plants.

When Regev leads a group towards the hospital, she stops in the shade of the Moon Grove. The Germans covered the open areas, which were bare hills 120 years ago, with trees. From under an ancient strawberry tree, one can view the wall surrounding the Hansen complex. Heavy iron gates served to admit provisions and horse drawn wagons.

During the 19th century, the entire structure was enclosed by the wall, but later, when space became an issue, a barn and the so-called “castle” – the medical staff’s residence – were built outside the walls, in the Moon Grove. No trace of these structures remains, but activists are struggling to prevent the erection of a parking lot in place of the grove.

From here, Regev turns on to Marcus Street, leads the group along the wall, turns left on Gedalyahu Alon Street, and proceeds a few meters up the street. She halts in front of a locked iron gate; the key is in her pocket. The group traipses along a packed dirt path towards the building; remnants of the once-magnificent garden surround the structure.

Uncovered metal fences imply that goats or other farm animals were raised here. Ancient trees line the walking paths. SPNI members built a small birdbath in the garden.

The compound’s water cisterns comprise a fascinating architectural point of interest, with internal arches and a tank that fills up during the rainy season and directs the water to the covered cistern.
The assorted pine trees in the northern garden, referred to as “The Garden of Eden”, are the oldest existing trees in Jerusalem. A dividing wall, between the nuns’ garden and the patients’ garden, once stood here.

Visitors to Marcus Street, adjacent to the Jerusalem Theater, are invited to independently explore the garden whenever the outpatient clinic is open (Sunday-Thursday, from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm). Enter via the green gate next to the sign reading, “Health Ministry – Preschool Unit.”

In addition, Rivka Regev leads guided tours under SPNI-Jerusalem auspices. For reservations, please call 972-54-744-6123 or 972-2-625-2357. Price: NIS 50.

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