In the center of the city, in and around Independence Park, there are a few relatively unknown Jerusalemite jewels that many people pass by every day. The Palace Hotel, the impressive little Mamilla cemetery and the city’s largest cistern are three such jewels. The tour begins at Menashe Ben Israel Street, which crosses Independence Park, linking the American Consulate on Agron Street with Kikar Hachatulot (Cat’s Square) on Hillel Street.
Independence Park was part of an empty plot at the time of the British Mandate. After the War of Independence, when Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, it was decided that this area should be a green area, and the public park which was inaugurated in 1959.
Beware of the lion
Coming into the park from the American Consulate, you can see the entrance to a small ancient cave, called the Lion’s Cave. According to Jewish tradition, the bones of Jews massacred by the Greeks in the days of the Hasmoneans are buried there. The Muslims claim that the bones are sacred Muslim ones from the nearby Muslim cemetery, which Allah himself transferred to the cave in order to salvage them from a fire that broke out in the area. And the Christians believe that the cave contains the bones of monks who were massacred by the Persians in 614. All the legends have one thing in common: the lion standing at the entrance to the cave, appointed by the Creator to guard the bones inside.
Mamilla Pool - next to the old city
Facing the cave, on the other side of the iron railing, there is a very large ancient cistern. It was probably built by King Herod who, other than Masada, the Temple Mount, the Tower of David, the Caesarea Harbor and more, also built an amazing aqueduct system to convey water into Jerusalem, and it is more than likely that the water stored here came via the High-Level aqueduct. From here, the water was transferred to Hezekiah’s Pool near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Above the cistern, you can see the “Caterpillar” pump used by the British to pump water less than 100 years ago.
A cemetery for aristocratic Muslims
At the eastern end of Independence Park, you come across the Mamilla cemetery, which dates back to the 13th century Mamluk period. Many of the graves there have very interesting tombstones. The word “Mamilla” probably stems from the Arabic “man min Allah”, which means "that which comes from God". About 70,000 people were buried here and many of those graves now lie under buildings and roads outside the park.
Walking along the path inside the cemetery, and not far from the traffic light, the impressive round mausoleum is hard to miss: this is Turbat el-Kubakiyya. According to the Muslim legend, Emir al Kubakiyya ordered his subjects to build him a tomb made with stone from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in order to irk the Christians. The other graves in this cemetery all belong to aristocrats, judges and other important people from the Mamluk period, between the 13th and 16th century.
On the other side of the pool, not far from the Lion’s Cave, you can see a magnificent Crusader tombstone surrounded by a fence. This tomb was discovered in the 19th century by renowned French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau.
Preserving the facade
A few yards away from the Mamluk mausoleum, on Agron Street, you can see the magnificent façade of what was the Ministry of Commerce and Industry until 2005 and was once the prestigious Palace Hotel. The building is undergoing extensive reconstruction and will revert to being a luxury hotel. The original hotel was built in 1928 under the orders of the Mufti of Jerusalem who, seeing the wave of hotels being built by the British decided to build an Arab hotel. It took only 13 months to complete the project. The inscription in Arabic at the entrance says “We will build like they did”, probably referring to the building of the Temple Mount. Note the arches, the windows and the Mamluk architecture.