A view of wheelchair accessible ramps in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Shlomo Deutsch.

The Old City of Jerusalem just became the largest accessible historic city in the world.

The newly inaugurated, 10-year, 20 million shekel (about $5.5 million) project led by the East Jerusalem Development Company has delivered accessibility to all three of the city’s holy sites — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The project included adjusting four kilometers of streets in the Armenian, Christian and Muslim quarters; installing two kilometers of handrails along staircases; and providing a free, wheelchair-accessible, shuttle from Jerusalem’s First Station to the Old City’s Dung Gate.

Speaking at the site on March 18, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said “this was not an easy task.”

In ancient Israel, the main means of transportation was freight animals, such as camels, mules and horses. The steep paths, narrow streets, and twists and turns of the stoned city of Jerusalem were built according to natural topography; in fact, the difference between the highest and lowest points of the Old City is about 180 feet.

Beginning as a project to help people more efficiently navigate these challenging aspects of the Old City, organizers initially met with disabled residents to develop plans that would make the area better suited to their needs.

“We had a wonderful collaboration with the citizens here and all the businesses,” says director general of the Ministry of Tourism Amir Halevy.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City of Jerusalem is home to about 40,000 residents, and is the most visited place in Israel with about 10,000,000 tourists a year. The improvements have helped both residents and tourists, who once had to climb hundreds of stairs each day to make their around the city.

Jewish Quarter resident Esther Mendlowitz said, “We have a lot of stairs on our street, and they built three new ramps. The ramps have really helped one of the residents with a family member in a wheelchair. Whenever she came for Shabbat, the family had to build a makeshift ramp over the steps, which was very difficult. Now, thank G-d, it’s much easier for her to come.”

The project mainly focused on the New Gate and the Jaffa Gate because they are “an intersection between the Armenian, Jewish, [Christian] and Muslim quarters,” said Yitzchak Sabato, director of the Social Development Fund. The project, he added, “is a symbol of integrating people from all kinds, no matter from where they come.”

Paving the way for other ancient cities

While the accessibility issue has been solved, a new problem has arisen. The ramps have made the Old City so easy to get around that motor-vehicle drivers have begun using them to speed through the streets and alleys of the city.

George Sandrouni, a shop owner in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, expressed some dissatisfaction with the project, telling JNS, “Unfortunately, we have seen that a lot of [the newly installed ramps] have been used by motorcycles … that are really making a mess and jam up the city.”

“We don’t need that in the Old City,” he said with a heavy sigh. “It’s a good thing to make it accessible to [disabled] people, but it should also be buffered by some laws and regulations about all those motor vehicles that the roads weren’t designated for in the first place.”

Along with the physical improvements to the city, the project included the development of an app to navigate the city’s accessible roads. Ruvi Lang, one of the app’s developers, spoke about a key feature, saying “disabled people can choose sites, and the application automatically calculates to give the best, fastest and shortest accessible way to each site.”

Lang also mentioned that given the uniqueness of the technology, the company is in talks with Berlin and Barcelona about implementing such advances to help disabled citizens and residents in those cities as well.

As for Lion, he said completion of the project was crucial because it demonstrates Jerusalem’s leadership in accessibility, for literally “paving the way for ancient cities around the world.”

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