Jerusalem’s Old City is a historical wonder. The 3000-year-old city is considered the very heart of Jerusalem, and many would say Israel. It is a living, breathing connection to the past, a place that teems with life and excitement, yet can also look frozen in time. Home to the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock, it is hard to imagine a more densely packed area of cultural importance. It’s a place everyone should try and see at least once in their life.
But, it hasn’t always been a place that allows that.
For as every bit as important and enriching as the Old City is, it has been equally inconvenient and dangerous. The architects of three millennia ago who built the foundations of the city were not as concerned with safety standards as we are today, and to this day, the Old City is plagued with narrow streets, uneven cobblestone, and downright treacherous inclines making it a hostile place for those with mobility and health issues. For anyone with a weak heart, respiratory issues, or who depends on a cane or walker, trying to explore the area has always been risky. And for those who rely on a wheelchair, the journey has been so difficult as to almost be impossible.
In March, Jerusalem completed a 10-year project overseeing more than 11 million dollars of renovations and adjustments to the Old City. Chief among these overhauls is the work that has been done on the New Gate entrance into the Old City, which is now specifically designed to accommodate the disabled and mobility impaired.
Jerusalem Mayor, Moshe Lion, declared "The Jerusalem Municipality has put accessibility in the Old City at the top of its priorities, and we will continue to make many more sites in the capital accessible to achieve this goal,” and he wasn’t kidding. The renovations to the New Gate and Old City have been extensive, with a direct mind to not only providing ramp access to key spots, but to improving the flow of travel to the entire area.
Specific infrastructure improvements were also made to local businesses and their facades to prevent sprawl and limit the number of obstacles from things like patio furniture and signage. Lighting has been improved across the entire area to provide additional illumination and help prevent accidental slips and falls.
Of course, improvements to ramp accessibility and stemming the worst of the Old Cities inclines was a major focus for the project. The "new” Old City now includes enhanced shuttle service for the disabled. These free shuttles accommodate wheelchair and mobility peripherals and run on an hourly rotation, taking visitors in and out of the city area. Steep inclines have been tapered with ramped plateaus, which also feature handrails for those who might need help balancing and wider throughways to help prevent pedestrian bottlenecks.
Many of the improvements to the city are not as obvious. Enhancements to the plumping and sewage infrastructure and electrical grid may not be seem as immediately helpful as ramps and shuttles, but they contribute to a safer and healthier Old City. It has always been a nightmare to get road crews and repairmen into those narrow streets, and with improvements to the underlying infrastructure, those disruptions should be far less common in the future.
It’s all part of making a more welcoming and inviting Old City for all people. To support the completion of these renovations, the Jerusalem municipality has even released free guided audio tours of the accessible routes in key areas of the city. Just the thing for anyone who has long dreamt of visiting, but was kept at bay by fears of inaccessibility!