Mamilla: New Luxury in the Old City

On an unseasonably cold afternoon in mid-February, just as a flurry of snowflakes had prompted most Jerusalemites to hole up inside, I made the ascent from the city that plays to the city that prays. The dreary weather deepened the silent permanence blanketing this 4,000-year-old metropolis. But even more striking was the contrast between the ancient walls of the Old City and the dizzying opulence of the new $400 million Alrov Mamilla complex, a sprawling development linking the past and the present.

Like a tongue of sparkling limestone lolling from the Western Wall of the Old City, the 28-acre stretch of land begins at the Jaffa Gate, extends down into the Hinnom Valley and up to the corner of King Solomon Street. The epicenter of numerous political battles, financial controversies and religious upheavals for the last half-century, its completion took more than 35 years and was one of the most costly in Israeli history.

Although the complex’s land is the site of an ancient reservoir constructed by Herod the Great in the first century B.C.E. and a historic Muslim burial ground called the Mamilla Cemetery, which purportedly dates back to the seventh century, the entire swath remained largely empty, save for a smattering of olive trees until the 19th century. 

Early building in the neighborhood began with the Ottomans as an extension of the market in the overcrowded Old City. It quickly attracted merchants and artisans seeking a place for new commerce.
Under British rule in 1947 following a U.N. Partition Plan, the area was ravaged and plundered by an Arab mob that burned most of the neighborhood, destroying many of the buildings and stabbing several Jewish residents.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, its location between Israeli and Jordanian-held land transformed the entire area into a combat zone, forcing many Arab and Jewish residents to abandon their homes. In 1949, after the division of Jerusalem, the territory formed an armistice between the two countries, but hostile attacks from both sides continued. The incessant violence led to a sharp decline. At that time, it was populated largely by poverty-stricken Kurdish immigrants and lined with industrial repair shops. 

After the Six-Day War in 1967, the municipality annexed the entire area, removing the concrete barricades and barbed wire fences that had stood for nearly 20 years. Many of the buildings were crumbling and several historic sites were condemned, including the Stern House, where Theodore Herzl stayed during his 1898 visit.

Although several proposals for rehabilitation were put forward in the 1970s, the plan to create a mixed-development area on the site evoked massive criticism because it called for the destruction of almost every building, except for the French Hospice St. Vincent de Paul. Over the course of the next 16 years, Mamilla remained an eyesore as the municipality slowly set about evicting the 700 families and industrial companies, relocating them to newly developing neighborhoods farther from the center at a cost of $60 million.

In 1986, ground was finally broken on a revised plan for the area, but the development continued to be plagued with problems. Disputes between the developers and the religious community, which opposed an entertainment complex so close to the Old City, led to years of failed mediation and stagnation.

Eventually completed by Alfred Akirov’s Tel Aviv-based real estate company, Alrov, the complex was partially completed in May 2007 and now includes the David Citadel and Mamilla hotels, the residential David’s Village and Mamilla Residences, an upscale pedestrian mall that has been likened by many to Rodeo Drive — offering a mix of Israeli and international high-end brands, such as H. Stern, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Castro, Michal Negrin and Steimatzky — as well as an enormous underground parking lot.

For architect Moshe Safdie, who first conceptualized the project in 1972, its completion represents the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Although preservationists denigrate it because little more than façades have been maintained, Safdie was careful to number each stone for reconstruction. If you look carefully, the blue numbers on many of the concrete blocks of former landmarks along the new promenade are still visible.

Also known for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Ben Gurion Airport’s new Terminal 3 and the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Safdie considers the Mamilla Hotel to be the crown jewel in the entire new complex, a quintessentially urban place that combines historic buildings and contemporary architecture. He hopes it will enliven the dampness of Jerusalem’s religious weight and attract a younger, hipper, more secular crowd.

Mamilla Hotel

Nestled between the upscale Mamilla Avenue pedestrian mall and King Solomon Street, the Mamilla Hotel lobby welcomes guests with a calm ambience, impeccable design and fabulous architecture. Even its name, rooted in the Arabic expression ”that which stems from God,” has a lovely sonorous lilt.

Back in the vast entrance hall, the contradictions between light and dark persist. Embedded within one interior stone wall, the apricot flames of a glowing fire were encased by glass on both sides. In the plush seating areas, guests conversed quietly on velvet chaises in shades of eggplant, burgundy and sage. 

Before I had time to fully assess the balance between glass, metal and stone, a tall man in a chic blue suit and starched white button-down greeted me with a warm smile, ushering me over to a long counter. “This is not your usual check-in area,” he explained. “It’s a blend of concierge and service center that emphasizes our commitment to being a luxury lifestyle hotel.”

For a moment, I wondered if I had suddenly been transported through a wormhole to Paris or New York. Everything — the friendly security guard at the gated entrance, the courteous valet attendant, the smiling doorman, the subdued music, the soft hiss of an espresso machine, the smell of fresh lilies, the host who greeted me by name and the astounding sense of space in the vast foyer — oozed
European style and American service. An army of well-groomed hotel employees fluttered around the lobby, which is a long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. A dark, angular staircase constructed from rolled steel stands in sharp contrast to the radiant limestone pillars and small glass squares in a cantilevered canopy above, through which a white overcast light fell.

“Light was an important element in the design of the hotel,” guest relations manager George Ladaw explained as we toured the grounds. “The glass walls and ceilings bring natural light from outside in during the day; at night, the soft interior lights are visible outside.”

The minimalist aesthetic of Piero Lissoni, an Italian designer who also worked on the interiors of the Grand Canal and Hotel Monaco, is reflected in the clean lines found throughout the hotel — from the square bathtubs, sinks, tables and headboards in the rooms to the spacious herb garden and airy rooftop brasserie that affords visitors a panoramic view of the entire city.

A beautifully lit blue-tiled swimming pool on the subterranean level recalls ancient Roman baths. The dining hall has high ceilings and an entire wall of windows that lead out to an open-air terrace so guests can breakfast outside most of the year. A small wine bar, the first in Jerusalem, offers a wide selection of Israeli kosher wines and hosts tastings throughout the week. 

“Israel is starting to be on the wine map and our goal is to get the gospel across,” said Yitzhak Lustig, the hotel’s sommelier, as we pause for a brief tasting.

Adjacent to the wine bar, the Mirror Bar is located within the carapace of a historic building. Aptly named for its wall of mirrors, it attracts hotel guests and locals alike. If you enjoy smoking cigars, an intimate, walk-in humidor at the end of the room is replete with plush couches and glass walls. In another salute to lighting typical of Lissoni’s style, a long chandelier spans the length of the entire bar.

Made from delicate pieces of hand-blown glass that hang in rows of crystalline rings hooked together, it sheds a soft light over the black bar at night, enhancing the trendy, hip ambience.

The 194-room hotel offers five types of rooms that vary in size from the 320-square-foot studio to the 1,200-square-foot Presidential Suite, but only the larger rooms have a lateral view of the Old City.

Prices range from $400-$2,800 a night, and although the scenery is much better on one side of the hotel than the other, they all share the same commitment to contrasts: dark metal headboards and light parquet floors, heavy burlap curtains and pale concrete bathrooms, coffee-colored angular tables and pallid rounded armchairs. A wall of glass separates the bathroom and bedroom, giving each room a spacious, uninterrupted look. Through “priva light” technology, the barrier changes from transparent to opaque with the flick of a switch so privacy is not compromised.

Still under construction, the more than 10,000-square-foot Holistic Wellbeing Center is set to open this year and will provide a gym, a spa, an organic raw-food bar, and offer Wastu pool and hamman treatments. 

“We accompany each and every guest to their room,” Ladaw said as we arrived back at my suite on the fifth floor. “Our goal is to reach out to guests before they arrive so that they have peace of mind and they know that once they get here, all they have left to do is settle in and enjoy.”

The hotel is certified kosher by the Jerusalem Rabbinate, including all of its restaurants and kitchens, and the food was excellent. Both the breakfast and dinner provided a large selection of gourmet fare with a local twist for reasonable prices.

On weekends, guests can take a complimentary tour of the Old City that winds through some of the lesser-known quarters and landmarks. Starting at the New Gate, the approximately three-hour tour takes you through Franciscan churches, where many monks still make their home, to the music center, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim children from high-risk families are educated together in a peaceful environment. After exploring the Armenian Quarter, with its famous pottery workshops, the tour ends with panoramic views atop a Maronite Church.

For central location and hip design in the center of Jerusalem, nothing beats the new Mamilla Hotel. On the downside, despite a great start, the overall service was slightly disappointing. The server in the restaurant, for example, did not understand service etiquette and was unfamiliar with the menu or local Israeli wines, and the valet took over an hour to bring the car upon checkout. Another drawback is practicality. The gorgeous design tends to place form over function. The square bathtubs, for example, look beautiful but are far from comfortable. And uber-modern dim bedside lamps have a romantic glow but make it difficult to actually read.

Nevertheless, to stay in the hotel is a sensuous, relaxing experience and there is no doubt that it provides a perfect starting point for exploring both the Old City and many of Jerusalem’s other charming neighborhoods.

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