Ecological camping, beehives and artists try to give new life to one of Jerusalem’s most notorious buildings – and change how we view wasted rooftop space

City camping on Clal center's rooftop in Jerusalem.
City camping on Clal center’s rooftop in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Nir Hasson Apr. 21, 2022

The entrance to the vacation site is situated between a small shop called “Absolutely Everything for One Shekel” and a bank branch. After passing through the metal detector and the guard’s inspection, you climb the spiral stairs in one of the Jerusalem’s most denigrated buildings to reach the Terrace (“HaMirpeset.”) This is where we’ll spend the night for our vacation.

Just a few minutes earlier, we thought our brief vacation was over before it even started. Four police motorcycles and two patrol cars with sirens blaring had just sped down over the light rail tracks in the city center in the direction of the central bus station. That’s it, we told ourselves, we’ll have to forgo the pleasure because of another terror attack. But a few minutes later we found out it was just another false alarm. There have been numerous such false alarms in Jerusalem this Ramadan. Our vacation was saved.

It’s an unusual type of vacation, apparently the most extreme type of tourist accommodations in Jerusalem, on the green rooftop of the Clal Center. The old building sits at the corner of Jaffa Road and Kiah Street in the bustling center of the city, right near the Mahane Yehuda market. Jerusalemites have known it for many years as a shabby and neglected structure impossible to find your way around. According to a popular urban legend, a body is buried in its foundations. Nonetheless, in the last few years it has achieved a certain renaissance after a group of social-environmental entrepreneurs from the Muslala organization began developing part of the building’s rooftop in an effort to transform it from a wilderness of pipes and solar water heaters and a continuous source of leaks into an “urban oasis.” The aim is to show that rooftops hold tremendous ecological potential to improve our lives in this bleak age for the global climate.

At the entrance to Muslala’s green rooftop space there is an exhibit of several panels inscribed with 129 possible uses – some of them quite futuristic – for rooftops, including everything from a dog park and urban garden to solar installations or electricity-producing wind turbines to a station for dispatching postal service drones. The Muslala Clal rooftop has spaces for workshops, exhibitions and events; a local tree and plant nursery; two honey-producing beehives; a composting facility; seating areas and more. And as of now there is also a small camping site – the only one in downtown Jerusalem – consisting of two tents, an earthen pod and a lavatory facility. The lavatory is connected to a biogas system that converts the waste into cooking gas which is conveyed to the small kitchenette.

My nine-year-old son Ofer and I chose the pod, which costs 400 shekels a night. The photographer Emil Salman and his family took the adjacent tent for 300 shekels. The pod has windows, outlets for charging devices and an air vent but no air-conditioner. But the layers of earth and straw from which the pod is made provide good insulation. “It’s weird and unusual. The pod is the smallest place I’ve ever slept,” Ofer says. “I’ve been in this building many times, but this rooftop is a green island in the middle of the city and it’s surprising.”

Another side of Jerusalem

The Clal Center was originally intended to represent a different type of Jerusalem from the one that developed following the Six-Day War. Mayor Teddy Kollek saw the building as a healthy and modern urban answer to the governmental construction frenzy of building new neighborhoods and suburbs that began surrounding the city after its unification. The new neighborhoods gradually drained life away from Jerusalem’s historic center and the Clal Center was supposed to be the beating heart that would pump new blood into it. But things didn’t go as planned.

The building was designed by Dan Eitan as a “spiral street” that twists upward and contains dozens of shops. But contrary to the original plan, which called for an open-air structure, the building was covered with an ugly plastic roof. The shops were sold to hundreds of separate owners, which made managing the complex and maintaining its public spaces very difficult. Local residents couldn’t find their way around in the odd spiral that created half-stories and a confusing layout, and as the years went by the building fell into disrepair; the businesses were replaced by the offices of manpower companies and importers of foreign workers.

The air quality-monitoring station located in the building broke national records for pollution recordings because of the hundreds of buses that passed by each day on Jaffa Road right below it, the building became coated in soot and most Jerusalemites stayed away. Twenty years ago, Jaffa Road was closed to buses, and 11 years ago, the light rail began running there. The pollution level in the area dropped sharply, but the building remained deserted, certainly in comparison to Jaffa Road and the shuk which came back to life once the second intifada subsided and the work on the light rail was completed. Currently just a few popular longtime shops operate in the building, and are the exception that proves the rule. “It’s always been a sketchy, shadowy place, a place that no one could understand how it was still around,” says Noa Paor, 23, who decided to give it another chance and stay at the camping site. “This is meant for someone who is looking for this kind of experience, not for just anyone who wants to tour Jerusalem.”

The experience Paor is referring to first took shape seven years ago. That’s when the Muslala people came and began constructing the green rooftop. While the project has not quite trickled down throughout the building, the artists and activists who come to the Terrace have given the place a real boost. After opening the plant nursery, they have also held workshops on mud construction, beekeeping, art exhibitions and other activities. Now the organization opened the urban camping site. “The goal is not to make money, but rather to spread the message that the rooftops in the city are an asset that can lead to prosperity,” says rooftop manager Hillel Moran.

The loss of rooftop space to bitumen sheeting and infrastructure is a relatively new phenomenon that started in the 20th century. “More than 90 percent of the city’s area is a ‘wilderness of rooftops’ that we create ourselves,” Moran says. “We believe in the need to erect urban oases on the rooftops that will create spaces for communal gatherings, urban agriculture and nature areas.” The organization will soon hold the Gag Eden Festival at the location as part of tis campaign to liberate the rooftops. “It’s inevitable, I think,” says Elad Gurvitz who is doing his national service at the Terrace. “The population density is constantly increasing, and we have to look upward. It should have happened long ago.”

The window that conceals

Sleeping on the rooftop on hot nights is a common practice in the Middle East, but in Jerusalem the nights are still too chilly for this. Ofer and I need wool hats – we found the last ones of the season at a stall in nearby Mahane Yehuda – and all the blankets we were provided with in order to get through the night. But the real problem proved not to be the cold but the noise. Although the pod is surrounded by vegetation, a diligent construction worker in the next building drilled late into the night. Then, there was the noise of dishes being washed in a closed restaurant, the sounds of a passing cat and an active billiards club – all of which reminded us that despite all the greenery and the sense of being atop an abandoned building, we were in the noisiest spot in Jerusalem.

Gurvitz maintains that the noise and surrounding chaos aren’t a glitch – they’re a feature. “Camping is about living in the place that you’re in, and when you’re on the roof in the very center of Jerusalem, this is part of the experience,” he explains. “When you’re in a forest, you have the wind and howling jackals, so here at the Clal Center you have the noise of the air conditioners and the light rail and the vendors at the shuk.”

Lodging at the Clal Center can be an eye-opening experience for Jerusalem residents and those who know the city well. Just like someone who lives near the sea no longer hears the sound of the waves, someone who lives in Jerusalem no longer sees the city’s uniqueness. A night in the spice garden on the rooftop can reveal new angles. The light that falls on the tiled rooftops of Nahlaot, the bustle of the shuk, even the peculiar spiral of the Clal Center takes on a certain charm late at night.

“It was a little strange being there,” says Chaya Roan-Becker, who stayed on the roof the week before we did. “We live in Jerusalem and were just a short train ride from home, but you go there and you feel like you’re really getting away. It’s an escape from reality; you pass through the gate and it’s like you’re in a different world. There’s a real dissonance from the place you come from.”

Unfortunately, you can’t see the sunrise from the roof. A huge building, ironically named “Window on Jerusalem,” blocks the view. When seven-year-old Eden Salman opened his eyes in the morning, he was a little confused. It took him a little time to understand where he was with all the buildings and noise around – very different from his Beit Hakerem neighborhood where he is used to waking up. His nine-year-old brother Eli saw the advantage in this: “It’s the best to go to sleep in a tent and feel that you’re in nature but still hear the city when you fall asleep – and then when you wake up you can go right into the city center.”

A little later in the kitchen area we met Didi, a new immigrant from Canada and former high-tech worker who has rebuilt his life in Jerusalem as a warrior against everything that he believes is threatening humanity: vaccines, dangerous chemicals in the water and a zombie invasion. He was busy preparing a potion out of pine needles, pomelo peels and other ingredients meant to protect him for an array of health and government-related threats.

“Canada is big and boring, I’m really glad that more stuff happens here, I can’t deal with boredom,” he says. “Here it’s totally crazy. Half the people in this city are neurotic and that is no exaggeration.” We said goodbye to him, made our way down a number of half-stories and emerged back onto the busy street.