LIONS ARE THE LAST THING YOU WOULD EXPECT TO SEE IN JERUSALEM because the City of Gold is renowned for its haunting beauty, ancient landmarks and religious significance. Not for its wildlife, and definitely not for lions roaming its streets. Yet that is exactly what you will find. On street corners and in tiny alleyways, on city squares and in front of residential homes are lions…statues, mosaics and sculptures of the king of the jungle standing guard over the Jewish capital. I invite you to walk the streets of Jerusalem with me, to explore the nooks and crannies of her history, as we go on a lion hunt.
First, some background. This is, after all, Jerusalem, where the present is born from the layers of the past. Our lions are no exception. Hailed by the Talmud (Hag. 13b) as “the king of the beasts,” history has woven the lion symbol into the fabric of the Jewish people. The Bible has more than 150 references to lions, many descriptive or metaphoric of Israel.
Overlooking the armies of Israel, Balaam exclaims, “Look, a people rises like a lioness, and lifts itself up like a lion…” (Num. 23:24a). In his lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan, David remembers “… they were stronger than lions” (2 Sam. 1:23b). The most prominent tie between the king of beasts and Israel comes from before the nation’s official birth. The Twelve Tribes are yet a band of a dozen brothers, the sons of Jacob. On his deathbed, the patriarch has a prophecy for each son. Over Judah he speaks, “Judah is a lion’s whelp… He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?” (Gen. 49:9).
Millennia pass. Eretz Israel sees generations come and go. In the 19th century, the last wild lion disappears from the Middle East, but not from Jewish identity. The king of the beasts lives on in the hearts of Israel. It echoes as a popular feature in Jewish ceremonial art, its silhouette embroidered and carved into Torah coverings.
Lions made their official return to the Jewish capital in 1950 as the Jerusalem municipal emblem. The choice was obvious. The lion had been the symbol of the tribe of Judah for countless generations. Jerusalem formed part of Judah’s portion of the Promised Land. As the biblical and historical capital of the Jewish nation, the Lion of Judah belonged to Jerusalem.
The passing years have grafted various lion artworks into Jerusalem’s landscape. In fact, the city’s first artistic water fountain features a family of six playful lions. Named simply “The Lion Fountain,” the West German Republic designed and donated the fountain in 1989 to stand as a symbol of peaceful coexistence. Located where the Old City flows into the new, it is intended as a meeting place for Jerusalem’s diverse populations.
Yet all Jerusalem’s lions are not carved from stone. On the Street of Prophets stands the former Ethiopian consulate building. A blue and gold mosaic of a lion holding a cross and a flag, the symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, decorates the façade. An inscription proclaims, “The lion of the Tribe of Judah triumphs.”
Some of Jerusalem’s lions are long-time residents. Yet in 2002, some new immigrant beasts changed the city’s lion landscape. As part of the municipality’s “Lions of Jerusalem” project, various artists decorated basic lion sculptures. For almost a year, the streets of Jerusalem turned into an open-air art exhibition featuring 80 smiling, playful lions, each “dressed” in its own creative garb. The lions were later auctioned, raising funds for charity. Some lions found good homes elsewhere. Others remained in the city of their birth to decorate parks, streets and private homes.
Hunting down lions in Jerusalem will take you from the open-air market where stone lions stand growling guard over the Mahane Yehuda police station, to the German Colony, where a tired stone lion sleeps above the entrance of a private home. Wander through suburban streets to a copy of the lion mosaic floor from an ancient synagogue, on to the modern mosaic decorating the Natural History Museum. Winding east to the Lions’ Gate in the Old City, only to turn west again for the stone beast, paw resting on a lamb’s head, welcoming guests to Mount Zion hotel.
My hunt over for the day, I stop at the Municipality buildings. One of the “Lions of Jerusalem” stands smiling at tourists thronging back from the Old City. The setting sun glides pink behind the ancient walls. A security guard wanders over. Perhaps I’m lost, looking for something? I tell him about my hunt and ask his opinion, “Why all the lions in Jerusalem?” He chews on the question. Then points a finger skywards and says, “See, we are the baby of the Big Lion.”
I nod, dumbstruck. Because honestly, what else is left to say?
Posted on January 25, 2016
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