Silwan (Arabic: سلوان, Hebrew: כְּפַר הַשִּׁילוֹחַ Kefar ha-Shiloaḥ) is a predominantly Arab neighborhood on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem. Forty Jewish families also live in the area. Silwan is located in East Jerusalem.
After 1948 Palestine War, the village fell under Jordanian occupation. Jordanian rule lasted until the 1967 Six-Day War after which it was occupied and later annexed by Israel. Silwan is under the administrative jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality. The international community considers Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem as illegal under international law, but the Israeli government disputes this.
In 2009, Silwan had an estimated population of 31,000.
Historically, Silwan was located on the eastern slope of the Kidron Valley, above the outlet of the Gihon Spring opposite the City of David. The villagers cultivated the arable land in the Kidron Valley, which in biblical tradition formed the king's gardens during the Davidic dynasty, to grow vegetables for market in Jerusalem. Nineteenth-century travelers describe it as verdant and cultivated, and perched on a steep, slippery scarp cut into hillside. It now lies on both sides of the Kidron Valley and runs alongside the eastern slopes of Jabel Mukaber.
Biblical sources describe Shiloah area as "the waters of Shiloah go softly" (from the Gihon spring) (Isaiah 8:6) and "the Pool of Siloam" (Nehemiah 3:15) watering King Solomon's Royal Garden and later a staging area for Jewish pilgrims during the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot wherein the spring-fed pools were used to wash and purify the supplicants who ascend the Great Staircase to the Temple Mount while singing hymns based on Psalms.
Talmudic sources describe Shiloah as the center of Eretz Israel (Zamib i 5). On Sukkot water was brought from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple and poured upon the altar (Suk v. 1.) and the priests also drank of this water (Ab. N. R. xxxv).
The village is built atop and around the necropolis of the Biblical kingdom. The necropolis, or ancient cemetery, is an archaeological site of major significance. It contains fifty rock-cut tombs of distinguished calibre, assumed to be the burial places of the highest-ranking officials of the Judean kingdom. Tomb inscriptions are in Hebrew. The "most famous" of the ancient rock-cut tombs in Silwan is finely carved, the one known as the Tomb of Pharaoh's daughter. Another notable tomb, called the Tomb of the Royal Steward is now incorporated into a modern-period house. The ancient inscription informs us that it is the final resting place of ""...yahu who is over the house." The first part of the Hebrew name is effaced, but it refers to a Judean royal steward or chamberlain. It is now in the collection of the British Museum.
All of the tombs were long since emptied, and their contents removed. A great deal of destruction was done to the tombs over the centuries by quarrying and by their conversion for use as housing, both by monks in the Christian period, when some were used as churches, and later by Muslim villagers. "When the Arab village was built; tombs were destroyed, incorporated in houses or turned into water cisterns and sewage dumps."
Medieval Arab period
Local folklore dates Silwan to the arrival of the second Rashidun caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab from Arabia. According to one resident's version of the story, the Greeks were so impressed that the Caliph entered on foot while his servant rode on a camel that they presented him with the key to the city. The Caliph thereafter granted the wadi to "Khan Silowna," an agricultural community of cave dwellers living around the valley spring.
In medieval Muslim tradition, the spring of Silwan (Ayn Silwan) was among the four most sacred water sources in the world. The others were Zamzam in Mecca, Ayn Falus in Beisan and Ayn al-Baqar in Acre. Silwan is mentioned as "Sulwan" by the 10th-century Arab writer and traveller al-Muqaddasi. In 985 he noted that the village in the outskirts of Jerusalem and south of the village was ′Ain Sulwan ("Spring of Siloam") which provided "fairly good water" that irrigated the large gardens that the third Rashidun caliph, 'Othman ibn 'Affan, endowed as a waqf to the impoverished residents of Jerusalem. Al-Muqaddasi further wrote "It is said that on the Night of 'Arafat the water of the holy well Zamzam, at Makkah, comes underground to the water of the Spring (of Siloam). The people hold a festival here on that evening."
In 1834, during a large-scale peasants' rebellion against Ibrahim Pasha, thousands of rebels infiltrated Jerusalem through ancient underground sewage channels leading to the farm fields of the village of Silwan. A traveler to Palestine in 1883, T. Skinner, wrote that the olive groves near Silwan were a gathering place for Muslims on Fridays.
In the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by the Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of graves on the Mount of Olives. Jewish visitors to the Western Wall were also required to pay a tax to the inhabitants of Silwan, which by 1863 was 10,000 Piastres. Nineteenth-century travelers described the village as a robbers' lair. Charles Wilson wrote that "the houses and the streets of Siloam, if such they may be called, are filthy in the extreme.” Charles Warren depicted the population as a lawless set, credited with being the most unscrupulous ruffians in Palestine.” 
An official Ottoman village list from about 1870 showed that Silwan had a total of 92 houses and a population of 240, though the population count included only men.
In 1883, the Palestine Exploration Fund's Survey of Western Palestine described Silwan as "village perched on a precipice and badly built of stone. The waters is brought from Ain Umm ed Deraj. There are numerous caves among and behind the houses, which are used as stables by the inhabitants".
In 1881–82, a group of Jews arrived from Yemen as a result of messianic fervor. Based on a numerological interpretation of the biblical verse "Let me climb the palm" (Song of Songs 7:9), in which the numerical value of the Hebrew word "palm" - 642 - corresponded to the Hebrew year 5642 (1881/82), Yemenite Jews began leaving Sana'a for the Holy Land. It was an arduous journey and they arrived in Jerusalem destitute. After living in the Old City of Jerusalem for several years, they moved to the hills facing the City of David, where they lived in caves. Initially shunned by the Jews of the Old Yishuv, who did not recognize them as Jews due to their dark complexions, unfamiliar customs, and strange pronunciation of Hebrew, they had to be given shelter by the Christians of the Swedish-American colony, who called them Gadites. Eventually, to end their reliance on Christian charity, Jewish philanthropists purchased land in the Silwan valley to establish a neighborhood for them. By 1884, the Yemenites had settled into new stone houses at the south end of the Arab village, built for them by a Jewish charity called Ezrat Niddahim. Up to 200 Yemenite Jews lived in the newly built neighborhood, called Kfar Hashiloach (Hebrew: כפר השילוח) or the "Yemenite Village." Construction costs were kept low by using the Shiloah spring as a water source instead of digging cisterns. An early 20th century travel guide writes: In the "village of Silwan, east of Kidron ... some of the fellah dwellings [are] old sepulchers hewn in the rocks. During late years a great extension of the village southward has sprung up, owing to the settlement here of a colony of poor Jews from Yemen, etc. many of whom have built homes on the steep hillside just above and east of Bir Eyyub."
In the 1936–39 Arab revolt in Palestine, the Yemenite community was removed from Silwan by the Welfare Bureau into the Jewish Quarter as security conditions for Jews worsened. and in 1938, the remaining Yemenite Jews in Silwan were evacuated by the British authorities. According to documents in the custodian office and real estate and project advancement expert Edmund Levy, the homes of the Yemenite Jews were occupied by Arab families without registering ownership.
At the time of the 1922 census of Palestine, "Selwan (Kfar Hashiloah)" had a population of 1,699 Muslims, 153 Jews and 49 Christians. In the same year, Baron Edmond de Rothschild bought several acres of land there and transferred it to the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. By the time of the 1931 census, Silwan had 630 occupied houses and a population of 2,553 Muslims, 124 Jews and 91 Christians (the last including the Latin, Greek and St. Stephens convents).
The British Mandatory government began annexing parts of Silwan to the Jerusalem Municipality, a process completed by the final Jordanian annexation of remaining Silwan in 1952.
In the twentieth century, Silwan grew northward towards Jerusalem, expanding from a small farming village into an urban neighborhood. Modern Arab Silwan encompasses Old Silwan (generally to the south), the Yemenite village (to the north), and the once-vacant land between. Today Silwan follows the ridge of the southern peak of the Mount of Olives to the east of the Kidron Valley, from the ridge west of the Ophel up to the southern wall of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
After the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Silwan was annexed by Jordan along with the rest of the West Bank. Jewish-owned land in Silwan came under control of the Jordanian "guardian of enemy properties". It remained under Jordanian occupation until 1967, when Israel captured the Old City and surrounding region. Until then, the village had delegates in the Jerusalem City Council.
The City of David (Hebrew: Ir David), an archeological site believed to be the original site of Jerusalem, is located within Silwan. Since Israel gained control over East Jerusalem in 1967, Jewish organizations have sought to re-establish a Jewish presence in Silwan. In 1987, the Permanent Representative of Jordan to the United Nations wrote to the Secretary-General to inform him of Israeli settlement activity; his letter noted that an Israeli company had taken over two Palestinian houses in the neighborhood of al-Bustan after evicting their occupants, claiming the houses were its property. Wadi Hilweh, an area of Silwan close to the western wall of the Old City, and its neighborhood of al-Bustan, has been ever since a focus of Jewish settlement.
The Ir David Foundation and the Ateret Cohanim organizations are promoting resettlement of Jews in the neighborhood in cooperation with the Committee for the Renewal of the Yemenite Village in Shiloah. In 2003, Ateret Cohanim built a seven-story apartment building known as Beit Yehonatan (named for Jonathan Pollard) without a permit. In 2007, the courts ordered the eviction of the residents, but the building was approved retroactively. In 2008 a plan was submitted for a building complex including a synagogue, 10 apartments, a kindergarten, a library and underground parking for 100 cars in a location 200 meters from the Old City walls.
The Silwan Ta’azef Music School opened in October 2007. Since November 2007, an art program, language courses for women, men and children, leadership training for teenage girls, cooking classes, an embroidery club and swimming classes have opened in Silwan. In 2009, a local library was established. The Silwan theater group is led by a professional actress from Bethlehem. Many of these activities take place at the Madaa Silwan Creative Center.
Jewish property acquisition
In the 1980s, some properties in Silwan were declared absentee property. The suspicion arose that a number of claims filed by Jewish organizations were accepted by the Custodian without any site visits or follow-up. Property in Silwan has been purchased by Jews through indirect sales, some by invoking the Absentee Property Law. In other cases, the Jewish National Fund signed protected tenant agreements that enabled construction to proceed without a tender process.
In December 2011, a board member of the Jewish National Fund's US fundraising arm resigned in protest after a 20-year legal process came to a head with an order for the eviction of a Palestinian family from a JNF-owned home. The home had been acquired via the Absentee Property Law. Several days before the order was carried out, JNF announced it would be delayed.
Rabbis for Human Rights accused Elad of creating a "method of expelling citizens from their properties, appropriating public areas, enclosing these lands with fences and guards, and banning the entrance of the local residents...under the protection of a private security force."
Housing demolition and construction permits
According the State Comptroller’s report, there were 130 illegal structures in Silwan in 2009, a tenfold increase since 1967. When enforcement of the building code began in al-Bustan in 1995, thirty illegal structures were found, mostly old residential buildings. By 2004, the number of illegal structures rose to 80. The municipality launched legal proceedings against 43 and demolished 10, but these were soon replaced by new buildings.
The group Ir Amim argues that the illegal construction is due to insufficient granting of permits by the Jerusalem municipality. They say that under Israeli administration, fewer than 20 permits, mainly minor, were issued for this part of Silwan, and that as a result, most building in this part of Silwan and the whole neighbourhood generally lack permits. In 2010, Ir Amim's petition to halt a municipal zoning plan for the Wadi Hilweh area was rejected. The plan does not call for demolition of illegal construction, but rather regulates where construction may continue. The group said that the plan favored the interests of Elad and the neighborhood's Jewish residents, while Elad said that the plan allotted only 15 percent of construction to Jews versus 85 percent to Arab residents. The mukhtar of Silwan objected to Ir Amim's petition against the plan. “We have said that there are good aspects of the plan and there are bad aspects of the plan, we’re still working it all out. But to come and say that the whole plan is bad, and to ask that it be done away with, then what have you accomplished? Nothing.”
Silwan has expanded onto designated greenspace on the floor of the Kidron Valley. A redevelopment plan proposed by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat calls for the establishment of a park to be called the Garden of the King. UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk said of the plan that "international law does not allow Israel to bulldoze Palestinian homes to make space for the mayor’s project to build a garden, or anything else."
The ridge to the west of Silwan, known as the City of David, is believed to be the original Bronze Age and Iron Age site of Jerusalem. Archaeological exploration began in the 19th-century. Vacant during most of the Ottoman period, Jewish and Arab settlement began in the late 19th-century. Islamic-era skeletons discovered in the course of excavations have disappeared. ElAd was accused of excavating on Palestinian property and beginning its work on the City of David tunnels before receiving a permit from the Jerusalem municipality.
In 2007, archaeologists unearthed a 2,000-year-old mansion that may have belonged to Queen Helene of Adiabene under a parking lot. The building includes storerooms, living quarters and ritual baths.
- Palmer, 1881, pp. 319, 329
- Meron Benvenisti, 'Shady Dealings in Silwan,'. Ir Amim for an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem, May, 2009 p.5.
- Shimi Friedman, 'Adversity in a Snowball Fight: Jewish Childhood in the Muslim village of Sillwan,' in Drew Chappell (ed.) Children under construction: critical essays on play as curriculum, Peter Lang Publishing 2010, pp.259-276, pp.260-261.
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- Meron Benvenisti, 'Shady Dealings in Silwan,' Ir Amim for an Equitable and Stable Jerusalem, May, 2009.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Silwan.|
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