"Let’s Go Up to Jerusalem"

On the one hundredth anniversary of the first motor vehicle ride on the historic road between Yafo and Jerusalem, Zvika Weinstock explores milestones in the road’s transformation into the safe and modern roadway we know today.

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By Zvika Weinstock

Following the recent completion of the expansion of Road Number 1 that leads from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the road has at long last achieved the shape and status of a dignified roadway for carrying the residents of the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area (and beyond) to the state’s capital city.

The Centuries-long Journey to a Modern Road

The road known in Israel today as Road Number 1 is built on an ancient Roman cobblestone road that connected Yafo to Jerusalem by way of Emmaus (near Latrun). The road underwent more than a few transformations and route changes in the time of the Crusaders, who built fortresses alongside it to guard travelers from gangs of highway robbers. The most noteworthy fortresses at the road’s edge are the Castel, Ein Hemed, and Tzuba. Over the years, the road was not maintained, and its quality became so poor that traveling on it in the nineteenth century was only possible with the help of animals.  

It was the Ottoman governor Suraya Pasha who first undertook the road’s revival in the late 1850s, building seventeen guard posts along the route to ensure its passengers’ safety. Incidentally, the guard posts operated until the last decade of the nineteenth century. Hostels, know as “khan” in the local tongue, were also established along the route, offering travelers a chance to rest and change horses on the way to Jerusalem, which was a thirteen-hour journey uphill and an eleven-hour journey on the way back down. As such, many travelers preferred to stay overnight at a “khan” and then commence the lengthy day-and-a-half journey the following day.

The road’s renovation was continued by Sultan Abdülaziz, who turned the ancient route into a dirt road so that chariots and horses could move along it in with relative ease. Traffic on the dirt road was improved with the completion of the railway line between Yafo and Jerusalem in 1892, as the train journey took one-third the amount of time as travel by carriage, which took a day and a half and included an overnight stop.

A “Toll Road”

The road connecting the coastal plain to Jerusalem began to flourish with the establishment of Tel Aviv and the increasing use of the Yafo Port, being the only way to transport goods from the port to Jerusalem. It was also the only route for pilgrims and tourists to travel from the country’s shoreline to Jerusalem by horse-drawn carriage. German Kaiser Wilhelm II visited in 1898 and made his way from Yafo to Jerusalem on this historic road, travelling mostly by carriage and occasionally on horseback.

The road also passed through Arab villages, from which the idea of the route as a “toll road” emerged. When someone making use of road arrived to the area of Abu Gosh (a village that today is famous for its delicious hummus), he was required to pay a toll for the right to pass and for protection from attackers. This toll was in addition to the transit fees collected by Ottoman authorities at four separate stations in Yafo, Ramle, Shar Hagai and Jerusalem.  

The advent of World War I contributed significantly to the country’s automotive development. German, Turkish and British soldiers arrived, and along with them came the first motor vehicles ever seen in the Holy Land, save perhaps Elijah’s “Chariot of Fire,” with which the prophet ascended to Heaven.

British Army Upgrades the Road, Opens a Passenger Line

Following the end of World War I in 1918, the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem became extremely busy, requiring numerous repairs and improvements. These upgrades were made with the help of the Public Works Department, a division of the British army. At the same time, a passenger line between Yafo and Jerusalem was established in response to the great demand from citizens to move freely between the two cities after the fighting had ceased. The first passenger line was initiated in the beginning of August 1918.

In order to make life easier for residents, the British army organized lines for civilian transport using military trucks, each of which could hold twenty passengers. Later, the British army began to sell its surplus Red Cross trucks (which were built from wood) to any interested party, transforming them into vehicles for passenger transport.

The upswing in the import of motor vehicles and opportunities for local citizens to purchase them caused continuous growth in the number of vehicles travelling between Tel Aviv-Yafo and Jerusalem and resulted in the establishment of dozens of transportation companies. The fierce competition between them brought the entire sector to the brink of bankruptcy. In order to avoid crisis, the four largest organizations for passenger lines from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem merged to form Egged. As such, Egged is the direct result of roadway development between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The upgrading of roadways throughout the country at the time of the British Mandate was carried out according to the needs of the English rather than to serve the needs of the local population – all road work served British Empire, so that in times of war it could move its troops from place to place. At the time of widespread riots and the development of waterlines in the Shar Hagai (including the laying of water pipes and pumps), the road to Jerusalem was extended to a two-way road. Another development occurred in the early 1940s, when a new roadway leading up to the Castel was paved as an alternate road to Shevat Achim Road, which was winding and dangerous. The British military paved this section in response to the German advance on Africa during World War II.

The Path of Heroism – The Latrun Overpass

After the War of Independence, the road’s route changed yet again. From 1948 to 1967 (until after the Six-Day War) the road was diverted from the Latrun area to a new route from Ramle to Beit Shemesh and Shar Hagai, bypassing the border area. The Latrun Overpass was called “The Path of Heroism”. All of the roads that were paved at that time had two lanes on each side, but even those were not especially wide.

The plan to update the entrance to the capital city began to take shape in 1956. As part of it, routes were paved on each side of the city, from the exit of the Etz Chaim neighborhood to the entrance to the Givat Shaul neighborhood; this road continues to exist today and is currently undergoing retrofitting for the 21st century.

But let’s return to the early years of the state, when no development plan existed for Road Number 1, especially in light of the relatively small amount of vehicles that made their way to and from the capital. As such, the green light for the plan to upgrade the city’s entrance and the road’s expansion to the exit from Shar Hagai was given the green light only in the beginning of the 1960s and lasted for a number of years.

Jerusalem’s Exit Way Expansion Stretches Eight Years

Construction on Jerusalem’s exit road began in 1962. The road was converted into a two-lane highway on each side and the dangerous turn in the area of the Red House was eliminated. Afterward, they began the expansion of the road at Shar Hagai and widened the uphill and downhill sections of the road to Castel. Finally, a bypass road that diverted traffic from Abu Gosh was paved. The entire project took eight years, ending in September 1970. It’s important to note that the Six-Day War broke out during the expansion, and at the end of the war a new path was opened between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for private vehicles. Buses and cargo vehicles were prohibited from using the old road, which passed through the Samson and Nachshon Junction by way of Ramle.

The road’s original exit from Tel Aviv, which passed through many orchards as well as the Arab towns of Yazur and Beit Dagan, was also convoluted. The road had been widened to three lanes from the Mikveh Israel Junction to Ramle, and its center lane served as a passing lane that changed from side to side every few hundred meters – making the road a kind of Russian Roulette that cost the lives of many drivers. This saga was only resolved after Israel’s president, Ephraim Katsir, was involved in a traffic accident on the road, and gave the go ahead for the road to have two lanes on each side of traffic.
The paving of the Ramle bypass road in the mid-1970s alleviated traffic in Ramle and reduced drive time. In 1978 the highway connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem opened. The highway runs alongside the original road in the Latrun area and connects it to Ben Gurion Airport and to the old highway leading from Tel Aviv to the airport, serving as the main road between the two cities. Over the years interchanges and junctions were built upon it, connecting additional roadways.

Infrastructure Development Slows

Over the years, the increase in the number of cars in the state of Israel outpaced the paving and widening of the country’s roadways, including that of Road Number 1. Riding on it became crowded and cumbersome, and by the beginning of the 2000s it was an outdated, two-lane highway. Every accident or incident on the road turned the journey on it into a nightmare that could last hours. Additionally, the heavy presence of trucks slowed movement and created traffic, especially during rush hours, when large trucks would crawl along slowly, dominating the road’s right lane.
The situation eventually made it necessary to restrict trucks from travel on parts of the road to Jerusalem, though it was clear that this could only be a temporary solution. At the same time, plans began to expand and upgrade the road to be on par with the western world. For example, an exchange bridge was installed in place of the exit turn, a tunnel was dug under Castel to level the road’s height and make travelling on it more comfortable, and designs were created to level the road that passes Shar Hagai and to expand it so that it will be less curvy. The development also included the construction of interchanges and the addition of a third lane.

A meaningful addition is the paving of a railroad track parallel to the road’s route intended to shorten the travel time by train to between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. All of these projects, which began in 2011, ended in 2017 and the new fast train line is being tested. Additionally, construction of a high-speed train has finished and is undergoing test runs.

100 years after the first motor vehicles began driving on the route that connects Yafo to Jerusalem, there is a high-quality road that allows for a safe and comfortable motor travel from the coastal plain areas to Jerusalem.