JERUSALEM — Aharon Shulov was a man of faith who knew his Scriptures by heart. Especially the passage in which Isaiah promises a new heaven: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

When Shulov opened the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem in 1940, he took the prophet’s words literally and placed a wolf and sheep in the same enclosure. Well, the sheep had to regularly be replaced. But Shulov’s faith was not shaken. The Ukrainian immigrant had decided to gather together all 130 animals mentioned in the Jewish scriptures, beginning with jackals, hyenas, a wolf and a series of sheep. Now his zoo on the outskirts of Jerusalem is home to more than 3,000 animals.

The zoo is no longer limited to animals mentioned in the Scriptures: Israel’s most popular tourist attraction could not maintain its position without the crowd-pleasing elephants and giraffes. This year the zoo welcomed around 770,000 visitors, mostly locals.

"Love thy neighbor" — Photo: Yaara (Forest) Tamari

This is the world’s only "biblical zoo", but its importance goes far beyond that. For Jerusalem, the divided city where Jews avoid the Eastern quarters and Arabs steer clear of the orthodox neighborhoods, the zoo is the only place where people of all backgrounds and religions come together. Fathers with kippahs stand next to mothers in headscarves while their children watch the sleeping lions. Around a third of the zoo’s visitors are orthodox Jews. For them, cinemas and cafes are outlawed, so the zoo is one of the few places where they can go out to enjoy themselves. The staff are a mix of Jews and Arabs and tours are offered in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Politics is left at the entrance, says the zoo’s management.

Animals in the line of fire

However, the zoo has not always been an oasis of calm in this conflict-ridden country. When Shulov first moved a handful of animals into the center of Jerusalem in 1940, his zoo was quickly overrun by visitors who had little opportunity to escape from the persecution and war that dominated Jerusalem under British rule.

Shulov’s dream also ran into complications as many of the 130 species mentioned in the Scriptures were extinct in the wild. The Asian lion, the emblem of Jerusalem, had disappeared by the time of the Crusades. The Mesopotamian fallow deer was not only a delicacy at King Solomon’s palace; there was no trace of it in the region by the end of World War I.

Jerusalem Biblical Zoo's bear splashing around — Photo: Facebook page

History had not been kind to the land: the Osmans cut down entire forests for their railroads and the British continued construction projects, destroying more natural habitats. Shulov had to ask for animals from foreign zoos, and deal with neighbor’s complaints about the hyena’s cries and worries that dangerous predators would escape from their improvised enclosures. His only option was to move up to Mount Scopus, where he soon found himself on the front line of the First Arab-Israeli War.

When Arab troops besieged Jerusalem in 1948, Shulov had to dodge flying bullets to feed his animals. Israel held Mount Scopus but the routes to it were given to Jordan as part of the ceasefire agreement. The UN had to intervene to ensure that supplies could reach the animals, and both sides eventually agreed to evacuate the zoo into the Israeli quarter of the town.

By this point Shulov’s animals had been significantly reduced, but he was able to rebuild the zoo thanks to international help. During the Six Days War in 1967, however, more than 100 animals were killed by errant bullets and shrapnel.

A modern Noah’s Ark

Until Shulov retired in the 1980s, the zoo remained a ramshackle affair, with enclosures built by the director himself. Things changed when Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem’s long-serving mayor, recognized the zoo’s potential. “In a complicated city with a complex society, Jerusalem Zoo builds bridges between people,” he said, and called for investment. In 1993 the zoo was moved to its current premises with impressive new enclosures. 

"Dust will be the serpent's food" — Photo: Facebook page

The current zoo looks like a modern-day Noah’s Ark. In the belly of a giant wooden ship visitors discover that the zoo gathered together around a third of all animals mentioned in the Scriptures. Eleven of those that had disappeared from the region, including the Mesopotamian fallow deer, have been reintroduced into nature reserves in the north of Israel.

At first glance, the place looks like a normal zoo, but when you look closer you can see the rituals that are only to be found in Israel. The animals eat kosher food. Every morning keepers bring tons of fruit, grains, fish and meat from the market, which they are given for free: according to Jewish religious law, a tenth of the harvest is given to clergy and their animals. On Passover, the animals eat only unleavened bread or rice, and on the Sabbath the small train that takes visitors to the high-up enclosures doesn’t run.

Visitors still walk the two kilometers, as at the top they can find the zoo’s secret attraction. Jewish and Arab children both grimace in front of the cage. “Urgh, a pig,” one boy calls out and loses his kippah as he runs away.

He should have taken the time to read the sign outside the enclosure. It is the only one that is also written in Yiddish, so that fundamentalist orthodox Jews, who reject Hebrew as a spoken language, can understand. The sign says that the animal is a peccary and adds: “This is not a pig!” The zoo’s management explains that without the sign, the animal would be in danger of being stoned by outraged visitors.