Israel: Where old meets new. Where east meets west. Where religious leaders meet supermodel Bar Refaeli. (Ok, maybe not.) There’s no question that there is something for everyone, regardless of taste. The home to the three most famous monotheistic religions, Israel has no shortage of tourist sites packed with visitors year-round. Care to guess then which is the most frequented?
Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site to Jews? Nope.
The Church of the Nativity, site of the birthplace of Jesus? Try again.
The Dome of the Rock, the shrine where Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven? Not even close.
In a country with thousands of years of history and religious sites, would you believe that the most popular tourist attraction in the country is….the Biblical Zoo? (How do you say “wow” in alpaca?)
It’s true, and the zoo’s leadership couldn’t be prouder.
Check the website of the Biblical Zoo, now officially known as The Tisch Family Zoological Gardens in Jerusalem. The first thing you’ll notice is, well, animals. Not surprising. But dig deeper and you’ll discover a zoo like no other. Opened in Jerusalem’s center of town in 1940, the zoo was created by Hebrew University zoology professor Aharon Shulov for the purpose of providing a research center for his students. Not just of any animals however (what fun would that be?) but of animals mentioned in the Bible.
Shulov’s initial problems were location (Have you ever woken up to the smell of manure? His neighbors didn’t like it either.) and the issue of things getting lost in translation. If Biblical scholars have had trouble deciphering ancient texts over thousands of years, it wasn’t any easier for Shulov to figure out exactly what modern-day species correlated to what was written in Hebrew. Not to mention the issue of many Biblical animals being extinct. The professor decided to focus not only on these animals but also on preserving endangered species as well.
For its first forty years, the zoo had several homes around Jerusalem. It wasn’t until longtime mayor Teddy Kollek saw its potential for the city did it really take off. Kollek, seen as the primary figure to bring Jerusalem into its modern age, envisioned the zoo as a potentially attractive tourist site, not only for one type of group but for all the city’s residents: both secular and religious Jews and Arabs. Through his Jerusalem Foundation and a nice $5 million dollar donation by the philanthropist Tisch family, the Bibical Zoo moved to its current, beautiful site in Southwest Jerusalem where it has resided since 1993.
Spanning sixty-two acres of waterfalls, green sitting areas, uncaged animals, a train, visitor’s center, and the all-important snack bar, the Biblical Zoo now houses almost 200 species of animals, including many which were rescued from the brink of extinction. And it serves not only as a fun place to visit but also conducts educational activities about nature conservation, wildlife protection, and environmental issues and has become an international leader in all of these areas. Cutting across religious, political, and ethnic lines, the Biblical Zoo attracts roughly three-quarters of a million visitors a year and is not surprisingly popular with children’s groups and summer camps.