The European Powers in Jerusalem

We returned to Jerusalem for a trip themed around the arrival of the European powers in the city. Over the course of the 19th century, for a variety of reasons, Jerusalem rose in importance in the Christian world and the international diplomatic struggle between the world powers began to play itself out over here with Russia (supporting the Orthodox church), France (supporting the Catholics) and Germany and the UK (supporting the Protestants) pushing for influence and control.

For the first time, a great deal of land began to be developed outside the city walls, by Jewish and Christian communities in parallel. This week’s trip was mainly focused on stories and buildings that came out of the Christian move outside the walls.

Beit Mahanaim, Jerusalem
Beit Mahanaim, Jerusalem

After having a brief introduction to the day at the grand Mahanaim house, built for a prominent Swiss banker and later housing the British High Commissioner, we admired the outside of the St Paul’s Church. The Anglican London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews had come to Jerusalem and had limited success with their target audience. Still, they had managed to persuade a certain amount of local Arabs to become Christian. This church, the first of its kind in its Jerusalem, was designed to allow Arab Christians to attend protestant services in their vernacular for the first time. As with the Mahanaim house, it is believed to have been designed by Conrad Schick (more on him later!).

St Paul's Church, Jerusalem
St Paul’s Church, Jerusalem

We walked down the Shivtei Yisrael street, arriving at the grand exterior of the Italian hospital. The Italians arrived late in Jerusalem compared to their European neighbours, having been tied up by fighting in Libya, but they made up for it with the grandeur of this construction in the Renaissance style. Designed by the famed Barluzzi brothers, the younger of the two, Antonio, was so taken with Israel that he stayed, becoming the architect of many of the Catholic churches in the country.

The Italian Hospital, Jerusalem
The Italian Hospital, Jerusalem

Turning up Haneviim street, we paused at the Ort Orliesky College building. Of more interest than the building itself was what took place here prior to its construction. On this site was the grand camp of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited Israel at the end of the 19th century. The visit was a huge event, leading to large amounts of construction, repair and cleaning of Jerusalem and the country in general in order to give a good impression to the first time visitor. We heard about his meeting with Herzl (you may recall that we heard about his previous meeting in Mikve Yisrael a few weeks ago) and his patronage of Jerusalem churches which resulted from his trip.

Continuing up the street, we paused at the former site of the Marienstift Children’s Hospital, the first children’s hospital in the Middle East; remarkable as its Christian founder, Dr Max Sandreczky, treated children of all faiths with no ulterior motives. Many of the other hospitals in Jerusalem had been founded by proselytising Christian groups which made their use problematic for the mostly Jewish and Muslim residents.

Continuing the medical theme, we visited the site of the Rothschild Hospital (once it had moved outside of the Old City walls), which was later named the Rothschild Hadassah hospital and became the forerunner of the famous facility now located on Mt Scopus. Today it is the Hadassah college and many of the students seemed a bit bemused by our visit!

Guiding as Dr Conrad Schick in Beit Tavor
Guiding as Dr Conrad Schick in Beit Tavor

A little further up the street was the grand Tabor House (Beit Tavor), former residence of a legend among Jerusalem’s architects, cartographers and archaeologists, Dr Conrad Schick.

An aside: at this point in the course each of the participants is asked to guide a specific site during one of our trips, the idea being that we get practice in preparing and then delivering the story in front of a group. A few weeks ago I was informed that I was to guide at Beit Tavor, and having given some thought to the task at hand, I decided that I wanted to do something a little different.

Having asked a friend to lead the group into a seated area, I performed a costume change that Clark Kent would have been proud of, emerging to the seated masses in the guise of none other than Dr Schick himself!

I regaled the group with stories of my arrival to Jerusalem, my architectural philosophies and my archaeological adventures. Most exciting was the tale of my discovery of the famed Siloam Inscription! I’m pleased to say that the group received this well and it made it worth carrying the costume with me all day long!

Ethiopian Church, Jerusalem
Ethiopian Church, Jerusalem

We moved on from Beit Tavor to the nearby Ethiopian Church, also designed by the dear Dr Schick. We learned here about the Ethiopian tradition of their connection to King Solomon as well as some of their practices which are unique among other Christian groups. The church was beautiful and completely different from anything we had seen until this point. Well worth a visit.

After noting the former home of Eliezer Ben Yehudah, considered the pioneer of Modern Hebrew, which was located opposite the church, we made a brief stop at the Bnai Brith Library. We heard the controversial history of the library, located close to the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood while stocking a mixture of religious and secular books. Apparently some of the local haredi Jews would have spies around the library to catch people going in! The library was eventually designated the official national library of the future State of Israel; when the national library was relocated to be close to the Knesset, the building eventually became a yeshiva.

Nebi Akasha, Jerusalem
Nebi Akasha, Jerusalem

A brief historical interlude at the site of Nebi Akasha. Witnesses testify to this site in the 13th century although the building itself dates from the beginning of the 16th. Buried here are members of the Kamyari family, although we know little about them. In the 19th century a mosque was added to the site. Neither are in use at the moment; around them has grown the modern city of Jerusalem (the building would have been some distance from the city walls when constructed) but it is testimony to another portion of Jerusalem’s past.

Continuing on Haneviim, we paused by the home of William Holman Hunt, a British avant-garde artist who decided that to paint religious scenes of Israel, he needed to actually be here. Opposite his grand mansion was a small house that was briefly occupied by the famous Israeli poet Rachel, although she would have been there too late to meet her wealthy neighbour.

Our next stop was at the delightful Beit Ticho, home to one of Jerusalem’s first cafes (I can testify to the quality of their desserts!). We heard about the former inhabitants of the house, particularly the famous antiques forger Herman Shapira, and then the world-renowned optometrist Dr Ticho and his artistic wife Anna. The building is now owned by the Israel Museum and it is possible to enter for free and enjoy a small exhibition of Anna’s work together with a changing exhibition upstairs. And perhaps have a dessert on the way out…

Next to Beit Ticho is Beit HaRav, the former home Rav Kook, considered to be the founder of religious Zionism. Here was also his yeshiva, the Mercaz HaRav; there is now a small museum instead although sadly we did not have time to take a look – I’ll have to make a return visit.

Church in the Russian Compound, Jerusalem
Church in the Russian Compound, Jerusalem

We concluded our day in the area called the Russian Compound. The Russians were the major investors in Jerusalem of all the major powers during this period, partly because they had the majority of the pilgrims – around 20 000 a year! The Russian Compound was constructed to meet their needs offering hostels for men and women and a grand church. A later, grandiose building known as Sergei’s Courtyard was constructed to host important aristocrats; it has recently been returned to the Russian government and is undergoing refurbishment.

With the communist revolution the pilgrimages from Russia reduced significantly as did the funds flowing to the Orthodox Church institutions in Israel. Much of the land was sold off and the Russian compound was taken over eventually by the British and used as their governmental headquarters in Jerusalem. When Israel was later established, they bought the land from Russia (in oranges – money was short at the time!) and established there various local governmental organisations – the Jerusalem municipality is still in the area – as well as the Supreme Court before it moved to its current location.

Situated inside the Russian Compound is the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. The British converted one of the hostels into a prison – it is possible to visit the site where they have attempted to reconstruct prison life so that it is possible to understand the conditions at the time. Perhaps of most interest is the dramatic story of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani – these two men were sentenced to death by the British; in a final act of defiance they committed suicide. The story is a remarkable one, to the extent that the former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin requested to be buried next to them on the Mount of Olives, forfeiting his right to be interred at Mt Herzl.

Next week we return to Jerusalem to explore the Jewish exodus from the Old City walls and the British Mandate rule in Jerusalem.

One comment

What do you think?