Jerusalem Historical Place: American Colony Hotel

September 24, 2016

Historical Fiction

The group which we would know as the American Colony was really a religious society entirely full of good works. Where they lived was a villa built in the 19th century outside the Old City walls. Today it is the famous American Colony Hotel. 

 

One of the first houses to be built outside of the Old City walls was a fabulous villa replete with splendidly decorated rooms. At first completely isolated in the wastelands, the dwelling was eventually incorporated into the aristocratic Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah that grew up around it.

 

The palatial residence included beautifully fitted chambers for the rich effendi who owned it and for each of his four wives. A splendid inner courtyard provided privacy for the villa’s inhabitants and a measure of protection from outside attack.

 

When the effendi died he left not a single male heir to take over the historic villa. It stood empty for decades, until finally rented out to a communal group of deeply religious Protestants originally from Chicago. Commonly known as the American Colony, the group was led by Anna and Horatio Spafford, a couple which had known horrendous personal tragedy.

 

Before they came to Jerusalem the Spaffords lived in a beautiful home in Chicago.  One day in 1873 Anna and the four Spafford daughters took a trip to Europe. Their ship collided with another vessel and, although all four girls perished, Anna was miraculously saved. More children were born to the Spaffords after this catastrophe, but one of them died tragically of disease. The family moved to the Holy City hoping to find respite from their terrible sorrows.

 

The pioneer group reached the Holy Land in 1881 and moved into lodgings within the Old City walls. But when dozens of Swedes joined the Colony in 1896 the living quarters became far too crowded for comfort. That’s when the American Colony relocated to the late effendi’s splendid villa outside the walls. 

 

At first it had been quite a struggle to find financing for the Colony’s modest daily requirements as well as for the help the group proffered to needy Jerusalemites regardless of religion or nationality.  Once joined by Swedish farmers, blacksmiths and expert craftsmen, however, the Colony finally became solvent – and even began to prosper! With a new bakery, blacksmith shop, dairy and other enterprises, it was almost completely self-sufficient. And eventually new vistas opened up…

 

When Emperor Wilhelm II came to Jerusalem in 1898, Swedish members of the Colony shot some excellent photos of his visit. The photographs were so unique and historic that they were in great demand. Photographs taken by Colony members of Swedish background are among the best documentation we have of the city’s milestone events. A few of these pictures are on display at the Four Sephardic Synagogues in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.

 

Among those who benefited from the largess of the American Colony was a group of Yemenite Jews which immigrated to the land of Israel after a long, arduous journey by foot. Few of Jerusalem’s more veteran Jews had the desire or the means to help the arrivals from Yemen and the American Colony came to their rescue. The Colony fed and clothed the new immigrants, looking after them for many years to come.

 

The Colony began taking in paying guests at the beginning of the 20th century, doubling up to make room for these out-of-town visitors. Little by little the American Colony Hotel became famous for its combination of European and Middle Eastern hospitality and ambience. To this day, descendants of the original Colony own the hotel and the aura remains.

 

Located as it is between Old and New Jerusalem, not far from Mount Scopus and Damascus Gate, the hotel sustained heavy damage in both the War of Independence and the Six-Day War. Fortunately, the building has been completely restored and much of it looks exactly as it did when designed for the wealthy effendi. Visitors are welcome to view the beautiful, original stone floors and to enjoy unique and touching exhibits.  One display is a placard from the period of 1938-1939, when the Jews – and the Arabs – were in revolt against Palestine’s British rulers. The notice reminds you not to discuss military matters in public, as you never know who might be listening!

 

The second story features an open sitting room which features an exquisite painted wooden ceiling. From the terrace there is a birds-eye view of the splendid landscaped courtyard: luxurious gardens surround a fountain and a goldfish pond.

 

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of 7 full color,unique guides to Israel, and travel correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Her husband, tour guide and professional photographer Shmuel Bar-Am, took all of the books’ fabulous photos. Together they are Israel Travels, a husband and wife team providing customized tours and personalized service. For more information about Aviva’s books and guided tours, see http://www.israeltravels.com

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