The real Jerusalem was like a Tower of Babel in fancy dress with a hierarchy of religions and languages. Ottoman officers wore embroidered jackets coupled with European uniforms; Ottoman Jews, Armenians and Arab Christians and Muslims sported frock-coats or white suits with a new piece of headgear that symbolized the new reformed Ottoman empire: the tarbush, or fez; the Muslim ulema wore turbans and robes that were almost identical to those worn by many of the Sephardic Jews and Orthodox Arabs; the growing numbers of penurious Polish Hasidic Jews* wore gaberdine coats and fedoras; the kavasses – the bodyguards of the Europeans – were often Armenians who still wore scarlet jackets, white pantaloons and packed big pistols. Shoeless black slaves served ice sherbet to their masters, the old Arab or Sephardic families whose men often wore a smattering of all the above costumes – turbans or fezzes but with long coats tied with a sash, wide Turkish trousers and a black Western jacket on top. The Arabs spoke Turkish and Arabic; the Armenians Armenian, Turkish and Arabic; Sephardis, Ladino, Turkish and Arabic; the Hasids, Yiddish, that mitteleuropean argot of German and Hebrew which spawned its own great literature.

If this seemed chaotic to the outsiders, the sultan-caliph presided over a Sunni empire: the Muslims were at the top; the Turks ruled; then came the Arabs. The Polish Jews, much mocked for their poverty, ‘wailing’ and the trance-like rhythms of their prayers, were at the bottom; but in between, in a half-submerged folk culture, there was much blending, despite the stringent rules of each religion.

At the end of the Ramadan fast, all the religions celebrated with a feast and a fair outside the walls, with merry-go-rounds and horseraces, while vendors exhibited obscene peepshows and sold Arab sweets, Maidens Hair and Turkish Delight. During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from thehaj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews. Indeed the Arabs called the Sephardis ‘Yahud, awlad Arab – Jews, son of Arabs’, their own Jews and some Muslim women even learned Ladino. During droughts, the ulema asked the Sephardic rabbis to pray for rain. The Sephardic, Arab-speaking Valeros, the city’s leading bankers, were business partners with many of the Families. Ironically, the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Although Baedeker warned tourists that ‘there are no places of public amusement in Jerusalem’, this was a city of music and dancing. The locals met in the coffee houses and cellar bars to smoke narghileh water pipes, play backgammon, watch wrestling matches and belly dancing. At weddings and festivals, there was circle-dancing (dabkah), while singers performed such love songs as ‘My lover, your beauty hurt me’. Arab love songs alternated with the Andalusian Ladino songs of the Sephardis. Dervishes danced theirzikr wildly to the mazhar drums and cymbals. In private houses, music was played by mixed Jewish and Arab musicians on the lute (oud), fiddle (rabbaba) double clarinets (zummara and arghul) and kettledrum (inaqqara). These instruments echoed through the six hammam bathhouses that were central to Jerusalem life. The men (who used them between 2 a.m. and midday) enjoyed massages and had their moustaches trimmed; the women dyed their hair with henna and drank coffee. The brides of Jerusalem were led by singing, drumming girlfriends to the hammam where all their body hair was festively removed using zarnikh, a pitch-like syrup. The wedding night itself started at the baths, then the groom and his party collected the bride from her home and, if this was a wedding of the Families, they walked under a canopy held by servants, illuminated by torches and followed by a drummer and a band of pipers, up to the Temple Mount.

The Families were the apex of Jerusalem society. The first municipal leader was a Dajani, and in 1867, Yusuf al-Diya al-Khalidi, aged twenty-five, became the first mayor of Jerusalem. Henceforth the post was always held by the Families – there would be six Husseinis, four Alamis, two Khalidis, three Dajanis. Khalidi, whose mother was a Husseini, had run away as a boy to attend Protestant school in Malta. Later he worked for the liberal grand vizier in Istanbul. He regarded himself first as an ‘Utsi’ – a Jerusalemite (he called Jerusalem his ‘homeland’) – second as an Arab (and a Shami, an inhabitant of Shams al-Bilad, greater Syria), third as an Ottoman. He was an intellectual, one of the stars of the nahda, the Arab literary renaissance that saw the opening of cultural clubs, newspapers and publishers.* Yet the first mayor discovered his was a fighting as well as municipal job: the governor despatched him with forty horsemen to suppress fighting at Kerak, perhaps the only mayor of modern history to lead a cavalry expedition.

The Families each had their own banners and their own special role in the city’s festivals. At the Holy Fire, the thirteen leading Arab Christian families paraded their banners but the Nabi Musa was the most popular festival. Thousands arrived on horseback and foot from all over Palestine to be greeted by the mufti, usually a Husseini, and the Ottoman governor. There was boisterous dancing and singing to cymbals and drums. Sufi dervishes whirled – ‘some ate live coals, others forced spikes through their cheeks’ and there were punch-ups between Jerusalemites and Nablusites. Jews and Christians were sometimes beaten up by over-excited Arab bravos. When the crowds had assembled on the Temple Mount, they were saluted by a cannonade and then the Husseinis on horseback, brandishing their own green banners, led the cavalcade towards Baibars’ shrine near Jericho. The Dajanis waved their own purple Banner of David’s Tomb. Yet the Families, each with their own dynastic domain – the Husseinis had the Temple Mount, the Khalidis the lawcourts, and they all competed for the mayoralty – were still struggling for supremacy and playing the perilous game of Istanbul politics.

The Orthodox Slavs of the Balkans, backed by Russia, wanted independence; the Ottoman empire struggled to survive. The accession of a new and more forceful sultan, Abdul-Hamid II, was marked by massacres of Bulgarian Christians. Under Russian pressure, Abdul-Hamid accepted a constitution and the election of a parliament: in Jerusalem, the Husseinis backed the old autocracy and the Khalidis were the new liberals. Mayor Khalidi was elected to represent Jerusalem and headed off to Istanbul, yet the constitution was a feint. Abdul-Hamid cancelled it and started to promote a new Ottoman nationalism combined with an pan-Islamic loyalty to the caliphate. This intelligent but neurotic sultan, diminutive with a bleating voice and a tendency to fainting-fits, enforced his rule with the Khafiya secret police who murdered his ex-grand vizier and one of his slavegirls amongst others. While he enjoyed the traditional privileges – his harem contained 900 odalisques – he lived in fear, checking under his bed for assassins each night, but he was also a skilled carpenter, a reader of Sherlock Holmes, and the impresario of his own theatre.

His crackdown was immediately felt in Jerusalem: Yusuf Khalidi was expelled from Istanbul, sacked as mayor and replaced by Umar al-Husseini. When the Khalidis were down, the Husseinis were up. Meanwhile, Russia prepared finally to destroy the Ottomans. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, intervened to save them.


He had just bought the Suez Canal, borrowing £4 million from Lionel de Rothschild. ‘What is your security?’ asked Rothschild.

‘The British government,’ replied Disraeli’s secretary.

‘You shall have it.’ Now in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, Disraeli guided the cabinets of Europe to curb Russia and enforce a settlement, in which Britain was able to occupy Cyprus. His performance was admired by the German chancellor Prince Bismarck, who pointing at Disraeli remarked, ‘The old Jew – he’s the man.’ The Ottomans had to give up much of their European, Christian territory and were forced to confirm the rights of Jews and other minorities. In 1882, the British took control of Egypt, which remained nominally under the Albanian dynasty. Two representatives of Britain’s forward position in the Middle East visited Jerusalem on their world tour: the young heirs to the British throne – Prince Albert Victor, known as Prince Eddy, the future Duke of Clarence, aged eighteen, and his brother George, aged sixteen, the future George V.*

They pitched their camp on the Mount of Olives, ‘the very same that Papa camped on,’ wrote Prince George, who thought it ‘a capital place’. The campboasted eleven luxurious tents, borne by ninety-five pack-animals and served by sixty servants – all marshalled by the king of travel agents, Thomas Cook, a Geordie Baptist minister who in 1869 had started a travel business conveying temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough. Now Cook and his sons – one of whom accompanied the princes – were pioneers of the new tourism, hiring small armies of servants, guards and dragomans (translator-fixers) to protect against any attack by Bedouin or the Abu Ghosh clan, who still dominated the road from Jaffa and had to be either bribed or co-opted. These impresarios of travel laid out encampments of sumptuous silk tents, decorated in exotic reds and turquoise arabesques with dining rooms and receiving rooms, and even hot and cold water. The desired effect was to deliver an Oriental fantasy for the well-heeled English traveller – like something out of the Thousand and One Nights.

Thomas Cook’s offices were at the Jaffa Gate, which was the hub of a new tourist-friendly Jerusalem, symbolized by the opening of the Grand New Hotel, just over Bathsheba’s Pool, supposedly where Uriah’s wife was seen bathing by King David, and Joachim Fast’s hotel just outside the gate. In 1892, the railway finally reached Jerusalem, truly opening up the city to tourism.

Photography developed alongside tourism. It was unexpected if fitting that the high priest of Jerusalem’s photographic boom was Yessayi Garabedian, the Armenian patriarch, ‘probably the handsomest potentate in the world’, who studied the art in Manchester. His two protégés left the Armenian priesthood and founded photographic studios on the Jaffa Road that offered tourists the chance to buy photographs of Arabs in ‘biblical poses’ or to pose themselves in biblical costume. In a typical moment, a group of bearded and sheepskin-clad Russian peasants gathered in amazement to watch ‘a blue-eyed fair-haired English lady’ wearing ‘an embroidered scarlet costume’ with a brass circlet on her head and ‘tight corsets’ framing a ‘finely-developed bust,’ striking poses in front of David’s Tower. The Russians were half-horrified, half-dazzled.

The growing New City was so architecturally eclectic that today Jerusalem has houses and entire suburbs that look as if they belong anywhere other than in the Middle East. The new Christian edifices added at the end of the century included twenty-seven French convents, ten Italian and eight Russian.* After Britain and Prussia ended their shared Anglo-Prussian bishopric, the Anglicans constructed their own sturdily English St George’s Cathedral, the see of an Anglican bishop. But in 1892, the Ottomans were still building too: Abdul-Hamid had added new fountains, created the New Gate to allow access directly to the Christian Quarter and in 1901, celebrating his twenty-fifth jubilee, he added a belltower to the Jaffa Gate that looked as if it belonged in a suburban English railway station.

Meanwhile Jews and Arabs, Greeks and Germans were colonizing the New City outside the walls. In 1869, seven Jewish families founded the Nahalat Shiva – Quarter of the Seven – outside the Jaffa Gate; in 1874, ultra-Orthodox Jews settled in Mea Shearim, now a Hassidic quarter. By 1880, the 17,000 Jews formed a majority and there were nine new Jewish suburbs while the Arab Families built their own Husseini and Nashashibi quarters in Sheikh Jarrah, the area north of the Damascus Gate. The Families’ Arab mansions boasted decorated ceilings in hybrid Turkish–European styles. One Husseini built the Orient House with its entry hall painted in flowers and geometric patterns, while another, Rabah Effendi Husseini, created a mansion featuring the Pasha Room with a high dome painted celestial blue, framed by gilded acanthus leaves. Orient House became a hotel then the Palestine Authority’s Jerusalem headquarters in the 1990s and Rabah Husseini’s mansion became the home of Jerusalem’s most eminent American family.


On 21 November 1873, Anna Spafford and four of her daughters were crossing the Atlantic on the Ville de Havre when it was struck by another ship. As the ship sank, all four children were drowned, but Anna survived. When she learned, after her rescue, that they were dead, she wanted to throw herself into the water after them. Instead she sent her husband, Horatio, a prosperous Chicago attorney, the heartbreaking telegram: ‘SAVED ALONE. WHAT SHALL I DO?’ What the Spaffords did was to give up their conventional life and come to Jerusalem. First they faced more tragedy: their son died of scarlet fever, leaving them one child, Bertha, out of six. Anna Spafford believed herself ‘spared for a purpose’, but the couple was also outraged by their Presbyterian Church, which regarded their fate as divine punishment. Forming their own messianic sect, which the US press called the Overcomers, they believed that good works in Jerusalem and the restoration of the Jews to Israel – followed by their conversion – would hasten the imminent Second Coming.

In 1881, the Overcomers – thirteen adults and three children, who became the nucleus of the American Colony – settled in a large house just inside the Damascus Gate until, in 1896, they were joined by the farmers of the Swedish Evangelical Church and needed a larger headquarters. They then leased Rabbah Husseini’s mansion in Sheikh Jarrah on the road to Nablus. Horatio died in 1888, but the sect thrived as they preached the Second Coming, converted Jews and developed their colony into a philanthropic, evangelical beehive of hospitals, orphanages, soup-kitchens, a shop, their own photography studio and a school. Their success attracted the hostility of the long-serving American consul-general, Selah Merrill, an anti-Semitic Massachusetts Congregationalist clergyman, Andover professor and inept archaeologist. For twenty years Merrill tried to destroy the Colonists, accusing them of charlatanism, anti-Americanism, lewdness and child-kidnapping. He threatened to send his guards to horsewhip them.

The US press claimed that the Colonists made tea on the Olivet every day ready for the Second Coming: ‘They keepmilk warm at all times’, explained the Detroit News, ‘in case the Lord and Master should arrive and asses are kept saddled in case Jesus appeared and some said they would never die.’ They also played a special part in the city’s archaeology: in 1882, they befriended a British imperial hero who symbolized the empire’s embrace of Bible and sword.

After helping suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China and governing the Sudan, General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon settled in John the Baptist’s village, Ein Kerem. But he came into town to study the Bible and enjoy the view from the roof of the Colony’s original house. There he became convinced that the skull-like hill opposite was the true Golgotha, an idea he promoted with such energy that his so-called Garden Tomb became a Protestant alternative to the Sepulchre.* Meanwhile the Overcomers were generous to the many mentally fragile pilgrims whom Bertha Spafford called ‘Simples in the Garden of Allah’. ‘Jerusalem’, she wrote in her memoirs, ‘attracts all kinds of religious fanatics and cranks of different degrees of derangement.’ There were fellow Americans who regarded themselves as ‘Elijah, John the Baptist or another of the prophets [and] there were several messiahs wandering around Jerusalem’. One of the Elijahs tried to kill Horatio Spafford with a rock; a Texan named Titus thought he was a world-conqueror but had to be restrained after he groped the maids. Then there was a rich Dutch countess designing a mansion to house the 144,000 ransomed souls of Revelation 7.4. Yet not all the Americans in Jerusalem were Christian Hebraists. Consul-General Merrill hated the Jews as much as he hated the Overcomers, calling them an arrogant, money-obsessed ‘race of weaklings of whom neither soldiers, colonists nor citizens can be made’.

Gradually the American Colony’s cheerful hymn-singing and charitable deeds made them friends among all sects and religions, and the first port of call for every well-connected writer, pilgrim and potentate. Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish writer who stayed with the Spaffords, made the Colony famous with her novel Jerusalem, winning the Nobel Literature Prize. In 1902, Baron Plato von Ustinov (grandfather of the actor Peter), who ran a hotel in Jaffa, asked if his guests could stay at the Colony, the start of its transformation into a hotel.19 Yet if the city had been transformed by Westerners, by the end of the century she was dominated by Russia, empire of Orthodox peasants and persecuted Jews, both drawn irresistibly towards Jerusalem – and both travelling from Odessa on the same ships.

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