The History of the American Colony Hotel Part Three - War and Reinvention - 1914 to 1967
This is the third and final entry in a GoJerusalem.com series on the history of the American Colony Hotel. The outbreak of World War I forced the American Colony's members to focus on humanitarian initiatives, and the shadow of conflict hovered over the Colony and Jerusalem itself for decades afterward. The Colony itself could not weather the storm intact, but from its ashes rose the American Colony Hotel.
many, World War I is associated with images of intractable trench warfare in
pockmarked European moonscapes, newly invented chemical weapons and tanks
rewriting war's playbook for the rest of the new century. Not as many remember
that the war was also the last gasp of the withered Ottoman Empire, and that
one of the chief motivations for the Allied powers was the opportunity to divvy
up the Empire's remains, extending the grasp of European colonialism into a
formerly impenetrable, and suddenly quite valuable, region.
As by the dawn of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire was thoroughly impoverished and technologically backward, with most of its citizens locked into the same subsistence existence their ancestors had toiled through for centuries, the arrival of modern warfare on Ottoman shores was simply devastating. Jerusalem, essentially a minor and neglected regional capital within the Ottoman political sphere, suffered terribly. All Ottoman citizens in Palestine of good fighting condition were immediately drafted into the army, leaving precious few to tend fields that already barely yielded enough to feed the populace. An Allied blockade of the Palestinian coast stopped the import of food and provisions. What little was left over was earmarked for the hungry army. And then, in 1915, an epic plague of locusts tore across the region, destroying almost every edible crop. As malnutrition set in among the populace, a typhus epidemic began raging across the region, killing those who had so far managed to survive starvation and war.
It was against this savage backdrop that the American Colony truly proved its worth to the people of Jerusalem. Funded by donations from benefactors in the United States, the members of the Colony established soup kitchens at multiple locations in the city, feeding upwards of 2000 starving Jerusalemites every day. They also opened a lace- and dress-making School, in partnership with the Christian Herald, where hundreds of women kept their families afloat by exporting wares to the United States.
At the request of the Ottoman government, The American Colony Photo Department served as official photographers and documentarians of the war efforts in Palestine. Having proved so valuable - and indeed, performing functions the Ottoman government had itself proved incapable of - the Colony was allowed to continue its philanthropic efforts even after America joined the Allies, its members too vital to public survival in Jerusalem to be accused of double loyalties.
The British lines finally reached Jerusalem in December 1917. By this time, Ottoman infrastructure had entirely collapsed, and in partnership with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, the American Colony had assumed control of the city's military hospitals, treating wounded Turkish soldiers and European POWs alike. The Turkish governor formally surrendered to General Allenby with a white sheet taken from one of the Colony's hospital beds.
With the establishment of the British Mandate after 1917, Palestine became part of the Commonwealth, and Jerusalem and the Colony in particular became the center of untold political intrigue as the British eagerly established themselves in the Middle East. While guests ranging from General Allenby to T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) wandered its halls charting the course of the Empire, the Colony members continued their philanthropic work, establishing, together with the Christian Herald, a girls' orphanage for WWI orphans in 1919, and The Anna Spafford Baby Home, Jerusalem's first well-baby clinic, in 1926, where Jerusalem's expectant Arab mothers received pre- and post-natal care.
Conflict, of course, soon reared its head again, as the Jewish and Arab populations of the Mandate began to attack each other, and their British overlords, in earnest over who would control Palestine. Conflict escalated until 1947, when riots yielded to full-out war across Jerusalem and the country. The American Colony became a Red Cross-affiliated clearing house for the wounded, but as Jewish underground units traded heavy fire with the Jordanian Arab Legion across Jerusalem, the Colony was inadvertently shelled 21 times, and one member was killed.
When the armistice lines were drawn, Jerusalem had been split in two between the new state of Israel and Jordan, with the American Colony falling on the Jordanian side, only a short walk away from the heavily fortified Seam Line.
Unfortunately, after so thoroughly insinuating itself into the social fabric of Jerusalem, the Colony began to fray. As if mirroring the newly divided Jerusalem, internal divisions within the Colony's membership rose to the surface and splintered the collective. Founder Anna Spafford passed away in 1923, and by 1930, the American Colony as a religious collective was no more, but the compound remained in the hands of the Spafford family's descendants, who converted it into a full-time hotel, popular with tourists visiting Jordanian Jerusalem.
The 1967 Six Day War, which unified Jerusalem under Israeli control, again took its toll on what was now the American Colony Hotel, damaging its buildings with mortar fire. But rebuilding was prompt, and the Colony quickly established itself as the premier hotel in Jerusalem for journalists, artists, intellectuals and diplomats of all faiths, nationalities and political persuasions - and as an island of neutrality in Jerusalem, employing Jews and Arabs and assiduously avoiding displays of political allegiance to any local power. As such, it became a favored ground for political debate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with UN mediators and various international diplomats involved in the peace process holding functions there.
Today you'll still find echoes of the past in the American Colony Hotel, whether in the suites that preserve its original Ottoman furnishings or in the bar inside a converted cellar where the Colony's residents once carried out their daily work. But in the peaceful coexistence of staff and guests of various faiths, and in the earnest discussions of the diplomats and intellectuals that make to the hotel their home in Jerusalem, you may also catch a glimpse of a future marked by coexistence.
The following video contains a series of rare images of the American Colony's history, from Horatio Spafford's original draft of It Is Well With My Soul to pictures of the Colony's members hard at work:
The American Colony in Jerusalem Collection and Archive - a formidable trove of documents, photographs and art objects - offers an indispensible record of life at the American Colony over the years and of life in the Middle East from the 1880s through the 1950s. The Archive is scheduled to open to the general public on the American Colony Hotel campus in late 2011.