The American Colony Hotel is both grand and iconic. It sits near the green line between East and West Jerusalem and considers itself part of the ‘no man’s land’ where everyone is welcome. I knew the hotel had enjoyed a string of illustrious guests over the years, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how startlingly fascinating the history of the hotel would be.
As well as being a great story, with the level of drama and strong characters you’d expect from a Hollywood film, you need to understand where it has come from, to understand how the hotel is run today.
I’ve chosen to separate these out in a bid to do them justice, so this week’s blog flashes through the history of the hotel and next week, I’ll be speaking to a senior manager at the hotel about the business today.
It all started in 1881 when Anna and Horatio Spafford left their home in Chicago and set sail for Jerusalem, in search of a simple Christian life in the Holy land. They had suffered repeated tragedies over the years leading up to their departure. Four of their daughters were drowned in a shipwreck (which Anna survived) and a further son subsequently died of scarlet fever. They were devout Christians and Anna felt she had survived the shipwreck for a divine purpose. Instead of finding solace in their church however, they were cast out as being cursed. This caused a division in their community which resulted in sixteen other members of the congregation leaving with them for Jerusalem.
The group took over a property in the Old City and started a life of prayer and charitable works. By the time that Horatio passed away in 1888, the Lord had failed to provide as fully as they required and the group had mounting debts. This forced Anna to return to Chicago in 1894 to free up some capital. Here she joined forces with members of a Swedish commune and they, along with a group from Sweden decided to join her in Jerusalem. The American colony group grew significantly as a result, with 96 new members coming from America and Sweden.
The group needed larger premises and it was then that they moved into the hotel’s current location. They took over the grand site which had been built by Husseini-Effendi as a palace for himself and his four wives. When he died in 1895, with no heir, the site had become vacant.
The Swedes brought a new industrial spirit to the commune along with many artisanal skills and they set about ensuring that the colony would be self-sustaining. They grew vegetables, kept animals, baked bread and were renowned for their sewing and weaving skills. It was around this time, in 1897 that the photography department was launched. This became a major source of activity and income for the colony along with the American Colony Stores they also established across the city.
Over the coming years, the pilgrims would go on to amass an enormous collection of photographs documenting the last years’ of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem, the First World War and the start of the British Mandate. This collection, along with many personal and business-related documents and diaries has immense historical value. In 2002 the hotel’s Board of Directors decided to preserve part of the collection by entrusting over 16,600 original items to the Library of Congress in Washington. This fascinating collection is free to view online.
The rest of the collection is stored in an archive within the hotel grounds. This is managed by a dedicated historian and curator who has worked for around a decade archiving, organising and researching the vast collection. The archive is available to view by appointment.
Before her arrival, many valuable artefacts were dotted around the hotel’s rooms where they risked being damaged or worse stolen. History continues to be woven into the fabric of the building however, and many original photos and artefacts are available to view in the reception and shared areas of the hotel.
After 1903 the commune gained a reputation as a good lodging house for international visitors and the hotel was born. To supplement their income, the commune would rent out rooms, sell photos and souvenirs and offer tours of the city. The onset of World War I brought this to an abrupt halt however.
During the War, and with the additional food shortages caused by a plague of locusts in 1915, the hotel played an important humanitarian role, and over 2000 people were fed daily in soup kitchens.
Under the careful management of Anna Spafford throughout, the hotel maintained its political neutrality and was witness to many significant events as a result. In 1917 the Turkish Governor of Jerusalem, with whom Anna had maintained good relations, borrowed a bedsheet from the hotel to use as the white flag to initiate the truce that led to the end of Ottoman rule in Jerusalem. The sheet is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London to this day.
During the British mandate the city was flooded with diplomats and the hotel provided a safe haven for them to meet. It was at the hotel that Lawrence of Arabia met the New York times correspondent who wrote the first book about him and General Allenby was a frequent visitor.
Anna died in 1923 and management of the hotel passed to the next generation. Something that seems quite unique, is that to this day the hotel continues to be led by the descendants of the original founding families.
Next week I’ll be looking at what role the families play in running the hotel today, and how it continues to retain its neutrality in the midst of an ever more divided city.
With thanks to the staff at the American Colony Hotel for the information they provided and their permission to use these photos which appear on their website.
History document from the hotel: https://www.americancolony.com/uploads/applications/documents/001/529/655/historybrochure.pdf
Library of Congress collection: https://www.loc.gov/collections/american-colony-in-jerusalem/about-this-collection/