I’m fairly certain that almost anyone in my tour guide course will recognize this week’s Israel Mystery Photo, because it is from a site that once you’ve been there, it sticks in your mind. It is very memorable. But it is also, unfortunately, not as commonly visited as perhaps it should be. So I’ll be very curious to see how many people outside of my class recognize it.
Last week’s photo post got many correct answers as well. It is one of the most beautiful buildings in modern Jerusalem, a city I know and love. So I’m happy to see that many of you recognize it as well.
A few years ago, shortly after I had made Aliyah (the term which Jews use to describe moving to Israel, it literally means “going up”), I watched an Israeli movie with a new friend here. When I lived in the States I worked professionally in the film industry, focusing mainly on the screenplay side of things. Unfortunately, I was not very familiar with Israeli films. One thing I did know, however, was that the majority were serious movies about war, politics and religion. I was itching to see more Israeli films that had nothing to do with these topics — comedies, romances, action movies and the like.
Most or all of the movie was shot in Jerusalem, so it is a fun movie to watch and try to identify local spots you recognize. I used to do this all the time with NYC-based films. It can be lots of fun. The story in this film centers on a difficult subject — homeless teens, drugs and prostitution. But the film is really solid and worth watching.
Anyhow, one of the major locations in the film is the inside of a large building that was run down and decrepit, but clearly was once a magnificent structure. I wondered where this location was, and whether it was even in Jerusalem. In time, I learned that it was actually the inside of the Palace Hotel, located towards the bottom of Agron Street, near Mamilla and the intersection with King David Street.
Until I learned that, all I knew about the Palace Hotel was that it had a gorgeous Arabesque facade, that it was (then and now still) under construction and that the signs in front indicated that it was scheduled to become a new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem. With its location near the famous King David Hotel, and right next to the expensive David’s Citadel and Mamilla Hotels, I was not surprised to see that this was the chosen spot for another ultra-luxe hotel.
But in time, I also came to learn the history of the hotel, and also some of the wonderful stories and tidbits about it that make it fun to learn about.
The history brings us back to the heart of the British Mandate era in Jerusalem. (So while Nechama’s guess last week was not correct, she did recognize it as architecture of the correct era.)
In 1927, the Jews had completed a few buildings dedicated to national organizations, such as the JNF and Keren HaYesod / United Israel Appeal. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini wanted to build a competing structure for the Arabs, but was opposed by his rival Raghib al-Nashashibi. The best they could do was to agree to build a hotel where the Supreme Muslim Council would meet. That’s about all who would come to the ill-fated hotel, but more on that later. An Arabic inscription on top of the facade reads, “We shall do and build the same way that they have done and built.”
The Palace was built very quickly, and in order to finish on time, and to save money, only the front had a decorated facade, while the back was left plain and unadorned. Why decorate if few people could actually see it? This is likely why you can see a gap in the back of the hotel in the above aerial photo. That was likely the unadorned portion, and thus did not need to be preserved.
The hotel opened in 1929 with a grand ceremony. Just two years later, the luxurious Jewish-owned King David Hotel opened just down the street. Neither one of them proved financially successful in those early years, and the British decided to help both by renting rooms in each for officers’ housing.
During the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the Brits sent the Peel Commission to Palestine to determine the future fate of the land. They were already considering leaving, and needed to decide how to wrap up their mandate. Part of the time they were here, they met in The Palace. Of course, the Jews wanted to know what was going on in those meetings.
Luckily for them, the Arab hotel was actually built by a Jewish engineer named Baruch Katinka. He knew the inner workings and architecture of the Palace, and was thus able to tell them where and how to place bugs so they could listen in on the proceedings, until they were eventually discovered.
After the Mandate era, the building housed the offices of Israel’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. It was later sold, and is currently being developed as one of the more high-end hotel properties in the city. And if tourist numbers continue their trend of increasing each year, we’ll need all the hotel rooms we can get!