I’ve often staffed informative briefings which took place at the American Colony Hotel for groups of Christian leaders exploring Israel in both a spiritual and geopolitical context. Before climbing the stairs to the elegant Pasha Room for our meetings, we’d walk along a wall which displayed old photos, postcards, memorabilia, and framed documents. The wall captivated the 21st century Christian leaders when learning that it was founded by a 19th century Christian community of 17 Americans who moved from the United States to Jerusalem in 1881.
The group rented a small house living in a simple communal lifestyle. Locals often referred to them as “the Americans.” An Ottoman nobleman, a Pasha, had built a palatial structure in 1860 for his four wives and children. When a large group of Swedish Christians joined the Americans, they purchased the former palace in 1883. The Christian community named it the American Colony.
If you have stayed in or visited the gorgeous hotel situated near the seam of western and eastern Jerusalem-the former armistice line after the Six Day War-it’s immediately clear that it’s a historic jewel from another era. The jewel shines in more ways than one. The American Colony distinguished itself as a pioneer in Christian humanitarian outreach that today expresses itself in goodwill through thousands of Christian organizations and millions of pro-Israel Christians. Here’s how it all began.
The founders, prominent Chicago attorney Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna moved to Jerusalem after an unspeakable tragedy in 1873. Horatio had sent his family to Europe for a vacation on the luxury ship Ville du Havre. He planned to join them a few weeks later after settling unexpected last-minute business. On the Atlantic voyage a Scottish iron-clad clipper plowed into the Ville du Havre in the middle of the night and split it open. Two hundred and seventy-three passengers drowned and 47 survived. In Anna’s desperation to save her daughters,ages 11 to 2, they slipped out of her arms into the fearsome high seas. The children perished;Anna survived. She was rescued later holding on to a plank. Upon arriving in Paris, she sent a telegram to her husband with these dreadful words, “Saved, but saved alone. What shall I do?”
It seems part of the answer came a few years later after the birth of three more children. The devoted Christian couple helped salve their wounds of grief when they founded the American Colony which grew into a charity. They embraced the Christian principle of offering comfort to those in need, drawing from their own personal hardships.
The Colony created their charities step by step including a clinic, an orphanage and hostel. The Christian commune expressed their faith by serving everyone in need including those from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Bedouin communities. Their acts of Christian mercy were recognized and admired during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire’s rule. They remained outwardly neutral yet dedicated to the Holy Land and its people.
In the lead up to World War I, the 400-year old Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate. In Jerusalem, hunger, typhus, and field-ravaging locusts invaded along with weapons. The American Colony’s acts of mercy became even more pronounced as war exploded throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The Colony somehow managed to feed 2,000 Jerusalemites daily in city-wide soup kitchens with the help of donations from American Christians. Through the Christian Herald newspaper advertisements in the US, the Colony also employed hundreds of women who made lace and dresses for export to the United States. With Red Cross and Red Crescent approval, the American Colony also managed the military hospitals where they treated both Turkish and European POWs. The Colony also preserved history with the permission of the Ottoman rulers by taking photos of the people and environs. In recent decades the descendants of the Colony donated parts of their priceless heirloom photo collection to the Library of Congress.For a look at Jerusalem and its people in a bygone era, click this link: American Colony in Jerusalem
After the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire, British General Edmund Allenby arrived in Jerusalem. David B. Green in his December 11, 2014 Haaretz article, “This Day in Jewish History” described General Allenby’s remarkable entrance into Jerusalem. “On December 11, 1917, General Edmund Allenby, commander of the British “Egyptian Expeditionary Force,” entered Jerusalem two days after the Turkish forces occupying the city raised the white flag before Allied forces. Understanding the symbolic sensitivity of Jerusalem to both its residents and religious adherents the world over, Allenby, who was later described by T.E. Lawrence as “morally so great that the comprehension of our littleness came slow to him,” elected to make his entrance through Jaffa Gate on foot. This was in intentional contrast to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, visiting the Holy Land in 1898, insisted on entering the Old City seated on a white horse.” In a small side-note,the Turkish governor of Jerusalem used a white sheet from one of the American Colony’s hospital beds to surrender to British General Allenby.
The many ups and downs of the American Colony won’t be explored here. But more importantly, in the ensuing decades when the American Colony became a full-fledged luxury hotel, it also followed the neutral imprimatur of the Christian founders. It remained an island of calm for all sides in many a stormy political or wartime sea. Israelis and Palestinians, diplomats, mediators, representatives of all faiths, journalists and others meet to this day to discuss the complex issues the region faces. Roaming the now-elegant hotel, it’s easy to believe that Lawrence of Arabia and General Allenby stayed there in simpler quarters.
As a final note, Horatio Spafford wrote the lyrics to one of Christianity’s most beloved hymns while sailing across the Atlantic to reunite with his wife after the tragic loss of their children.
His hymn inspires the Christian community worldwide almost 150 years later. Here is the first verse to “It is Well With my Soul.”
When peace like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.