The festive mood in Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday belied the fact that there had been a terrorist attack in the capital less than 24 hours earlier.
Thousands of people – Jews, Christians, Muslims, locals and tourists from all across the strata of society – crowded the plaza outside the Jaffa Gate and the road bordering the Tower of David to watch the reenactment of Gen. Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem 100 years ago.
There was a brass band. People were waving flags and the attire of a considerable number of those present was far from current vogue.
Faces were wreathed in smiles and the air of anticipation was almost tangible.
Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, was celebrated by a crowd that reached back in time to grasp that same feeling of hope that had permeated through the old city with his proclamation of martial law in Jerusalem, thereby freeing the city from four centuries of Turkish rule.
It was the beginning of a new era. The Jews during that time saw it as a Hanukka miracle, which heralded the possibility that Zionist aspirations would be realized.
The Christians saw it as Christmas present for civilization and the Muslims regarded it as a message from the Prophet Mohammed.
Allenby, who assured the population that it was his desire that every person should pursue his profession, way of life, his traditions and his religion without fear, had the proclamation read out in seven languages by six representatives of communities living in the old city in the languages most familiar to them, and the original English version was read by Allenby himself.
On Monday, this was reenacted from the very spot where Allenby stood a century ago.
This time the English was read by the present Viscount Henry J.H.
Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe who is in Israel for the first time, and the proclamations in other languages were read by and large by representatives of the various religious denominations – with one addition. The first time around, the proclamation was not read in Armenian. That lacuna was amended on Monday.
Moderator Avshalom Kor, who is an expert on Hebrew language, noted that when the proclamation was read out in Hebrew in 1917, it was the first time since the Second Temple period that Hebrew been officially recognized as a language.
Kor also underscored the sharp contrast between Allenby’s humble entry into the city on foot and that of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s haughty entry on horseback in 1898.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was out of the country, sent a videotaped message in which he said that at this time Israel recognizes not only the Commander who led the British Army to the gates of Jerusalem but also those brave soldiers from the British, Australian and New Zealand forces who fell in battle as well as those of the Jewish Brigade. All of them were part of a historic mission, he said.
For Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, this was not just another noblesse oblige ceremony. Barkat spent the first ten years of his life in Mahaneh Allenby, a somewhat downtrodden neighborhood in the capital’s East Talpiot, which these days is a luxury neighborhood known as Armon HaNatziv. So for him honoring Allenby’s memory carried a certain degree of personal nostalgia.
Barkat credited Allenby with knowing that Jerusalem was a uniting force for the whole world. “He was an essential part of the city’s history,” said Barkat. “He understood the role of Jerusalem and that religious tolerance and mutual respect were the highest values.
Jerusalem was a small impoverished city when Allenby arrived, he said, but it had begun to change even in Allenby’s lifetime and is currently going through a major, unprecedented renaissance in education, culture, high tech, science, tourism, business and innovation.
When the actor playing Allenby asked Barkat to join him at the microphone, Barkat who spent six years in the IDF completing his service with the rank of Major in the paratroops, saluted him.
The pseudo-Allenby said to him: “A hundred years ago, I received a key to this wonderful city, and I think that after a hundred years, it’s time that I returned it.” He acknowledged that it was a little rusty now, but cautioned the mayor to guard it as it was the only copy.
In actual fact, according to Dr. Nirit Shalev Khalifa, the co-curator of the exhibition ‘A General and a Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,’ Allenby was never given the key to the city although reports to the contrary are part of urban legend. Another urban legend relates to the Turkish surrender by Mayor Hussein al Husseini to a couple of British cooks who had gone out to look for eggs.
The British War Cabinet wanted the common man to be a part of the story of British conquest over the Turks. General Sir John Stuart Mackenzie Shea, whose great-grandson John Benson also came from England for the occasion as did the Viscount’s mother Sara, Lady Allenby, gave instructions to Lars Larsson, the photographer from the American Colony, to destroy certain photos because they would not conform with the story.
When the American Colony curator later went to Sweden to explore Larsson’s archives she discovered that the surrender had actually been made to army officers with the rank of major, but that didn’t gel with the British narrative.
Taking journalists around the exhibition before the ceremony Khalifa said: “You can win a war, but it means nothing if you lose the historical memory.”
She acknowledged that the historical memory and its narrative can mean different things to different people. The aftermath of a war can, for instance, be perceived as conquest, occupation or liberation, she said.
What made her particularly excited about this exhibition was that for the first time, the venue itself was part of the artifacts in that the historic proclamation had taken place on the steps of the Tower of David.
Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum said that sometimes it is very frustrating for curators and scholars to find information about the past, “but when we talk about a hundred years in Jerusalem, it’s like yesterday.”
Although Lady Allenby had visited Israel many times with her late husband, this was an initial adventure both for her son and for John Benson who each confessed to being excited and overwhelmed by the warmth of the hospitality they had received.
Though neither makes a big deal of being related to people who turned the tide of history, they are proud to be members of their respective families.