Jerusalem hotels and their stories

Even some of the city’s more dilapidated accommodations still have a tale to tell.

jlem hotels 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
jlem hotels 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
In the late 1860s, British travel agent Thomas Cook began bringing tour groups to the Land of Israel.
When they visited Jerusalem, tourists spent the night in tent camps on a hill near Damascus Gate, or, more commonly, right outside Jaffa Gate.
A few of them could, perhaps, have lodged at the Mediterranean Hotel with Mark Twain and Charles Warren, inside the Old City. There were also rooms at the Austrian Hospice, built in 1863 not far from Damascus Gate. But larger and more impressive hotels only began springing up at the end of the 19th century.
This week’s Street Stroll begins inside Jaffa Gate, continues on Agron, King David and Shlomo Hamelech streets, and ends on Jaffa Road near the Mahaneh Yehuda Market. We recommend that, whenever possible, you enter buildings that are still operating as hotels and discover what they look like today (you may have to pass yourself off as a tourist to gain entrance to the King David).
There are two hotels on your left just inside Jaffa Gate: the Imperial Hotel and the Petra Hostel. From close up, the Imperial isn’t very impressive, but if you cross the road and gaze from a distance, you will understand why it was one of the grandest places of lodging in the city.
Built by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1889, its rooftop is lined with stone goblets. Pillars grace the ground-floor entrance, the doors to the corner balconies are arched, and the windows boast decorative lintels.
Passing through the arcade in the middle of the hotel, you will reach a stumpy pillar inscribed with Latin letters. The f o u r t h row, which reads LEG X, is your clue to the soldiers who camped there during and after the Great Revolt in the first century.
Inside the hotel itself, the vastly eclectic interior features and elegant antiques are reminiscent of the building’s illustrious past. Management doesn’t mind you wandering around, so enjoy.
You will perceive a vast difference between the more staid guests lodging at the Imperial Hotel, and the young backpackers at the Petra Hostel, who often sleep on mattresses or in tents on the roof. Although it is as ornate as the Imperial on the outside, the Petra’s interior leaves much to be desired. However it does have one outstanding quality: a rooftop with a view of the Tower of David and Omar Ibn al-Khatab Square. It also offers a peerless view of domes and towers on the Mount of Olives and in the Old City, and the sight of a newly cleaned but empty water reservoir. Mistakenly named Hezekiah’s Pool, the pool is believed to have supplied water to the city 3,000 years ago.
The building housing the Petra Hostel was built in the 19th century. From 1903 to 1930, the Jamdursky family ran it as the second Jewish-owned hotel in Jerusalem.
It was also the city’s only kosher hotel, and it was close to the Western Wall, so many a Jewish traveler preferred it to the fancier Kaminitz on Jaffa Road. In fact, it is rumored that British high commissioner Herbert Samuel stayed at the Jamdursky on Shabbat and holidays when he worshiped at the Hurva Synagogue. And the event hall may have hosted not only the bar mitzva of David Ben-Gurion’s son, but also the wedding of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son Itamar Ben-Avi to the love of his life, Lea Abushdid.
To enjoy the view, you ascend a first set of steps, pay NIS 5, and then climb to the very top. Afterward, you can exit Jaffa Gate and walk through the Mamilla Mall, cross to Agron Street and stand on the sidewalk across from two brand new structures that have replaced the old Customs Administration building (on the corner) and the Palace Hotel next door. I am not certain about the façade of the customs building, but the exterior of the Palace has been quite faithfully restored.
THE GRANDIOSE Palace Hotel – the brainchild of the Supreme Muslim Council – opened in 1929 and was meant to counter Jewish expansion outside the Old City walls. Visitors can observe the decorative, rounded façade, horseshoe-like arches above the windows, and Arabic inscription on the top of the building.
The Palace was a rarity, with central heating, three elevators and some private bathrooms. It did well, but after the King David Hotel opened a few years later, the Palace lost to the competition and eventually closed its doors to guests. In later years, the former hotel housed a radio station, operated as a small hospital, and held the Industry and Trade Ministry.
According to Turkish designer Sinan Kafadar, the hotel lobby’s splendid staircase has been intricately restored. Some of the interior is being redone in the original style, and in addition to 30 apartments, the hotel will contain 240 rooms and suites. The Palace Hotel is due to open as the Waldorf Astoria next year.
Up King David Street is the King David Hotel, constructed out of an exquisite pink stone quarried in Hebron, and by far the most dazzling hotel in the country in its day. Its only exterior decorations are rosettes – decorations typical of the period and, incidentally, similar to the rosettes found on Herod’s Tomb at Herodion.
The hotel contained 200 rooms with adjacent baths, some even with hot running water. Waiters wore white waistcoats and long baggy pants, and sported fezzes on their heads. While enjoying the décor, one should note a white runner in the center of the hall.
On it, important visitors have scrawled their names, among them Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, actor Paul Newman, director Claude Lelouch and former US senator Edward Kennedy.
In 1936, the British leased the hotel as an emergency headquarters and later as their administrative and military nerve center in Palestine.
On July 22, 1946, in retaliation for an unprovoked and vicious British attack on Jews who owned or carried defensive weapons members of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi underground planted explosives in a number of milk containers.
Disguised as Arab workers, Irgun troops delivered the churns to the hotel restaurant. Although they received multiple warnings to evacuate the building, British officials scoffed at the idea and refused to let personnel exit the premises. As a result, 91 people were killed in the ensuing blast, which completely demolished the southern wing.
When you leave the hotel, directly across the street, you can see what many have called the most beautiful YMCA in the world. Built as a monument to peace and completed in 1933, it featured the city’s first heated swimming pool and its first real gymnasium – complete with a wooden floor. The first concerts broadcast from the Jewish radio station (the Voice of Israel) were transmitted from its stunning auditorium. It also boasted a guest house, recently renovated and utilized by people of all faiths.
IF YOU retrace your steps and descend King David Street, and then at the junction walk up Shlomo Hamelech Street to Jaffa Road, you will see an enormous, deserted edifice on the corner to your right. It sits on a triangular plot at perhaps the best hotel location in Jerusalem – and indeed, in 1891, the Armenian Patriarchate decided to construct a hotel on that site, hiring German Templer architect Theodor Sandel for the job.
Originally called the Howard and later the Du Park Hotel, it was rented by Templer hotel proprietor Abraham Fast in 1907. From that time on, it became famous as the Fast Hotel. It is here that the German High Command lodged during World War I; after the British conquered Jerusalem, it became the Allenby Hotel.
Fast’s offspring began managing the hotel again in 1929; a few years later, with a Nazi flag flying at the entrance, it housed the German Consulate. Times changed again, and Australian soldiers used it as a clubhouse during the World War II.
Israel became a state, Jerusalem was divided, and the hotel now stood on the Jordanian border. Over the years, the building fell into disrepair, and it was demolished in 1975. A new hotel went up in its place: the Dan Pearl, later the Jerusalem Pearl and today a ghost-like structure begging to be resurrected.
Stopping there and looking past IDF Square, you can see the square lines of the entrance to Jerusalem’s municipal complex. It replaced the two-story Feil Hotel, a Jerusalem landmark that was a fixture in the city as far back as 1882. Over the years, tourists began to prefer more modern guest accommodations, and the hotel became an apartment building.
During the 1960s, Jerusalemites often spent their evenings on the ground floor of the structure, smacking their lips over the freshly baked wares of a bagelmacher (“bagel maker”) who stayed open all night long. After city regulations shut down his makeshift bakery, the bagelmacher was reduced to selling his customers warmed-up bagels. Little by little, hungry Jerusalemites took their business to the flourishing stands outside Damascus Gate, and ultimately this once-popular Jerusalem institution disappeared.
Next, you can cross to Jaffa Road for a look at two newly cleaned structures that sparkle in the sun. No. 17 dates back to 1900, when the Armenian Church built it for commercial use. At one time, the building served as Russia’s post office in the Holy Land, and for some years the second story hosted the Hughes Hotel.
Further down Jaffa Road is the Jerusalem Hostel at No. 44. When it was founded in 1926 as the Tel Aviv Hotel, it was very stylish, and the exterior is indeed lovely: Not only does it boast splendid windows, but ornamental pillars grace the entrance and sculpted lion heads help hold up the central balcony.
On August 3, 1948, Irgun leader Menachem Begin emerged from the underground and made a historic speech on this very balcony. Over the previous five years, Begin had headed the radical underground movement intent on pushing the British out of Palestine. Now, from high above the crowds, he announced that he was disbanding the Irgun and that his soldiers were joining the Israel Defense Forces.
And now for the last stop in this hotel tour. In 1833, Menachem Mindel immigrated to Israel from Kaminitz, Lithuania. Less than a decade later, he became the first Jew to enter the Jerusalem hotel business with an oldfashioned guest house inside the Old City walls. That hotel’s restaurant provided European-style bread and may have been the only place in the city where you could buy anything but pita.
Fifty years later, Mindel’s son purchased a lovely European-style house on Jaffa Road and turned it into a luxury hotel by expanding the building, planting an exquisite garden and preparing a special driveway for carriages. Baron Edmond de Rothschild lodged at the Kaminitz; Theodor Herzl spent his first night there when he traveled to Jerusalem for a meeting with the Emperor of Germany in 1898.
You can find the Kaminitz by entering a parking lot in the middle of the elongated edifice at No. 68 Jaffa Road. Take a good look; it’s hard to believe that this shabby structure was once an elegant Jerusalem hostelry. One can only hope that someday this historic hotel – like the Palace – will be restored to at least some of its former beauty.