Sweden in Jerusalem

As you walk through the solid green iron door of Beit Tavor you step out of the Middle East and into northern Europe.

Beit Tavor 521 (photo credit: Guy Yitzhaki )
Beit Tavor 521
(photo credit: Guy Yitzhaki )
The annual Houses from Within event is clearly making strides in the public’s affection.
This year’s program takes in a large number of buildings, tours and other local features and, for the first time, will stretch over three days – October 25 to 27.
The event offers rare opportunities to catch a glimpse of some historic buildings, get to know a bit more about some local large-scale projects such as the Jerusalem end of the still-evolving high-speed train connection with Tel Aviv, take a guided bicycle tour along the light rail route, which includes information about some of the most interesting buildings along the way, and get some insight into government buildings, religious edifices and special private homes.
Since the light rail took over Jaffa Road, Hanevi’im Street, which runs parallel to the city’s former main thoroughfare, has had to take on some extra traffic loads. Even so, the narrow street still offers the odd refuge from the hustle and bustle of city folk, trundling buses and honking cars and, to an extent, the frenetic pace of construction in the city center.
One of these oases of tranquility, which will be opened to the public for Houses from Within, is Beit Tavor, the Swedish Theological Institute, at 58 Hanevi’im Street. As you step through the solid green iron door, set in a quaint watch-tower-like façade, into the institute’s tidy front yard, you not only leave the noisy street behind; to a great extent you also step out of the Middle East and into northern Europe.
The house was built as a family home by the wellknown German architect Conrad Schick in 1882.
Schick built the neighborhood of Mea She’arim as well as numerous important structures across the city, such as Hansen Hospital in Talbiyeh and the Anglican School down the road from Beit Tavor – both of which are also on the Houses from Within roster – and the old Shaare Zedek hospital building on Jaffa Road.
In fact, the public will see Beit Tavor at its very best.
“We recently completed a half year of renovations here,” explains institute director Dr. Hakan Bengtsson.
“We have lots of new furniture here – all Swedish, although not from IKEA,” he adds with a laugh.
For Bengtsson, who has been the institute’s director for the last five years, his current role closes a circle. “I was a student here 20 years ago,” he says, “but at the time I wasn’t aware of the history of the place.”
Beit Tavor has something of a checkered past. After Schick died, two of his daughters lived there for a while. However, as German citizens, they were forced to leave when the British gained victory in World War I and took control of Palestine. After that the compound stood derelict for several years until an American Methodist group moved in.
In 1951 Greta Andrén arrived from Sweden, looking for suitable premises for a theological institute. Initially she rented a couple of rooms at Beit Tavor, which at the time housed not only the Methodist group but also some new immigrants from North Africa.
“Greta was a very strong character and she managed to get everyone else out of here, to set up the institute,” observes Bengtsson.
The institute renovators have done an excellent job. Despite the chunky walls and old-fashioned floor tiles, which Bengtsson says are original, there is a light and airy feel throughout the labyrinthine center.
We chat in the sitting room off the hallway near the front door, which, like other parts of the institute, contains a nicely balanced mix of old and new. The light shades of the newly installed wooden Swedish furniture are pleasantly offset by the dark floor tiles, the old upright piano and the clutch of monochrome photographs of various groups of people on one of the walls of the institute’s main yard. “They were all taken in the 1930s,” explains the director.
In fact, there’s quite a lot of Jerusalem in the institute’s buildings.
“Conrad Schick had his hands in most projects going on outside the Old City at the time,” says Bengtsson. “And it is believed that he saved leftover stones from all the other projects and he used them to build this place. Some walls are a sort of patchwork of different kinds of stones.”
The Schick family home was very much a work in progress. “The main building was finished in 1882, and the family moved in,” Bengtsson continues, “and the other buildings were added later.”
The latter include the library as well as structures that are now used to provide accommodation for people who come from Sweden to study religion, archeology and other topics at the institute. The library is a compact affair, with space craftily utilized to hold the over 8,000 volumes stocked there. There are tomes in Hebrew, Arabic, Swedish, German and English, with the oldest books dating from Schick’s time.
Visitors of Houses From Within will be restricted to the ground floor of the institute’s main building and the pleasantly appointed main inner yard, but there is plenty to enjoy here too. In addition to the sitting room, there are two plain but noble-looking wooden chairs in the front hallway that Bengtsson believes were part of the Schick family home’s original furniture.
“The chairs don’t use any metal nails or screws,” he points out. “They are built with wooden parts only.”
Across the hallway from the sitting room is the dining room with, naturally, more Swedish chairs and tables. The ceiling is intriguing and incorporates a motley array of arches of differing styles and from different eras.
“The architect who came to do the renovation work said he would never have allowed a design like this to develop,” says Bengtsson with a smile. In fact, there all sorts of European-Middle Eastern interfaces around the center’s compound. There is also a pleasant chapel on the ground floor.
While Bengtsson says he and the other center employees and guests – there are 15 personnel, in addition to the students – appreciate the relative tranquility of the compound, the institute has not quite managed to keep the march of progress out.
“There are all sorts of high buildings going up in the city these days,” notes the director. “There is a tall building being built across the road and that now blocks off the nice late afternoon sun we used to get here.”
When my personal guided tour is over, I step out of the iron front door and returned to the hubbub of downtown Jerusalem.
For more information about Houses From Within: www.batim-jerusalem.org