Exhibition: A general and a gentleman

The Tower of David Museum commemorates Gen. Edmund Allenby and the dawn of the British Mandate with a reenactment and a new exhibition.

At the opening of the December 11 exhibition on the steps of the Tower of David (front row): Christina Benson; Mayor Nir Barkat; John Benson, Gen. John Shea’s great-grandson; Lady Sara Allenby; and the Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe. At the podium, the actor playing Gen. Edmund Allenby i (photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
At the opening of the December 11 exhibition on the steps of the Tower of David (front row): Christina Benson; Mayor Nir Barkat; John Benson, Gen. John Shea’s great-grandson; Lady Sara Allenby; and the Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe. At the podium, the actor playing Gen. Edmund Allenby i
(photo credit: RICKY RACHMAN)
Jerusalem has a long and nuanced history. The city has been fought over like a prize jewel, with many people laying claim to it, only to have it slip from their grasp.
A hundred years ago, in December 11, 1917, Gen. Edmund Allenby stood on the steps of what is now the Tower of David and ushered in a new and critically important chapter in Jerusalem’s story. He was leading the British Empire’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force to victory in its Sinai and Palestine Campaign to defeat the Ottoman Empire.
On December 11, the Tower of David hosted a reenactment of the historic ceremony that marked the beginning of the British Mandate period, along with an exhibition titled “A General and a Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,” which is now on display at the museum.
The reenactment featured descendants of the key players of the original event – including Viscount Allenby of Megiddo, Lady Sara Allenby and John Benson, great-grandson of Gen. John Shea – who joined dignitaries and representatives of various Old City Christian communities and the diplomatic corps. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was also on the steps of the Tower of David as Allenby’s proclamation was read aloud in English, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Greek, Italian and Armenian.
A group of period actors added to the festivities and helped bring the event to life 100 years later.
The historic event, which was once coined “a Hanukka miracle” by Jews and “a Christmas present” by Christians, marked the end of 400 years of Ottoman rule. Jerusalem was officially surrendered on December 9, 1917, which also happened to be the first day of Hanukka and two weeks before Christmas. On December 11, a formal announcement was made in the British Parliament.
Among Jews and Christians, Allenby’s entry into Jerusalem was heralded for different reasons. The Jews interpreted it as the return of sovereignty, as in the days of the Hasmoneans. The Christians saw it as the revival of Christian rule after the fall of the Crusader kingdom.
“With Allenby entering the city, it was like a dream come true,” says Eilat Lieber, museum director and chief curator. “For Christians, they saw Allenby as the last Crusader finally taking Jerusalem back from Islam. The situation in the city was so bad that everyone was waiting for something to happen. Everyone saw Allenby as a prophet. The name ‘Allenby’ and the Arabic word for ‘prophet’ is the same. Everyone hated the Ottomans. So when Allenby stood here at the Tower of David steps, they cried.
“He said the words that everyone wanted him to say, which were that they could keep their traditions and still live here. It was a great day. Of course, it was just one day, but it was the beginning of a change. When the British Mandate started, it was great for Jerusalem, although it was complicated. History is not black and white.”
In Allenby’s official proclamation, he recognized Jerusalem’s vital role in the world, and that it was essential for the city’s residents to continue enjoying their freedom of religion under the patronage of the new government.
“Allenby was in a very historic moment in Jerusalem,” Lieber adds. “He was an incredibly successful commander who expertly planned how to move in the land, and of course it was very clever. He came with a lot of knowledge about Jerusalem. He knew that it was the heart of the Middle East.”
The exhibition focuses solely on the events that transpired over the three days from December 9 to 11. The myths surrounding these events are placed alongside artifacts and relics from the period, which tell the story of what happened and how this historical time helped shape Jerusalem’s history.
The exhibition, in the Tower of David, features the white flag of surrender, which was made from torn sheets and a broomstick, and with which mayor Hussein al-Husayni went out in search of representatives of the British Army. It also showcases artifacts such as the keys to the city, the sword carried by Jerusalem’s chief of police and given to Shea, the walking stick owned by the mayor and given as a present to Shea, a Torah scroll given to Allenby by Chaim Weizmann, who would go on to become Israel’s first president, as well as many other original items which are on loan from the Imperial War Museum in London, the Maidstone Museum in Kent, Wellington College, and others.
“Up until this point, Jerusalem was always a matter between God and kings,” explains Nirit Shalev Khalifa, exhibition curator. “This time, we’re at the end of World War I and everyone knows that the world is not going to be the same again. The common people had a voice for the first time. The British said that they learned from history and that they were not going to be like everyone who came before them. Allenby ushered in a new era of democracy. Everything in those three days was symbolic and important.
“This exhibition is letting the original artifacts tell the story. We found relics from this time period that were preserved because people understood even as this was happening that it was a historic event.”
Although the exhibition is in a relatively small space, the breadth of information and items on display is astounding. Travel journals, photo albums, mementos and personal equipment reflect the perspectives of soldiers on both sides. In addition, the exhibition challenges long-standing urban legends such as the story about two cooks who went out in search of eggs for breakfast for the hungry soldiers and were the first to be offered Jerusalem in surrender.
“For us as a museum, it is a very important moment to stop and commemorate the ceremony and those three days, which took place here 100 years ago,” Liber states. “We have the opportunity to stop and look back at history and appreciate this moment. You can understand what happened.
“For us as Israelis, the narrative was always that we had to fight for independence; the bad guys were the British because it was our land and they had to leave. It was a form of colonialism. But after so many years, we can really appreciate the good that they did. All the preservation to keep the Old City intact and to build with local stone – we have the British to thank for that, as well as cleaning up the streets. Of course, it was complicated.
“By celebrating this moment in time, we are undertaking to know who Allenby was. He had a lot of power at that moment. The words that came from his mouth were very important for the people of Jerusalem. What happened after was that the Jewish, Christian and Arab communities really tried to live together. So this was a moment of hope.”