The lepers of Jerusalem

Pictures of a leper community in 19th century Jerusalem were taken by the American Colony's photographers.

lepers.jerusalem 521 (photo credit: US Library of Congress)
lepers.jerusalem 521
(photo credit: US Library of Congress)
II Kings , Chapter 7: ... Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate [of besieged Samaria]; and they said one to another: ‘Why sit we here until we die? ... If we will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city, and we shall die there; and if we sit still here, we die also. Now therefore come, and let us fall unto the host of the Arameans... And they rose up in the twilight, to go unto the camp of the Arameans; and when they came to the outermost part of the camp of the Arameans, behold, there was no man there.”
For thousands of years the scourge of leprosy has struck fear among humanity. In the Bible it was considered a severe punishment. Leprosy was called a “living death,” and its victims were often exiled from cities or imprisoned in leper colonies.
In the 19th century, Christian missionaries, well-versed in the Bible, saw lepers in the Holy Land as candidates for their holy mission, and photographers, perhaps seeing a commercial demand, viewed the lepers through the lenses of their cameras.
The pictures here were taken by the photographers of the American Colony.
Today, scientists know that leprosy is caused by a bacterium and is rarely contagious, particularly if the patient is receiving treatment. It is transmitted by the transfer of body fluids and is treatable with antibiotics. While the disease has been “beaten back,” it still exists in developing countries.
In 1887, Hansen Hospital, known as the “Lepers’ Home,” was built on the then-remote outskirts of Jerusalem, according to writer Ruth Wexler. It was designed by the German architect Conrad Schick and operated by the Moravian Church.
“Hansen Hospital, an architectural treasure, is now situated in the midst of an affluent neighborhood,” Wexler wrote. “During the 122 years of its existence around 600 people spent their lives within its walls. In the year 2000, the last leprosy in-patients moved out.”
Despite medical advances, the leprosy stigma divided patients from society. Going against the norm was Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), a revered Jerusalem rabbi.
“He was a frequent visitor at hospitals for lepers,” Simcha Raz wrote in A Tzaddik in Our Time. “Reb Aryeh began this holy practice after he had found a woman weeping bitterly by the Western Wall.
Reb Aryeh asked her, ‘what made her cry so intensely.’ She told him that her child had no cure, and was locked up in the leper hospital in Jerusalem. He immediately decided to visit the young child, and when he arrived all the patients burst into tears. It had been years since they had the privilege to see any visitor from the outside world.”
Today, the hospital is undergoing renovation to become a cultural center and gallery for arts, media, design and technology.

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