With tea at the tower and cocktails in the citadel, the Tower of David Museum explores culture in the city during 1918-1948.

Edna and Muli Azrieli visit the reconstruction of their famous Fink’s bar in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Edna and Muli Azrieli visit the reconstruction of their famous Fink’s bar in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ON DECEMBER 11, 1917, on the steps of the Tower of David in Jerusalem’s Old City, General Allenby proclaimed British rule and in 1922 the British implemented the Mandate established by the League of Nations. British rule over Jerusalem lasted thirty years: a mere moment in the 3,000year history of the city. However, in this brief moment, Jerusalem was dramatically changed.
Jerusalem became the administrative center of Mandatory Palestine and the city had a status that it previously did not own under Ottoman rule. Under British auspices, processes of modernization, which began during the late Ottoman Period, came to fruition. Jerusalem enjoyed financial and cultural prosperity and the city’s population grew.
Yet the cultural impact of this brief period has not received much attention. According to Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, “Many aspects of British rule in the Land of Israel have been researched in depth. But it transpires that little of it has been devoted to the changes in the cultural life of Jerusalem during British rule. Our new exhibition intends to fill that gap.”
On May 24, the Tower of David Museum opened a new exhibition titled “London in Jerusalem: Culture on the Streets of the City” that highlights developments in the cultural life of Jerusalem from 1918 to 1948.
“London in Jerusalem” moves the spotlight away from a political and religious Jerusalem. It examines the extensive cultural activity that the British, Arabs and Jews took part in and sketches a profile of cultural voices that were present in the city.
While the British were making their mark in the city, waves of middle-class Jews ar rived from Central Europe bringing their European cultural and intellectual lifestyle to the Middle East. The rise of the Arab middle class, which started during the Ottoman period, gained momentum during the British Mandate with many receiving a European education in the mission schools. Young people learned to read literature in English as well as Arabic and acquired professional skills, allowing them to play a central role in the administration of the British Mandate. Others entered the liberal professions becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, journalists and educators. The mix of newly arrived European Jews with the growing Arab middle class made for fer tile ground for new norms in cultural life.
Lieber explains how “the Tower of David Museum is excited to be able to offer the public today the chance to ‘experience’ life in Jerusalem in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s with this interesting fusion of cultures and peoples. This is the first time that the Tower of David has two significant exhibitions running concurrently. Housed within the citadel walls, the Museum has an exhibition that examines the historic week when Allenby entered Jerusalem and declared British rule in 1917, as well as a parallel exhibition that shows the impact of British rule on the cultural life in the city during this fascinating period.”
Unlike the Allenby exhibition, which has original pieces on display from the likes of the Imperial War Museum in London, the new exhibition, curated by Liat Margalit and Inbar Dror Lax, is completely experiential and complements the former by allowing visitors to take a glimpse into everyday life in Jerusalem.
Choirs and dance troupes were formed, coffee houses, bars, theaters, cinemas and the Hebrew University opened, and private salons and public cultural events were scheduled. Next to the coffee of the traditional finjan, it was possible to find Scotch whiskey and oysters. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1931) and the classic Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1936) performed on the city’s stages; British soldiers and Jewish and Arab residents competed against each other in tournaments on the tennis courts and cricket pitches built in the city.
The sounds of the oud and the violin, the piano and vocalists were heard coming from the radio studio on Princess Melisende Street. The Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS) broadcast for the first time in March 1936, opening in excitement with “This is Jerusalem Calling!” in English, Arabic and Hebrew. The British-controlled radio gave representation to the local residents of Jerusalem by including Arab and Jewish members on the programming board. The PBS played a significant role in fostering local culture. Besides news, the programming included live music performed in the studio, language lessons, radio plays, segments for children and youth, and morning exercise programs. Standing next to the grand piano brought to the Tower of David from the IBA, visitors can listen to the radio shows.
Cultural evenings sprung up all over the city, not just in theaters or grand gatherings in the citadel, but in the homes of well-to-do residents of Jerusalem. These were exclusive events for the members of high society, British and local alike. Renowned artists who came to Palestine to perform before the general public were often invited to give private concerts in front of small, exclusive groups. A reconstructed living room together with original cabinets, china, radio and furniture invite visitors to have a feel for home life during the Mandate.
Likewise, during the British Mandate, Jerusalem became home to ten movie theaters. The cinema owners were private entrepreneurs who mainly identified with their own communities. The general public hungered for the films screened at the movie theaters, and people of all ages, communities and religions flocked to see them. The growing popularity of cinema among the local population did not escape the British government, which set up a government censorship board charged with censoring movies on moral or political grounds. London in Jerusalem also provides the visitor with a glimpse into the cinema experience then, by reconstructing a tiny cinema, with hard wooden seats and velvet curtains. Here visitors can sit and watch classic movies and newsreels of the period of the early 1930s and 1940s throughout the day.
NEW BARS opened up offering a taste of home to British administrators, British troops, and foreign reporters who were in Jerusalem to cover events in the Middle East and in time, they were joined by the urban elite, artists, and Jerusalem bohemians. The most famous of all the bars was Fink’s, founded by Moshe Fink in 1932. It was there that British officers and locals brushed shoulders. Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres have all had a seat at one of the six tables. The popular Fink’ s bar and restaurant, among others, offered drinks and imported cigarettes, goulash soup, cream cakes, oysters and champagne – Europe in the heart of the Levant.
Within the exhibition, Fink’s has been reconstructed. Together with the original guestbook, original furniture, bottles from the 300 bottle collection, pictures on the wall, old records and the cigar box are all on display, kindly lent to the Tower of David Museum by Edna Azrieli, the daughter of the legendary owner, David Rothschild, who grew up being surrounded by the culture, charm and mystique of Fink’s . The King David Hotel guestbook from the Mandate period is also on display, the yellow pages still showing the signatures of diplomats, politicians, world leaders, artists, movies stars and public figures, who came to the city during this time.
The cultural landscape of Jerusalem would not be complete without mentioning the many tea houses and coffee shops that were established around the city , such as the famous Atara café. In the center of the exhibition there are tables and chairs that one might have found in a café. The “menu” on offer is a collection of movies, photographs and information about the cultural life of the city at that time, looking at music, sports and art. Visitors choose for themselves different locations of the city on multiple inter active screens.
The actual location of the exhibition, at the Tower of David, gives London in Jerusalem an extra layer of relevance and special significance. The Tower of David has guarded the entrance of Jerusalem for hundreds, and in parts thousands, of years. However, it was only during the British Mandate that the purpose of the citadel was no longer part of the defensive system of the city, but for the first time transformed into a cultural center. The first British governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, recognized the beauty and the potential of the Citadel and, as early as 1918, Storrs established a public committee aimed at the “rehabilitation and preservation of the historical heritage of the city, the encouragement of arts and handicrafts, and support of local artists.”
The last soldiers left the citadel and the site was restored, now able to hold concerts and art exhibitions for audiences that included a mix of officers and British soldiers, along with veteran Jerusalemites and newcomers. Lieber proudly declares, “It is fitting that the Tower of David, which was established as a cultural institution during the British Mandate will now house an exhibition a century later exploring the culture of that time period.”
Both exhibitions are open during regular opening hours of the Tower of David Museum until December 2018 and are included in the admission price.