Israel travels

From Russia with love from the tzar’s brother

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch built the Russian Compound in the late 1800’s for the pilgrims who were swarming to Jerusalem. Then the revolutionaries got him

Russian Orthodox at the Russian Compound (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Russian Orthodox at the Russian Compound (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When Israel became a state in 1948, properties belonging to all kinds of foreign countries fell into her hands. Among them was the Russian Compound, complete with pilgrims’ hostels, a magnificent church, a splendid guesthouse and a consulate.

For years, the Russians tried to get their property returned to them. Finally, in 1964, the two countries reached an agreement that divided up ownership of the Compound. In what became known as the “Orange Deal” (Iskat Hatapuzim), most of the buildings remained Israeli property, while a few of them — the church and part of a former hostel — were returned to their former owners.

In order to retain most of the property, Israel was required to shell out several million dollars. But she was a leading exporter of Jaffa oranges. So as part of the deal, a big chunk of that sum was paid out in oranges.

It all began in 1860, the same landmark year in which Jerusalem Jews first tried life outside the Old City walls. At the time, today’s Russian Compound served as a parade ground for the Turkish cavalry. But the Russian Orthodox Church needed to build housing for her pilgrims, who had begun visiting the Holy Land en masse in the middle of the 19th century. And this choice piece of property was not only located along the main Jaffa-Jerusalem Highway, but was also within walking distance of the Old City’s holy sites. Soon, what was originally called Nuva Yerushalma became known as the Russian Compound.

Construction began immediately on a cathedral, a hospital and a series of hostels for the thousands of Russian pilgrims who swarmed to the Holy Land each year. But none of the hostels was fancy enough to house the Russian aristocracy. The nobility preferred the elegance of Beit Sergei, built in 1890 by the Imperial Palestine Russian Orthodox Society.

Beit Sergei (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Sergei (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Chairman of the Society was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch, brother to the ruling Tzar, who inaugurated Beit Sergei in 1890. The complex included elegant visitors’ rooms, bathrooms and showers, dining rooms, and cisterns. The first floor was the service area, with a reception hall, kitchen, and other rooms. On the second floor were 25 rooms, half of which were fairly plain and the other half elaborately furnished with Persian rugs, silk wall hangings, plaster sculptures, and brocade curtains.

Two squat towers within the courtyard held the bathrooms; indeed, bridges leading to the upper stories are still in place. Incredibly, until recently those early bathrooms served as public restrooms.

When the hostel was inaugurated, Sergei visited the Holy Land with a number of relatives. In his ceremonial speech he expressed the hope that he would one day be able to return. His wish went unfulfilled: Sergei was murdered by revolutionaries 15 years later.

Russian Compound symbol (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Russian Compound symbol (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During World War I, the British took over Beit Sergei and began using it for a headquarters; after the War of Independence Israel naturally took it over. For decades, it housed the Ministry of Agriculture, along with the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Society for the Protection of Historic Sites. Two years ago, it reverted to the Russians and is currently undergoing a major facelift.

Deteriorating rapidly, a former Russian hostel for male pilgrims — built in 1864 — is still in use. Located next to the Jerusalem Police Department Headquarters, it now houses a number of holding cells. Outside, a mammoth column lies within a shallow pit and is surrounded by an iron fence. Chiseled out during the late second temple period at a quarry that was active on this site, the column was apparently cracked by a stonemason and abandoned here. Its dimensions correspond to descriptions of the pillars which stood in the temple. Locals call it the Finger of Og.

Finger of Og (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Finger of Og (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Next to all this glamor stands the Cathedral of the Trinity, which took 12 years to complete. Glistening with shiny white stone, with octagonal bell-towers, it boasts half a dozen domes topped by smaller cupolas bearing a golden cross. Over the years its bright green domes made this one of Jerusalem’s most distinctive churches. Then, in 1996, they were covered with a neutral gray that changes hue as the day goes on.

Inside, an enormous chandelier decorated in gold shimmers with radiance. Indeed, everything glitters with gold except the walls and the cross-vaulted ceilings: these are a heavenly shade of blue.

In 1863, a hospital, designed in Russian Renaissance style, was erected in the compound. Unlike the English, German and Jewish-run hospitals, where anyone of any origin or creed could find care, this Russian hospital was exclusive to Russian pilgrims, clergy, and the local Arab Orthodox population. The British took it over when they ruled the country, using it as a prison hospital. It became known as Avihail during the War of Independence when it served as a hospital for Israeli soldiers.

Avihail Hospital, Russian Compound (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Avihail Hospital, Russian Compound (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1946, Lehi member (and former member of the Israeli parliament) Geula Cohen was in the middle of an underground radio broadcast when she was apprehended by the British and sentenced to nine years in prison. Cohen was sent to the women’s facility in Bethlehem, and soon afterwards participated in an escape attempt. Wounded, she was hospitalized here at “Avihail.” From here, disguised as an Arab, she was able to escape and return to her underground activities.

For decades a very simple, former hostel housed all of Jerusalem’s courts. The lower courts are still here, but the Supreme Court moved to far more impressive lodgings in 1992. I am sure things have improved by now, but for many years the otherwise unheated building was warmed by kerosene heaters that gave off a horrible smell. Unfortunately, when the windows were opened to air the rooms, the cold rushed in to freeze judicial fingers and toes.

A superb little structure, today part of the Jerusalem Municipal Complex, once served as the Russian Consulate. In earlier years, a Russian flag waved from the top of a two-storied tower.

A long, low white building originally served as Russian hospice for female pilgrims. With the advent of the British mandate it was turned into the Palestine Central Prison, holding among its inmates members of the three Jewish underground movements (Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi.). The former prison is now a Museum of the Underground.

Former British Intelligence headquarters (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Former British Intelligence headquarters (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One side of a very large building is situated on Jaffa Road. Constructed in 1903, and the last building to go up in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, it had room for 1,200 guests. Today it holds the Bailiff’s Office (hotza’a la’poel), but during the Mandate period it hosted the British Intelligence headquarters in Palestine.

On March 23, 1944, shortly after Menachem Begin became commander of the Etzel underground movement, 20 of his men donned British police uniforms and infiltrated the massively fortified headquarters of British Intelligence. The sappers were in the midst of setting explosives when a British sergeant caught them in the act.

During the ensuing gunfire, the sergeant and one of the Jewish soldiers were severely wounded. Nevertheless, Etzel operatives — with their injured comrade — managed to reach the sidewalk before a huge blast ripped the Intelligence headquarters apart.

On November 27, 1945, soon after it had been repaired and special security arrangements had been introduced, Etzel and Lehi fighters penetrated the building a second time. They entered, set the charges, and watched as the Intelligence Headquarters collapsed once more.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.


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