For a couple of hours on Monday afternoon in Jerusalem’s Old City, there was partying like it was 1917.
World War I Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) soldiers, Turkish pashas, local religious leaders, ladies in long skirts and bonnets — and the legendary T.E. Lawrence — celebrated as they awaited the arrival of Field Marshall Edmund Allenby, commander of the British Army’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to officially liberate Jerusalem from Ottoman rule.
A century after the Great War, these actors played the long-dead Allenby and other historical figures to the delight of the many hundreds gathered from around Israel and the world who were genuinely excited to join in the festive reenactment.
Exactly 100 years ago on December 11, 1917, General Allenby delivered the British Army’s Proclamation of Martial Law in Jerusalem in seven languages from the steps of the Tower of David.
For some, like eighth-generation Jerusalemite Shalom Bagad, showing up on Monday was coming full circle.
“My mother Shulamit was here exactly on this very date in 1917 to watch Allenby enter Jerusalem and give his proclamation,” Bagad said.
The proclamation, promising religious tolerance and protection of all holy sites, gave the ancient city’s inhabitants hope for a brighter and more peaceful future. The British capture of Jerusalem, coming as it did in December and a month after the Balfour Declaration, was interpreted by the Jews as a Hanukkah miracle and the beginning of the fulfillment of revived Jewish sovereignty. The Christian world regarded it as a Christmas gift, the return of Christian rule to Jerusalem for the first time since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom.
Aside from signs of modernity like TV cameras and smartphones, on Monday it appeared history was repeating itself. The only thing missing was 1917 Allenby’s horse, from which he dismounted before entering on foot in a show of humility and respect for the Holy City and its people, who had suffered under repeated conquests throughout the centuries.
After the actors and crowd proceeded through the Jaffa Gate to the front of the Tower of David citadel (now a museum), a ceremony very similar to that of a century ago took place.
As the Muslim call to prayer and church bells rang out in the background, the proclamation was read out in eight languages this time (Armenian being the addition). The English version, which came first, was read by Viscount Henry J. H. Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, the great-great nephew of General Allenby.
Allenby, on his first-ever visit to Israel, was followed by representatives of Jerusalem’s various faith communities, who translated the proclamation into French, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Russian and Armenian.
The master of ceremonies, linguistics expert Avshalom Kor, pointed out that Allenby’s proclamation constituted the first official, quasi-governmental use of Hebrew in the Land of Israel since the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
As Lord Allenby’s mother Sara Viscountess Allenby, John Benson (great-grandson of General John Shea, who accepted the Turkish surrender) and other dignitaries looked on, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat gave a short speech about the city’s past and political present.
Seizing the opportunity to address local constituents and Israeli voters, Barkat switched to Hebrew after initially praising General Allenby in English.
The mayor emphasized Jerusalem’s unity and openness to all religions and cultures “under Israel’s rule and sovereignty.” He also mentioned President Donald Trump’s December 6 declaration of the United State’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“No one should minimize that declaration’s importance. It will only strengthen the unity and peace in Jerusalem,” Barkat said.
Watching from the crowd, Bagad said he was on the same page as the mayor.
“I consider Trump’s declaration like Allenby’s. They are both bricks in consolidating our right to the Land of Israel, which goes back to [the biblical patriarch] Abraham,” he said.
While others in the middle-aged and up crowd tightly packed into the narrow plaza in front of the Tower of David cheered Barkat’s statements, it was unclear how many were as supportive as Bagad.
The few younger Israeli adults and children scattered among the crowd seemed unsure what all the hoopla was about.
“I think it’s about something that happened around 70 years ago when Israel was born,” said 10-year-old Elon, who was in attendance with his class from a religious public school in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.
Even some of the young actors admitted to having been ignorant of Allenby and his proclamation before signing on to this gig.
“I knew a little bit from high school, but not much. I had to do some research,” said Eden Ankory, who played a young colonial British woman.
“I didn’t know a thing. I only learned about this from reading up on the subject this past week,” said her thespian colleague Yasmin Bar-Shalom.
In contrast, Kenneth Thomson, who came all the way to Jerusalem from Vancouver Island, Canada, for Monday’s event, feels very close to the events of December 1917.
Eight years ago, Thomson was going through his grandfather Lt. Douglas Thomson’s old photo albums and discovered a picture of him standing in uniform in front of the Jaffa Gate.
“I had visited Israel before that, and recognized the Jaffa Gate. But I had had no idea that my grandfather had a connection to Jerusalem,” Thomson said.
Thomson discovered that his grandfather fought in the Palestine campaigns and was in Jerusalem as a member of the British Army’s Essex Regiment. Thomson thinks his grandfather might have been an aide-de-camp to Allenby, and he knows for certain that Allenby awarded him the Military Cross after he was wounded in the Battle of the Somme in France.
“I have that medal, but it’s in a safe deposit box back at home and I didn’t want to chance bringing it,” Thomson said.
He did, however, lend photos from his grandfather’s photo album to The Tower of David Museum for use in its newly-opened exhibition, “A General and A Gentleman: Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem.”
Thomson said it was a special treat to meet the current Lord Allenby and General Shea’s great-grandson, John Benson, both of whom he spoke with after the official ceremony ended.
Benson was delighted by the size of the crowd that had shown up, and to see the affection that people have for the events of a century ago in Jerusalem.
Observing the large amount of Israeli and international media present, Lord Allenby expressed regret that people in the UK were not equally as interested in this centennial anniversary.
He’ll share his experiences in Jerusalem when he gets home, and expects it will take a while to process everything.
“It’s a lot to absorb emotionally,” he said.
Lady Allenby, proudly wearing the engraved Jerusalem Cross first given by General Allenby to his wife and passed on through the generations to her, appeared to be enjoying every moment.
“I’m overwhelmed. It’s just been fantastic,” she said.