Stay here in style: The stories of Jerusalem’s iconic hotels
Want to know where pre-state Jews hid weapons and listened in on the British, whose table was loaned out for a peace treaty, and where Begin announced he was disbanding the Irgun underground? Read on
When Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, the city’s most influential Moslem, put out a tender for construction in 1928, it was taken up by an Arab contractor and two Jewish architects. One of the architects was Chaim Weizmann’s brother-in-law Tuvia Donia; the other Haganah member Baruch Katinka. In his book, “From Then ’till Now,” Katinka described the conditions of the tender. It stipulated that whoever took on the project had to finish it within 13 months or pay a penalty of 1,000 liras a day until it was complete.
The Palace was finished before the deadline despite a setback in August of 1929 when Arab laborers took 10 days off work. During that period Arabs rioted all over the country; in Jerusalem they destroyed several neighborhoods and massacred some of the city’s residents.
The Palace, located on Agron Street, was one of half a dozen elegant hotels and guesthouses built outside the Old City walls in the late 19th and early 20th century. Five of them still take in tourists: the Palace, newly renovated and partially rebuilt as the Waldorf-Astoria, the King David, the Palatin and the Tel Aviv (today the Jerusalem Hostel).
Considering that the Mufti visited the construction site of the Palace on a daily basis, and that most of the laborers were Arabs, it is astounding that the Palace walls contained two built-in hiding places for Jewish-held weapons. Forbidden by the British to bear arms of any kind, the Jews had no choice but to prepare secret caches for weapons that they could use in self-defense. Called sliks, these ingenious hideaways were located all over the country: the two at the Palace were designed by Katinka.
When the British Peel Commission came to Jerusalem in 1936 to discuss the “Palestine problem”, they held a number of their meetings at the fabulous Palace Hotel. But while some of the doors were kept open, there were others tightly shut. How, then, were the Jews to hear what was going on? Incredibly, Katinka managed to plant microphones in some of the electric wires so that the Jews could keep abreast of current events.
Immensely impressive, the hotel featured a decorative, rounded façade and horseshoe-like arches above the windows. With central heating, three elevators and some private bathrooms, the Palace Hotel was a rarity. But when the King David Hotel opened up the street, the Palace lost to the competition. Before re-opening last year as a hotel, it housed a radio station, operated as a small hospital, and hosted the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Constructed in 1931 out of an exquisite pink stone quarried in Hebron, the King David Hotel was by far the most dazzling hotel in the country. The hotel contained 200 rooms with an adjacent bath, some even with hot running water. Waiters wore white waistcoats and long baggy pants, and sported fez hats on their heads.
In 1936 the hotel was leased by the British to serve first as emergency headquarters and later as their administrative and military nerve center in Palestine. On July 22, 1946, in retaliation for an unprovoked and vicious British attack on Jews who owned or carried defensive weapons, soldiers from the Jewish underground planted explosives in a number of milk containers. Then, disguised as Arab workers, they delivered the churns to the hotel restaurant.
Although they received multiple warnings to evacuate the building, British officials scoffed at the idea and refused to let personnel exit the premises. Ninety-one people were killed by the ensuing blast, an explosion that completely demolished the southern wing.
When the Federmann family bought the King David Hotel in 1958, they repaired the damage, put in a swimming pool, and added two additional stories.
Decorations in the lobby are meant to represent the biblical era by evoking an ancient Semitic style. The lounge is decorated in a mode supposedly reminiscent of King David and the Hittite influence; the reading room reflects a style its designers considered worthy of King Solomon.
Ambassador Hall sports numerous abstract Stars of David above the lintel and on the mirrors. The lights on the wall are shaped like small candelabra resembling the Menorah that stood in the Temple.
On the other side of the lobby doors open onto the Reading Room, whose distinctive entrance is decorated with a pomegranate relief. The room is quite historic: not only does it boast the original parquet floor, but the wall lighting and tapestries also remain from the early King David Hotel. The large table in the Reading Room was loaned to Beit Gavriel (on the banks of the Sea of Galilee) in 1994. It was around this table that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) and Jordan’s King Hussein (1935-1999) participated in a historic peace-signing ceremony.
Jerusalem-born Todros Warshavsky put up a guesthouse on Agrippas Street, downtown, in 1936. That year saw the start of a three-year Arab revolt against the British who controlled Palestine. Tourism ground to a halt and the Warshavsky family was forced to sell the hotel — then immediately rented it out and has been managing the property ever since.
The Palatin was a favorite with members of the Knesset, who could walk to the original Knesset building on King George Street within minutes. Today, although it has been renovated to keep up with the times, the hotel retains its old-world charm and family atmosphere.
When founded on Jaffa Road in 1926 as the Tel Aviv Hotel, today’s Jerusalem Hostel was once very stylish. The exterior particular is still a delight: not only does it boast splendid windows, but ornamental pillars grace the entrance and sculpted lions hold up the central balcony.
On August 3,1948 Menachem Begin emerged from the underground and made an historic speech on the hotel balcony. Over the previous five years, Begin had headed the Irgun, a radical underground movement intent on pushing the British out of Palestine. Now, from high above the crowds, Begin announced that he was disbanding the Irgun, and that his soldiers were joining the Israel Defense Forces.
The oldest guest enterprise built to offer overnight lodgings and still in operation is Notre Dame de Jerusalem, originally Notre Dame de France. Construction on its imposing stone walls and round turrets began in 1884, as lodgings for the large groups of Catholics who had begun thronging to the Holy City.
The monastery was severely damaged during heavy fighting in 1948, in a battle that prevented the Arab Legion from invading western Jerusalem. Until 1967, Israeli soldiers guarded Jerusalem from the rooftops of Notre Dame, directly across from Jordanian positions on the Walls. Charmingly restored in later years, Notre Dame once again functions as a hotel – but now, for visitors of all faiths.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is an experienced private tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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