It was called the Olivet House Hotel, and, according to the ads, had been “entirely redecorated and renovated” with modern plumbing, morning tea, and best of all: English cooking. Balconies overlooked the Old City, with a view of the Dome of the Rock and a cluster of buildings without solar heaters or antennas on their rooftops.
The hotel was built in 1880 by a British missionary named Eno George Hensman, who purchased the two structures connected with a bridge that would become Olivet House. Besides the guests’ view of the Old City, they could also clearly see the Mount of Olives, hence the name. It was a favorite place for missionaries to board for a prolonged stay.
When the British paved the byway on which the Olivet stood, they christened the lower part of the road St. George Street for a grand cathedral that stood on the corner. The upper portion was called St. Paul’s Road, because of the charming Anglican (Episcopalian) church that was constructed there in 1873. Both St. George Street and St. Paul’s Road were later renamed Shivtei Yisrael (“the tribes of Israel” in Hebrew), a logical street name in a country established specifically for remnants of the Israelite tribes.
Today the former hotel and the Anglican church are only a few of a dozen buildings constructed for wildly different reasons by foreign governments, religious bodies, or foreign nationals on Shivtei Yisrael. Among the countries represented on this one street alone are Italy, Russia, England, France, Romania, Spain and Finland.
First on the scene were the Russians, who purchased a lot from the ruling Turks in 1858 that stretched all way from Jaffa Road to what would become Shivtei Yisrael Street. At the time, except for a complex on Mount Zion, there wasn’t a single building outside the Old City walls. The total cost, at today’s prices, was somewhere in the neighborhood of $160,000,000.
Called Nuva Yerushalma by the Russians and al-Muskubiya by the Arabs, the new property was meant for Orthodox pilgrims to the Holy Land and featured an impressive cathedral, a consulate, a hospital, and separate simple hostels for men and women. Near the end of the 19th century the Russians added a more upscale hostel for the nobility which reopened in 2017 as the Sergei Palace hotel. At some point, perhaps when it was surrounded by a wall, the area became known as the Russian Compound.
Two of its buildings — the former Russian Consulate and a women’s hostel — border Shivtei Yisrael Street. From the 1950s to 1973, the consulate housed the university’s medical department. It was one of several across the city whose offices were used as classrooms after the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus was cut off from the rest of Israel in 1948. Today the elegant structure contains a number of municipal offices.
After the Russians came the English in 1873. When the British arrived in the area, the women’s hostel was turned into a prison. Scattered among the Arab inmates were Jewish prisoners — members of the pre-State Jewish underground. Restored in the 1990s, it is now the Museum of the Underground Prisoners.
Across from the Russian Compound, the Church Missionary Society built a stunning church named for the apostle Paul. Topped by a belfry, St. Paul’s boasts some attractive decorative elements that include twin entrances lined by pilasters and gabled arches. Above the gable is a weather vane that announces the year of the sanctuary’s construction.
Founded as a vehicle for converting Jews to Christianity, the Society was forced to change its focus when only a few Jews answered the call to change their religion. That’s when they began working among the Arabs. The sign on the front of the sanctuary is, therefore, written in Arabic.
When Israel’s War of Independence drew to a close in 1948 and ceasefire lines divided Jerusalem in two, St. Paul’s was cut off from its Arab congregation. The sanctuary was abandoned and fell into severe disrepair. Renovations took place several times after that; the latest additions in the 1990s were wrought-iron flag holders and an old-fashioned lamp.
The French were next to build on the street, beginning in 1874 after French Baron Amadeus Marie Paul de Piellat, a deeply religious Catholic, made his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. At the time the only Catholic hospital in Jerusalem was located inside the Old City and conditions there were so appalling that de Piellat built a new, and absolutely splendid, hospital on the far corner of Shivtei Yisrael facing the city walls. Today Jerusalem’s “French Hospital” is famous in the Holy Land as a warm and caring hospice for the terminally ill.
In 1885, a Swiss missionary named Jacob Johannes Frutiger built a stately two-story dwelling on the street and called it Mahanaim from a phrase in Genesis. A villa with 40 rooms, Mahanaim was a center of Jerusalem culture for years, and hosted concerts, readings and singalongs. In its heyday the property included a wonderful garden and an enviable collection of archeological artifacts.
Frutiger eventually became a banker — one of the richest in the country. But at one point he got lost walking home from work and altogether began acting strangely (perhaps a victim of Alzheimer’s disease?). Eventually his banking empire collapsed and all of the family’s property was lost.
Afterwards, the imposing structure was bought by the Anglo-Jewish Association. The girls’ school which the Association established was named after Evelina de Rothschild.
Menahem Ussishkin, director of the Jewish National Fund, lived in the building from 1922 until 1927. But when an earthquake damaged the exclusive villa of the British High Commissioner, Ussishkin was forced to move. Today it houses the Ministry of Education.
While the Russians, French, Swiss and British were busily establishing a visible presence in Jerusalem, Italy had too many problems at home to care. As a result, at the beginning of the 20th century Italy found that it had virtually no standing in the Holy City.
As soon as possible it began making its mark, beginning with the splendid Italian Hospital located on the corner of Shivtei Yisrael Street. Construction took place from 1912 to 1917, and when finished resembled the grandest of 14th-century Italian structures. Today it houses the Education Ministry.
And then it was the turn of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarch, who decided to establish a Patriarchal Representation in Jerusalem in 1927. However, by that time Catholic, Protestant and other Orthodox groups already owned the city’s choicest Christian properties – within the Old City walls and close to the holy sites. Thus although the Romanians bought land near the Old City, it was located outside of Jerusalem’s ancient walls on almost completely empty St. George’s Street.
Little by little an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood grew up around the patriarchate, which completed a handsome edifice in 1938. The building houses both a small community of ecclesiastical personnel and a gorgeous chapel overflowing with gold leaf and magnificent paintings.
Anglican vicars lived in the house on the corner of St. Paul’s Road for many years. Designed by German missionary/architect Conrad Schick in 1887, the building served as a maternity hospital and eventually an army base during the British Mandate.
Felm, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, was founded in 1859 but only began missionary work in this country in 1924. In 1950, they needed more space for their kindergarten and school, and rented what is called, today, the “lower house.” Five years later they bought the building, adding an “upper house,” with chapel, library and classrooms, in the 1960s.
Over the last decades, Felm’s goals have changed and today the houses provide a meeting ground for people of all faiths. Ethiopian, Chinese and Korean groups get together for church devotions in the “upper house,” which also accommodates an interfaith band, and groups teaching Hebrew to Arab-speaking women from East Jerusalem. The “lower house” just underwent a complete renovation and will soon host a variety of courses, interfaith evenings and seminars in an attempt to promote peace. In the words of communications officer Reverend Iina Matikainen, “We want to be friends with everybody, and we want everybody to be friends.”
The picturesque structure next door was purchased at the beginning of the 20th century by Ethiopian Empress Taito, who rented it out to a variety of tenants. Most recently, it is occupied by a Spanish non-profit called Remar, established in 1982 by a reformed Spanish gambler to aid society’s outcasts.
While Remar works with drug addicts and alcoholics in 59 other countries, here in Israel the organization tries to create a cultural and spiritual bridge between the Spanish people and the Jewish nation. To this end, Remar brings large groups of pilgrims to Israel every year, hosting other tourists as well in the guesthouse it opened in 2007.
Boasting a Star of David on its façade and biblical passages on the dining room walls, Remar contains six modern, charmingly decorated guest rooms. Interestingly, on some internet websites, instead of Remar, the guesthouse name is given as Tikun Olam, a Jewish concept used to express the pursuit of social justice and actions that bring the world closer to harmony.
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.