Let’s Go: Yanks in Jerusalem

April 28, 2012
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The American Colony Hotel

By Linda McK.Stewart

The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem counts journalists, U.N. personnel and prime ministers among its guests.

In Jerusalem, a city with more than its fair share of angst and conflict, the five-star American Colony Hotel endures as an oasis of other world serenity. As if in defiance of natural law, all the strife – be it religious, ethnic or political – to which Jeru­salem is heir, is forbidden entry. Within its solid stone walls, garlanded in flowering vines, tranquility banishes conflict. The hotel, listed by both Leading Hotels of the World and Relais & Chateaux, enjoys a history unlike any other, not only in Jerusalem but in all of the Middle East where exotica is more the norm than the exception.

It’s just a short walk from the Damascus Gate, the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, located on the city’s northwest side, up the Nablus Road, to an unassuming driveway flanked by gray stone walls. Here it was, more than 120 years ago that a Turkish Pasha, Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi El Husseini, designed and built a luxurious residence for himself and his four wives. He wanted, above all, to see his family housed in comfort and security. Their absolute privacy was a foremost consideration. Bedrooms were design­ed to open into small courtyards, walled gardens, spaces artfully laid out to promise seclusion and protection from the tumultuous life beyond the walls of the residence. It was a residence spacious enough to accommodate not only his harem of four but an abundance of children as well. His offspring were many… all girls. In 1895 the Pasha died, lamenting with his last breath his failure to produce a son.

Upon his death the estate was sold to an impassioned group of Christians, led by Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna, residents of Chicago. The Spaffords and a group of devotees, disillusioned with their Protestant life in Chicago, determined to quit the Windy City in favor of moving to Jerusalem the Holy City where, they were convinced, they would witness the second coming of Christ. In short order, the Americans were joined by a group of like-minded Swedes to form what became known as the American Colony. It was envisioned as a kind of freethinking utopia in the heart of Jerusalem. With racial, religious and ethnic rivalries roiling throughout the city, it was accepted that in the American Colony Arab and Jew, Christian and heretic would always be cordially received. The colony ran a thriving farm, complete with dairy herd, poultry, sheep and horses to become a non-profit, self-supporting community. Financial support flowed in, at first from the stay-at-homes in Chicago, but soon from others around the world, inspired by the concept of such a flourishing utopia in the Holy Land.

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The colony’s gradual transition to a hotel began in the early 1900s, sparked by one Baron Ustinov, grandfather of the British wit, dramatist, actor and producer, Peter Ustinov who died in 2004. Grandpa Ustinov, himself a man of no small talents, was at a loss to find what he deemed to be comfortable accommodations in Jeru­salem for personal friends. Being well acquainted with the American and Swedish residents of the American Colony, he persuaded them to take his friends as paying guests, cheerfully picking up the tab himself.

Through two World Wars, through the brief but bitter conflict of 1967 between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the American Colony survived. True to its origins, a member of the Spafford family, one generation after another, was always at the helm. In 1980 the daily management of the colony was handed over to Gauer Hotels in Switzerland.

The American Colony Hotel exists today as a wholly improbable haven of old-fashioned elegance gracefully blended with all the perquisites of modern technology. The original residence, over the years has been expanded. The hotel’s 93 air-conditioned bedrooms are scattered through Main House, East House and Palm House. Care has been taken to retain the original Ottoman influence. Every bedroom is graced by a balcony or private verandah. Many of the bathrooms still retain the wonderful old marble tubs, big enough to hold not just the Pasha but half his harem as well. The lofty ceilings with their gently whirling fans, the cool tiled floors, the graceful, hand-carved latticework that separates one room from another, the stone archways, the ancient fountains trickling in small secluded gardens, are all reminiscent of a serenity, a degree of comfort that is all too rare. The notable lack of hustle-bustle, nowadays endemic in so many city hotels, is notably absent at the American Colony. Jour­nalists, U.N. personnel, prime ministers and Arab VIP’s are all frequent guests. In the Arabesque Restaurant or in the Terrace Café, Jews and Arabs frequently dine together, blessedly freed at least for the moment, from the strictures of public life. Winston Churchill was a regular guest and today Tony Blair, special envoy assigned to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accords, also counts himself among the faithful. In a part of the world where unending strife is common fare, there’s comfort to be found in one small oasis of peace and tranquility.

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What began so improbably as an idealistic vision in Chicago is alive and well some 7,000 miles due east of Lake Michigan. Welcome to the Holy City of Jerusalem and to the American Colony Hotel.

IF YOU GO: For reservations or more information: www.americancolony.com; or e-mail reserve@amcol.co.il.

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