The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel

As I relate in my earlier post, ‘Amazing Grace – There’s Magic In The Air : “from the Jaffa Gate, we look out from our balcony in the Imperial Hotel, a late 19th Century mix of trash and treasure, five-star history, and ten-star views”.

Planning our recent visit to Jerusalem (we were there in May 2014, just two months before the recent events – in 2019, see below) I wanted to book a hotel that was both historical and conveniently close to The Old City. I also fancied the idea of staying in a pilgrim hotel so we could witness at first hand the excited comings and goings of the faithful (see my post ‘Messianic Carpet Rides‘). The New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate, was just the ticket. And we struck solid gold! Stepping down from the Nesher bus on the road outside the famed Walls of Jerusalem and  the Citadel (see: Once in Royals David’s Citadel), we looked up towards the Jaffa Gate and there, right above us was the imposing facade of the New Imperial Hotel

The Jaffa Gate, in the western wall of the Old City (not to be confused with the ‘Western Wall’ or ‘Kotel’ so revered of Judaism), has traditionally been one of the busiest entrances to Jerusalem. Its Arabic name is Bab al Khalil (Gate of the Friend) a reference to Abraham, forefather of both Arabs and Jews. The wall bears the inscription in Arabic: “there is no god but Allah, and Abraham is the friend of Allah”. Topographically the Gate provided the easiest access, so it’s approaches provided a most convenient camping ground for the many invaders who sought to conquer the city. These included Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Frankish Crusaders, Turks, and finally, the British. Caliph Omar Ibn al Khatab entered through this gate after Jerusalem’s capture by the Muslims in 638AD. As did General Allenby, commander of the British forces which captured Jerusalem in December 1917.

Just inside the wall, there were fields of winter wheat until the late nineteenth century; and in summertime, the empty fields became dumping grounds for carcasses of donkeys, camels and horses. The Turkish authorities moved this ‘cemetery’ outside the wall, and what was forever the main thoroughfare, became the location for important commercial institutions, including the Banco de Roma, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and the German bank of Johannes Frutiger, the Austrian Post Office, The Thomas Cook Tourism and Travel Company, and the studios of a number of Jerusalem’s famous photographers.

And also, several hotels catering for the growing tourist industry, including the Mediterranean Hotel (now called The Petra), and in 1884, the Grand New Hotel, built on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. According to the Thomas Cook Tourist Handbook in 1876, the Mediterranean was “the best in Jerusalem”. Travelers were however wont to damn the Med with faint praise, and soon began to write about the really new, really ‘grand’ hotel with great facilities, round arched windows, high roof pedestals topped by Grecian urns, imposing entrance staircase, and balconies looking right out over Omar Ibn al Khatab Square. See the pictures below from the end of the 19th Century,  showing the square in all variety of citizenry and costume.

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The place comes with a history. During construction, builders uncovered what was believed to be the Pool of a Bathsheba. It was said that Uriah’s wife was bathing thereon when spied upon by a randy King David. David subsequently sent Uriah off on a suicide mission to clear the way for his own passions. The historical record is confused here. Leonard Cohen and the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme apparently got it wrong. They both placed her up on the roof. The Bible says he saw her from the roof.

The view from the rarely frequented roof terrace of the New Imperial itself, whilst not quite as picaresque as the vision that tempted the poet king, offers a splendid vista of the cupolas of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Dome of the Rock – not to mention a fine peek at the battlements of the Citadel. On the western side, we look out over West Jerusalem and what was the old Arab neighbourhood of Mamilla, now totally rebuilt with a lux shopping mall, the rectangular bulk of the King David Hotel, once the HQ of the British military and bombed by Irgun terrorists in June 1946, and the iconic YMCA tower.

 Imperial 5

Anyhow, there is still an ancient cistern beneath the hotel. And also, part of the second wall. There are Roman tiles signifying the HQ the Roman Tenth Legion, and part a column erected by the legion, bearing a votive inscription honouring Emperor Augustus’ Legate, Marcus Julius Maximus. It stands there today as a pedestal for a street lamp, in the mews near the hotel front door and right in from of Versavee Restaurant and Bar, where the writer and his companions ate good Jerusalem fare and downed Israeli wine and Taybeh Palestinian beer.

Roman Colomn outside the New Imperial Hotel

Roman Column outside the New Imperial Hotel

Had the hotel been there in Biblical times, what events we might have witnessed from our balcony. King Herod, the ostensibly psychotic master builder of Bible infamy dwelt opposite as he planned his Second Temple (Herod might have murdered most of his nearest and dearest, but he was fitted up for the massacre of the innocents!). So did Pontius Pilate. If one accepts the narrative of Simon Sebag-Montefiore,  in his Jerusaelm : The Biography, we could also have watched the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth. It was but a short distance from the Citadel where he was condemned and Golgotha where he died: cross the square, turn right at the New Imperial, left just past the Med, and straight on to the Hill of the Skull (where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands). The present Via Dolorosa runs from the site of the Antonine Fortress, on the northern edge of the Haram ash Sharif, to The Church, its course set by custom and customers from Byzantine days. But, the wrong side of town! (See Nova Via Dolorosa).

I digress…From rom our hypothetical balcony, we could watch the comings and goings of the conquerors: the entry of the Roman Titus’ legions; Omar Ibn Al Khatab entering al Quds on foot; the arrival of the First Crusade at the Gates of Jerusalem; the exit of the crusader garrison and the Christian inhabitants when the city fell to Salahuddin (portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven).  And thence, Mamlouks, Seljuks, and Ottomans. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, stayed at the hotel on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898. His bust still sits in the entrance hall. This is when The Grand became the New Imperial! Kaiser Bill came in style. No walking for him. The wall between the Jaffa Gate and citadel was torn down and its moat filled in on orders from Sultan Abdel Hamid II to enable the Kaiser and his wife and their huge entourage (looked after in grand style by Thomas Cook Tourism & Travel) to motor into the Old City (again, read Sebag-Montefiore’s  amusing account).

Twenty years later, General Allenby and his British Army marched through the gate. The good general entered on foot just like old Omar. It would be fun to imagine that he made his proclamation of the liberation of Jerusalem from one of those balconies (probably the big one in the centre, which now serves the office of the present proprietor Walid Dajani); but the reality is that he marched right past the hotel, veered right, and ascending the imposing steps of Kings David’s Citadel, deliver his oration there (although he may have indeed lodged at the New Imperial during his brief sojourn). He spoke of how the Holy City had now been freed from the Turkish yoke, and that, safe in the bosom of His Majesty’s forces, the Palestinians, in all their diversity, Jews, Christians and Muslims, would enter a new era of health, wealth and happiness. If he was aware of the nefarious dealings of Messrs Sykes and Picot, and the arrangement made by Lloyd George and Chaim Weizmann, he did not let on. He left the best news for the politicians to reveal a while later, and for the world to agonize over ever since.

So we enter the Twentieth Century, with its momentous political upheavals, the hotel having several changes of management but remaining largely unchanged, with its balconies, and its grand entry staircase. Walid Dajani’s father, Mohammed, took a “protected” tenancy” of the hotel from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1949, In the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel housed a small cinema, and its elegant ballroom was a favourite Palestinian wedding venue. It was damaged during the 1948 war, and during the 1967 Six-Day War, it was used as a base by Israeli troops, then returned to the Dajani family, the tenants of the property. It is, as far as we know, still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a status that ten years ago gave rise to a curious controversy about its future status, and in 2019, to a High Court appeal of its sale, and that of The Petra Hotel, to a shadowy right wing Jewish group – see the link below.

And thence to the present, with Sayyid Dajani greeting us like long-lost relatives, “ahlan wa sahlan bil Quds”.

© Paul Hemphill 2014.  All rights reserved

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

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 Imperial 1