Jerusalem convent
The Jerusalem convent after the 1948 Independence War. Photo by Courtesy of Soeurs Reparatrices
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Construction work on Jerusalem's light rail system has unearthed the remains of a convent that was destroyed during the 1948 War of Independence.

The findings, from Tzahal Square in downtown Jerusalem, include intact bottles of perfume, a British soldier's rusty fife, bronze statues of Jesus and bullet and shell casings.

The story of the Soeurs Reparatrices convent, which was built in 1888, is told in "O Jerusalem!," the monumental work on the war by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

"The struggle for Jerusalem had brought pandemonium into the lives of a special category of its citizens, those men and women dedicated to a religious vocation," they wrote. "None of them had their life as completely disrupted as a group of twenty-nine cloistered French nuns who had the immense misfortune to live in what was probably the most exposed building in Jerusalem."

The convent was located right between the Israeli lines and those of the Arab Legion, and its commanding height made it sought after by both sides. It was captured several times, going back and forth between the two armies - a shock for anyone, but especially for nuns "so isolated from the world that the only male many of them had seen for half a century was their priest."

The ruins of the convent and the surrounding buildings were uncovered in two salvage digs conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority as part of the light rail project, one in 2005 and one that started in 2008. Dr. Gerald Finkelstein, who ran the latter, had actually been looking for a medieval moat.

"But suddenly I discovered giant, modern walls," he related. "I began to dig, and I discovered an entire world."

The world in question was that of the French community in Jerusalem in the late 1800s. The convent was part of the French Quarter, a religious, political and civil complex built in an effort to create a French foothold in Ottoman Jerusalem - something other world powers were also trying to do at that time. The quarter gained prestige when the New Gate was opened in the Old City's walls in 1889, giving it direct access to the Old City's Christian Quarter. Treating a building that dates from 1888 as an archaeological find is unusual: Until recently, this status was reserved for findings from before 1700. But recently archaeologists have begun to appreciate the importance of more recent findings, and similar digs are taking place in other locales, such as Jaffa Port.

Finkelstein said all archaeological digs should be required to collect any recent findings they uncover. "Until now, we haven't collected these, and it's a disaster for the history of this land."

For instance, he discovered that near the convent were several souvenir shops catering to Christian pilgrims. The products - figurines of Jesus, crucifixes, decorated boxes - show that not much has changed in the souvenir business in the last 60 years.

As the battle for Jerusalem heated up in 1948, the nuns were finally forced to flee the convent to the nearby Roman Catholic Patriarchate. Once there, wrote Collins and Lapierre, "they were installed in the Archbishop's reception hall. Each of the nuns was assigned a huge red velvet chair which she turned to the wall to form a temporary cell in which to practice the meditations of her order. That evening ... in unfeigned joyfulness, they sang an old French hymn: 'It is May. It is the month of Mary. It is the most beautiful month of the year.'"

A few days later, five of the nuns tried to return to the now empty building. But snipers from both sides, seeing people inside where none were supposed to be, concluded "that the other had occupied the convent" and "opened fire on it."

The nuns managed to flee to safety in the French Hospital across the street. But there they were forced to watch as Israeli sappers, desperate to stop the Arab advance, blew up the convent in a successful attempt to make the road from the Old city impassable to the Legion's tanks.

Some parts of the building survived that explosion, but they were razed after Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, replaced by a new road and Tzahal Square. All that remains of the convent now is a few boxes full of relics in an Antiquities Authority warehouse.