windmill
Montefiore’s windmill in Jerusalem. Photo by Moti Milrod
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When the dog Balak, the protagonist of S.Y. Agnon's novel "Only Yesterday," tires of running away from people, he escapes to the windmill at Mishkenot Sha'ananim in Jerusalem. "And when Balak saw himself at Montefiore's windmill, he was no longer scared, for the windmill was idle and they weren't working in it."

Now, 100 years after Balak's time and 135 years after it stopped operating, the historic site is to be powered by wind once again. And just to be on the safe side, an electric motor is being installed too.

The windmill, a familiar tourist destination, is also well-known as a failed project of the British philanthropist Moses Montefiore. The idea apparently came to him on a visit here in 1855, and its objective was to break the Arab monopoly on flour mills and supply work to Jews outside the Old City walls.

In 1857, Thomas Richard Holman, who came from a family of British windmill builders, arrived in Jerusalem to erect it. Shaul Sapir, who has studied the windmill's history and published an article on the topic, cites a report in the newspaper Hamagid from December 1858: "The building is magnificently constructed with all the latest concepts and newest stratagems of grindstones in our day."

The article also reports that Arab grinders tried to sabotage the venture by paying someone to cast a curse on it. Agnon wrote: "And the Arabs saw and were jealous. They hired an old man to curse the windmill. He turned his eyes to the windmill and said, I guarantee you that when the rains come and the winds come, they will make it into an everlasting ruin, and the rains came and the winds came and didn't do anything to it."

But perhaps the curses worked after all, as the windmill functioned for just 20 years. The most prevalent theory is that the windmill was mistakenly constructed at a location where there isn't actually much wind. Sapir reports this claim in his article, explaining that before the neighborhood was built around the site, the wind flow in the area was better than it is today.

Another explanation is that the windmill was suitable for grinding soft European wheat, but not for the hard and dry local variety. Sapir also finds this explanation unreasonable, considering the facility's sophisticated mechanisms. It may be that during that time, millers switched to steam-driven mills and so there was a lack of replacement parts for windmills.

In any case, sometime in the middle of the 1870s, the sails of Montefiore's windmill turned for the last time.

All wind (and maybe some electric )

The British Mandate authorities renovated the structure, but in 1948, after the Haganah forces turned its dome into a sniping position, the British blew it off. At the end of the 1960s the dome was restored and in 1998 the Jerusalem Foundation funded a reconstruction of the entire building, including the sails.

Unlike these earlier projects, which concentrated on the outside of the mill, the Jerusalem Foundation now plans to rebuild the internal mechanisms and put the windmill back into operation.

The building's original dome was completely different from the one it has today; it had an axis which allowed it to move in the wind. A weather vane wheel that directed the sails toward the wind was in the back. The present sails are also different from the originals, which were made of a kind of fabric shutter that could be aimed to maximize the operation of the grindstones.

The lastest renovation project, at a cost of NIS 3 million, is the initiative of a group of Dutch Christians, the Jerusalem Foundation and the city of Jerusalem. Engineers from Holland (the land of windmills ) and England (where the structure will be produced ) have been hired. In Israel, architect Gobi Cartis will supervise.

According to estimates, it will take about 18 months for the project to be completed. When it is finished, the building will be entirely wind-powered, where it will be possible to demonstrate the grinding of wheat into flour.

"We foresee the windmill working entirely on wind power, but we are also examining the possibility of adding an electric system, so that children who come here from far away won't stand in front of an idle windmill," says Haim Barimboim, technical director of the Jerusalem Foundation.