When Empires Crumbled and Jerusalem's Skyline Changed

A look at the German Kaiser's visit to the Holy Land in 1898 through the eyes of the enigmatic writer Lydia Mamreoff-Mountford.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Lydia Mamreov-Mountford was a perceptive observer and a charming writer. A lecturer who traveled the world speaking about the Holy Land, Mountford published an article in The New York Times in late November 1898 about the German emperor’s visit to Jerusalem. Kaiser Wilhelm II had arrived in the city in late October, and the Times covered his visit with a few news reports and an editorial. The tone of the coverage was skeptical to mocking, as befitted an event that purported to make history but was really nothing more than a bit of color and a lot of hoo-ha, as the Times said. The paper even allowed Mamreov-Mountford to mention in her article that the Turkish sultan’s mounted escorts appeared to be less stout than those of the kaiser, and to comment: “Perhaps it is because they do not drink beer.”

The Ottoman Empire was about to crumble and the question had arisen as to whom its assets would go. Likewise, the sagas of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire were coming to an end, even if people didn’t yet know it. In the meantime, everyone wanted to secure a foothold in Jerusalem, and their efforts to do so altered the skyline of the city. The kaiser dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, an enormous palace arose thereafter on the Mount of Olives, bearing the name of the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, and on Mount Zion the Dormition Abbey was built. In honor of the imperial entourage’s entrance into the Jaffa Gate plaza, the sultan ordered the moat beside the gate to be filled in, creating the route that leads into the main entrance to the Old City to this day. Nothing more happened.

Mamreov-Mountford was right, then, to devote nearly all of her 1,500-word article to describing the colorful garb of the kaiser and kaiserin, and the robes of the notables who gathered to welcome them. Many of the latter had gold and crimson miters on their heads.

The correspondent herself suited her choice of clothes to the occasion: a light-colored dress with puffed sleeves and a broad belt that accentuated the outline of her apparently massive body, which lent her a notable presence. On her head she wore an enormous bonnet, one that would have befitted the empress herself.

Actually, it is not certain that this is an accurate description of the writer-lecturer, who was 43 at the time of the kaiser’s visit. In one of the photographs now on display at an exhibition about that event, at the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, you see a woman. She is jotting something down in a notebook and is standing among men in fezzes, who may be journalists as well. The curators of the exhibition, Ruth Peled and Renee Sivan, decided that this was Lydia Mamreov von Finkelstein Mountford. It may well be.

Either way, the woman practically deserves an exhibition in her own right. Ron Bartur, who has researched the history of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, found from its records that Lydia Finkelstein was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish family (apparently from Russia) that had converted to Christianity. In 1877, she went to the United States, but upon her return to Palestine, nine years later, the American consulate refused to recognize her citizenship. Her family’s status her mother had once been employed at the consulate and her brother had served as vice-consul was of no avail. She had to wage a battle, which left in its wake many documents, including some concerning her various names, perchance the result of marriage, perchance of fantasy. The consular file describes her as Lydia von Finkelstein Mamreov Mountford, but finally settles on “Madame Mountford.” She died in Florida in 1917. Her lectures on the Christian messiah were eventually collected in book form.

Mamreov-Mountford’s description of the kaiser’s visit as largely a media event also influenced the curators of the new exhibition, which emphasizes the coverage given the visit by the world press. In the history of modern media, this was indeed one of the first events of its kind.

The show at the Tower of David is modest and delightful; the pictures are screened on the walls from a computer, which allows a visitor to zoom in and out, as with a tablet.

Crowning moment

Not far away, in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, copies of documents relating to another visit - less colorful but more important historically - are now also on display. Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, arrived in Jerusalem in the spring of 1921. During his stay, he painted the city's landscapes, and one Sunday afternoon, as he later remarked with profound contempt, he crowned Prince Abdullah emir of Transjordan. Abdullah, who claimed he should rule over Palestine as well, consented to the lesser arrangement in return for 5,000 pounds per month (for a six-month trial period ).

Abdullah was the brother of Faisal, who was about to become king of Iraq. That way the British could say that they were keeping all their promises: The Arabs would receive independence; the French, Syria; and the Jews, western Palestine. The Arabs were bitter, because Palestine was severed from Syria. The Zionists were bitter, because Transjordan was severed from "the national homeland."

Arabs and Jews alike still claimed years later that Churchill had done them both a national injustice. But in general, Churchill is now considered a friend to Zionism; here and there streets are named for him, and one forest, too. The Jerusalem Foundation this week placed the Briton's bust in Mishkenot Sha'ananim; the sculpture came with a donation to the foundation that will pay for an annual lecture.

The documents that were generated during the course of Churchill's visit to Jerusalem also reflect his support for Zionism. As we know, the story of the late British prime minister and the Jews is more complex, just like the story of Kaiser Wilhelm, whom the Jews of Jerusalem received with such great honor. Indeed, Wilhelm's meeting with Theodor Herzl came to naught, and before his death in 1941, he found time to develop a correct relationship with Adolf Hitler.

The kaiser's visit to Jerusalem in 1898Credit: Courtesy



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