A formation of men wearing Turkish maroon fezzes tapped silver-topped wooden canes on the limestone pavement in unison Monday as they marched just ahead of the British General Field Marshal Edmund Allenby (or rather, the Israeli actor playing him) as he entered Jaffa Gate of the Old City on the way to officially “liberate” Jerusalem from 400 years of Ottoman rule.
Palestinians and Israelis, tourists, Christian pilgrims and schoolchildren thronged the group as they reenacted the victorious walk of the general who commanded the forces of the British Empire that conquered Palestine 100 years ago to the day. The original Allenby’s entourage included his British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers and representatives and the empire’s allies, France and Italy.
Similar blue clear skies over Jerusalem greeted the conquering British forces on December 11, 1917. And at 2 P.M., when Allenby read out the British proclamation taking control of the city from the entrance of the hulking stone edifice of the Tower of David 100 years ago, so, in Monday’s reenactment, did the current Lord Allenby – Edmund’s great-great nephew Henry Allenby, who bears the title he inherited, the 4th Viscount Allenby of Megiddo.
At the entrance of the ancient citadel that is now a museum of Jerusalem’s history, the current Lord Allenby read out the proclamation in English to the crowds gathered below as their cell phones snapped pictures.
His great-great uncle’s words noted the importance of Jerusalem and informed city’s residents to continue with their usual lives and traditions: “I make known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest of customary place of prayer, of whatsoever form of the three religions, will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faiths they are sacred.” Just as it was a century ago, the proclamation was then read aloud in French, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Greek and Italian. But on Monday it was also read in Armenian, acknowledging the Armenian community in the Old City.
The ceremonial reading of the proclamation was just another reminder that this city has seen its fair share of them over the centuries as it was ruled by various powers. The most recent one came last Wednesday from U.S. President Donald Trump, who announced that his government formally recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. His words broke the precedent set by previous administrations, which left the final status of Jerusalem, including mostly Arab-populated East Jerusalem, to a future peace deal.
In response to Trump’s declaration, Palestinian protestors took the streets in the West Bank, Gaza and in more limited numbers, in Jerusalem.
The city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, spoke at the reenactment and used the stage to state (in Hebrew but not in English), “I have no doubt that Trump’s declaration will strengthen the city of Jerusalem.”
Trump’s speech, the clashes that followed and predictions and threats of more to come prompted Lady Sarah Allenby, the mother of the current Lord Allenby, to comment on the centenary of British conquest of Jerusalem: “Trump trumped it.”
The unrest almost made John Benson think twice about making the trip to Jerusalem for the centennial celebration. Benson is the great-grandson of Major General John Shea, who commanded the Battle of Jerusalem and was the first to get the keys to the city from the mayor. But he says he is relieved that he arrived for what is his first visit to the city and to Israel.
“I am sure he would be dismayed that a lasting peace in a city he helped liberate has not yet been found,” said Benson, who was five when his great-grandfather died and still remembers him. He also remembers looking at the sword that hung on the general’s living room wall, and now belongs to him – it was given to Shea by the mayor of Jerusalem when he first entered the city.
Benson lent that sword, along with several photographs from the Sinai and Palestine campaign, to the Tower of David Museum for its exhibit on the centenary, called “A General and a Gentleman – Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem,” which opened Monday.
It tracks the events of the week that the British took control of Jerusalem. It includes the white surrender flag offered by the defeated Ottomans, which was hastily fashioned from a ripped bedsheet, a broomstick, the original keys to the city of Jerusalem and mementos of the soldiers like travel journals and photo albums.
The exhibition also addresses the historical mystery of whether Jerusalem was actually first surrendered to a pair of British cooks who were on searching for eggs for breakfast for the soldiers.
Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, said one of the remarkable things about the British conquest of Jerusalem is that the residents seemed uniformly relieved to have new rulers after the Ottomans. In their final years of rule, she said, the city had become neglected and its people were often hungry and lacking water and basic infrastructure.
The Jews, who were celebrating Hanukkah at the time, took the British victory, together with the Balfour Declaration, issued a month earlier, as something of a modern miracle. The Christians welcomed the British as fellow Christians and the Muslims, who were told that only the prophet Mohammed could liberate them from the Ottomans, found comfort in Allenby’s name, which some, according to the museum staff, likened to “El Nabi,” Arabic for “the Prophet.”
When the British took control, the Tower of David had evolved from its beginnings as a palace built by King Herod to a Byzantine-era dwelling and later a citadel. Soon after Allenby stood on its steps 100 years ago, it became a museum.
“It’s so beautiful here because it was never destroyed. Each culture added their own symbols, their own architecture. It shows how beautiful things can be if people work together,” Lieber said.