Liberation or Occupation: Reliving Britain’s Dramatic Conquest of Jerusalem 100 Years Ago

'Jerusalem is never really conquered,' says the curator of a Tower of David Museum exhibit marking 100 years after the city's British conquest

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A painting of the declaration of the conquer of Jerusalem by the British forces.
A painting of the declaration of the conquer of Jerusalem by the British forces.Credit: The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Six weeks passed between the storm of Australian horsemen that conquered Be’er Sheva and the entrance of the British army into Jerusalem. The Ottoman army, which fought bravely in late October and tried to block the rapid cavalry advances in the Negev, dissipated in early December in Jerusalem’s cool air.

General Allenby.Credit: American National Red Cross Collection- Library of Congress

For more than 2,500 years, officers had marched through the city to “liberate” it, always liberating it until the next conqueror arrived. So it was with the Babyloninan Nebuzaradan, Rome’s Titus, the Muslim Omar Ibn al-Khattab and the Crusader kings in the 11th century. So it was with the Mamluks and so it was as well for Sultan Selim I, who took Jerusalem without a battle, liberating it for the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, it is no surprise that the entry of Gen. Edmund Allenby through Jaffa Gate was so well documented.

The British conquest of Jerusalem was different than the victory in Be’er Sheva in every way. Even though the city didn’t have any strategic or military importance in 1917, the significance of entering the Old City was never lost on any general, whether his name was Allenby, Charles Watson or John Shea, or Mordechai “Motta” Gur, Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan or Uzi Narkiss. All of them knew exactly where the cameras would be snapping and in which alley the history books would be bound. It’s no coincidence that they marched, poised, precisely to that spot.

The British had waited 600 years – ever since the Crusades – for the right opportunity to liberate the city from its Muslim occupiers. The Ottoman army withdrew without a fight. The British, whether out of sensitivity or finesse, didn’t stress the religious aspects of the conquest. They showed respect to members of all the religions and immediately announced the importance of preserving the holy places.

From the exhibition: A photograph of General Allenby’s enters Jerusalem through Jaffa Gate. Credit: The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem

Now the stars are aligning to bring together the important anniversaries of a host of historical events, which have spurred writers, curators and lovers of the past to compare and draw intelligent conclusions in retrospect. A hundred years since the Balfour Declaration; 100 years since the conquest of Jerusalem and the end of Ottoman control; 50 years since the liberation/occupation of the city during the Six-Day War. Could we have asked the stars for a more lengthy and orderly line?

A new exhibition at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum, “A General and a Gentleman – Allenby Returns to the Tower of David,” opens on December 11, exactly 100 years after the city’s conquest, with a ceremony at the Jaffa Gate plaza that will recreate the events of the day. On the steps of the Tower of David, there will be a reenactment of the historic photo that shows Allenby declaring the launch of British rule in Jerusalem. Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, who curated the exhibit along with Dina Grossman, says it describes the sequence of dramatic events that occurred during the fateful week that began on the morning of December 8, 1917, when the Turks fled the city and a new era dawned in Jerusalem.

A painted photograph: General Allenby entering Jerusalem.Credit: The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem

The exhibition features videos, photographs, original and rare objects, certificates, posters, mementos and personal tourism albums. The white flag used to surrender, improvised from sheets, will be shown along with Torah scrolls, Hanukkah menorahs and other artifacts. Many of the items on display were borrowed from private collections and museums in Britain especially for the exhibition, which will run until September 2018.

Not easy to surrender

Immediately after the withdrawal of the Turkish forces, Jerusalem Mayor Hussein Salim al-Husayni organized a surrender delegation, bringing along photographer Hol Lars “Lewis” Larsson. En route, the group stopped at the Italian Hospital, took a sheet off one of the beds and attached it to a broomstick to make a surrender flag.

At around 5 A.M. the delegation saw two British army cooks who had been sent to buy eggs from a nearby village and had lost their way. The delegation hastened to give themselves up to the two sergeants, but they refused to accept the letter of surrender and went to look for their commander.

While they were making their way to their base, British patrol sergeants suddenly appeared with guns drawn and demanded that the delegation members identify themselves. The mayor tried to surrender to them, but they also refused; they did, however agree to be photographed with the delegation.

Several hours later Brig. Gen. Watson arrived and was presented to the mayor. Watson agreed to accept the surrender in Gen. Edmund Allenby’s name and the entire group proceeded to Shaare Zedek Hospital to celebrate with tea and cookies.

The ceremony of the declaration of the conquest of Jerusalem.Credit: Matson photograph collection - Library of Congress

The next day, when Larsson brought the photos from the ceremony to Maj. Gen. John Shea, the latter was furious at Watson for accepting the surrender and demanded that the photos be destroyed.

Two days later Allenby arrived in Jerusalem. The general dismounted his horse in front of Jaffa Gate and entered the city on foot as a gesture of respect to the exalted status of Jerusalem. Allenby voided the previous surrender ceremonies and insisted that another ceremony be conducted in his presence. Al-Husayni, however, missed this one, because he had contracted the pneumonia, from which he would die a short time later.

In his diary, Allenby wrote, “I entered the city officially at noon, December 11th, with a few of my staff, the commanders of the French and Italian detachments, the heads of the political missions, and the Military Attaches of France, Italy, and America.

A painting of the declaration of the conquer of Jerusalem by the British forces.Credit: The Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem

“The procession was all afoot, and at Jaffa gate I was received by the guards representing England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, India, France, and Italy. The population received me well.”

Liberation or occupation?

Marking the centennial of the Battle of Be’er Sheva at the end of October, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Exactly 100 years ago, brave ANZAC [Australia and New Zealand Army Corps] soldiers liberated Be’er Sheva for the sons and daughters of Abraham, and opened the gateway for the Jewish people to reenter the stage of history.”

The official Be’er Sheva municipality announcement similarly said, “October 31, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the liberation of Be’er Sheva by the British and ANZAC forces from the Ottoman Empire during World War I.”

So did the British conquer Be’er Sheva or liberate it? And what about Jerusalem? Was it conquered or liberated? “A Hanukkah miracle” and “a Christmas present” are two contemporary descriptions of the British takeover of Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is never really conquered, and it seems as if, practically speaking, it’s a city that conquers its conquerors,” says curator Shalev-Khalifa. “The conquest of Jerusalem in 1917 differed from its predecessors. The new rulers were awed by the ancient city’s holiness, entered its gates on tiptoe and believed that they had internalized the lessons of the past. These feelings resonated in the ideas, images, forms and symbols that they used in shaping the ceremonies and memorials that marked the conquest and became the basis for legends and myths.”

She adds, however, that everyone who has conquered Jerusalem has tried to clarify that everything that happened there earlier was in error. Certainly, God sent him on this fateful mission and no one will follow in his footsteps. His conquest, he is sure, will be the last.

“The city shakes them all off and no one remains here forever,” says Shalev-Khalifa. The British takeover of the city was also presented as the city’s rebirth and rededication in the modern era. “Nothing is innocent in Jerusalem,” she says. “Everything is heavy and full of meanings.”

The Tower of David exhibition presents a timeline of seven previous conquests of Jerusalem. According to Shalev-Khalifa, the most prominent characteristic of the British conquest of the city was that the symbol of liberated Judea was immediately published. The Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, which opened a decade prior, minted coins featuring a female figure breaking her chains. There were also medallions with Judah Maccabee and the menorah. In the declaration that Allenby read on the steps of the Tower of David, only five weeks after the Balfour Declaration had been issued, he announced in seven languages that the British had received a trust that belonged to everyone and implored the residents to preserve the holy places. Hebrew got an official stamp of approval in the announcement. Shalev-Khalifa describes Allenby’s declaration as “amazing.”

When I ask her to stretch the historical comparison a bit more and compare Allenby’s entrance into the Old City to Rabin’s and Gur’s in 1967, Shalev-Khalifa isn’t eager to respond. “We present the findings and every visitor will see the displays and have whatever opinion he had before reinforced. This city is a concept that controls people; it’s a creature that cannot be controlled.”

Prof. Yigal Sheffy, a military historian at Tel Aviv University, explains that the British captured the city after 400 years of legitimate Ottoman rule. “There were groups in Jerusalem that saw it as liberation, perhaps as liberation from tyranny or harsh environmental conditions, but there is no doubt that the Muslim residents didn’t see it as a liberation. The Jewish Yishuv was the only community that saw Allenby’s entrance into the city as the lifting of a burden and the end of a period of suffering,” he said, referring to the Jewish community in Palestine.

According to most accepted estimates, at the time Jerusalem had 70,000 residents: 45,000 Jews, 12,000 Muslims and 13,000 Christians. Sheffy notes that it was actually the British who saw the conquest of Jerusalem as a liberation in religious terms. For them it was revenge for the failure of the Crusades 600 years earlier.

According to Sheffy, the word “liberation” has ideological, not historical connotations, and as a result, it isn’t appropriate to describe the events of December 1917 as such. The British, he says, stressed the replacement of a tyrannical regime, not the overthrow of Muslim rule.

According to Sheffy, the significance of the conquest of Jerusalem was primarily political. The city has enormous symbolic value and its takeover was an achievement that could be presented to the British people as a rare success at the time. This achievement also advanced Allenby’s career; until then he was considered a good commander but not particularly outstanding. If he hadn’t come to Jerusalem he would not have stood out in any way from the other generals in the region.

When I asked Sheffy to compare Allenby to Gur, he thinks a moment and replies that such a comparison is not unfounded.

An album with dried flowers sold as a souvenir to the British soldiers.Credit: Collection of Dr. Nava and Dr. Michael Paran

“In both instances the accomplishment in Jerusalem gave the generals publicity, prestige and a reputation. Others fought no less and perhaps even more, but the taking of the Western Wall and the Old City made a name for Motta Gur, who until then was a pretty unknown Paratroop Brigade commander, and it paved his way to becoming chief of general staff. The conquest of Jerusalem provided Allenby with an immediate promotion: He was appointed high commissioner in Egypt. He was also given a title and chose to be known as Viscount Allenby of Megiddo. When he returned to Britain he was appointed to the House of Lords. Gur later served as a minister in the Israeli government.”

The backdrop is ready

For more than an hour I stand in front of Jaffa Gate, looking around. The lovely gate was built in 1538. Sultan Suleiman ordered it built as part of the city walls that were erected in the 16th century. In 1898, in preparation for the arrival of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a wider entrance was breached through the wall next to Jaffa Gate so that the Kaiser could enter the city with his carriage.

As soon as you cross through the gate you reach Omar Ibn al-Khattab Square, named for the seventh-century caliph who “liberated” the city from the Byzantines. There is a hotel nearby that was once called the Grand New Hotel, then the Central Hotel, the Lloyd Hotel, the Fast Hotel, the Imperial Hotel, and now the New Imperial Hotel, managed by the Al-Dajani family. You can get a room there for only $99 a night. Guests who stayed there last week wrote on the hotel’s website that they had a “historical experience.”

Overlooking the gate is the Tower of David and the Citadel. Missing is the lovely high clock tower that appears in old photos and was later destroyed by the British because they didn’t think it was appropriate for the site. But all this is just the backdrop. The grand performance takes place here all day, every day.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (c), Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin (r) and Jerusalem Commander Uzi Narkis walk through the Lion's Gate into the Old City, June 7, 1967. Credit: Ilan Bruner, GPO



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