Fit for a King? How Israel's Lavishly Planned Mausoleum Ended Up as a Tent

A new study depicts the ordeal - financial as well as bureaucratic - that hindered the construction of Jerusalem's Mount Herzl in the 1950s.

How did Theodor Herzl, the man whose 1902 blueprint for a Jewish state included a vision of a built-up Haifa and was titled "Tel Aviv," come to be buried in Jerusalem?

This fact shows that the development of Mount Herzl and the final resting place of the founder of political Zionism was shaped more by the government's budget and bureaucracy than by an overarching architectural vision, according to a study recently published in Cathedra, a journal for Holy Land studies.

"On 17 August 1949, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, was re-interred in Jerusalem," write Michal Naor Wiernik and Doron Bar. "His second funeral in western Jerusalem sanctified Mount Herzl, the highest peak in the city, turning it to a national site. Mount Herzl was developed as a focal point for the newborn state, a binding link between Herzl's prophecy and its fulfillment."

The article focuses on the site's development prior to 1960, when Israel celebrated the centenary of Herzl's birth. "It points to a decisive gap between the impressive plans for the tomb and its environs and the actual reality which prevailed on the site," according to the article abstract. A "proposal to build a massive dome above the grave was never adopted and in 1960, Herzl's resting place was covered by a black granite tombstone and was left open to its surroundings."

Herzl died in Austria in 1904, writing in his will that he wanted to be buried in an iron casket to make it easier for his remains to be moved to Israel.

By the end of 1948, even before the last battles of the War of Independence had ended, the government established a committee tasked with bringing over Herzl's remains from Vienna. At the time, it wasn't at all clear that Jerusalem would be the city honored with his grave. In his writings, Herzl did not attribute great importance to the city, and Haifa, which plays a prominent role in his novel, "Altneuland," requested the honor. So did Tel Aviv, which was named after the Hebrew title of "Altneuland."

But on August 17, 1949, Herzl's remains were brought into Jerusalem, where he was buried in a simple grave. In 1950 the World Zionist Organization announced an architectural competition for designing a grave for Herzl that would give expression "to the feelings of honor and admiration" for the man who was considered one of the most important symbols of Zionism and Israeli sovereignty.

Some 120 architects from around the world expressed an interest and 60 submitted plans. The winner was the only architect who proposed a Jerusalem location: Joseph Klarwein, who also ended up designing the Knesset building.

Klarwein designed a six-meter dome to go above the grave, essentially turning it into a kind of national mausoleum.

But it rapidly became clear that funding was a problem. The Finance Ministry refused to subsidize the project and its real cost turned out to be higher than the initial estimates. The project got stuck, even as masses of Israelis flocked to his grave, where they held both public and private ceremonies.

The Jewish National Fund and the Labor Ministry provided some temporary landscaping nearby, as part of a jobs program, and the media began a campaign against the government's decision to save money on Herzl's grave, of all causes.

"We have 100,000 liras to plan the Negev city of Dimona, hundreds of thousands and even millions of liras for overseas delegations and luxury cars for our ambassadors," wrote Yedioth Ahronoth editor-in-chief Herzl Rosenblum in May 1954. "When we need to stop, where do we start saving? Herzl's tomb."

But over time, the public got used to the simple design of Herzl's grave, with visitors the world over praising "the feeling of sanctity and quiet" it is said to evoke, according to Naor Wiernik and Bar. All the same, disagreements over whether to build the dome continued until late 1959, when the World Zionist Congress decided to officially shelve the original plans.

Herzl’s funeral in Jerusalem in 1949. In the background, a tent erected temporarily over the grave
Government Press Office