In 1917, when life was very slow in Jerusalem a small Ottoman town was facing a new and exciting chapter in its history.
With a cavalry of 17,000 horsemen, 75,000 soldiers, Britain embarked upon a historical journey of conquest to make Jerusalem the Jewel in the Crown of the Empire. Following the fall of Beer-Sheva, Gaza and Jaffa, the British proceeded to Jerusalem which they reached in December after a costly campaign.
The Turkish army, hungry, humiliated and depleted, retreated to the east. Jerusalem would surrender without a fight and escape the destruction of war.
The Bible-loving British, enamoured with the romance of the east, were determined to preserve the romantic image of Jerusalem. They even went as far as bringing glass blowers from Hebron and Armenian potters from Turkey.
When General Allenby arrived he was welcomed as a protector of the people, a saviour and a rescuer. The Arabs named him a "prophet”, while the Jews thought he was a " Messiah”. In his greetings Allenby addressed the people of the land as though they were one united people and not two rival nations.
In the train station Sir Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner, was welcomed with a full military ceremony. As he settled in, Jerusalem, once again, became the capital of Palestine.
Samuel was a Jew and a Zionist. The Jews of the city welcomed him with enthusiasm. After 2000 years a Jew will, once again, rule the City of David. He promised to urge the city and the country forward, into the twentieth century, encouraged development and brought prosperity to all, including the Arabs of the land.
The British invested great efforts and resources in preserving the historical sites of Jerusalem. In 1918, Governor Ronald Storrs founded the "Pro-Jerusalem” Commission which restored the walls of the Old City and the Citadel. Here we see a proud and excited Prof. Nachum Slutch, uncovering the Avshalom Monument.
It was also In 1918 that the corner stone of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem was laid. It was hoped that all those Jewish students who had been rejected by the universities in East Europe would be able to study here. The Jewish Studies Institute and the Chemistry Building were completed before the opening of the University. The staff included 7 professors and 30 teachers. In 1925, the University was inaugurated with a festive ceremony. Among the 12,000 guests were the High Commissioner, Chief Rabbi Kook, Chaim Weismann, and, of course, Lord Balfour, the guest of honor.
During their short stay in Jerusalem the British designers prepared five development plans for the city. All of them were careful to preserve the Old City and build the New City in such a way as to maintain an open view towards the Cld City. This view has always been preserved.
Plummer, the second High Commissioner, was a professional military man. Nevertheless, he found himself laying corner stones in Jerusalem. During his time Jerusalem was quiet. The Administration’s hold of the country was stabilized, construction works continued, and medical care was improved.
The twenties saw the building of what the British termed the "Garden City”. Neighborhoods were carefully constructed with symmetric streets, boulevards and public parks. The trees grew and the boulevards became multi-routed roads.
The wealthy built villas. "Villa Lea” was a gift from a rich Arab to his Jewish lover, Lea Tennebaum. Later the villa was rented by the Ethiopian emperor, Heila Seilasi, who chose Rehavia to be his home in exile.
Rich Arabs, like the merchant Constantine Salame, built modern, neo-classical styled houses. In the opulent Arab districts, strange combinations of arches, minarets, and Armenian tiles were the rage. The British prohibited the use of materials like asbestos, tin, red roof tiles and even concrete, and gradually directed construction towards the use of stone, thus determining the unique style of the city which has been preserved ever since.
The architectural style of the YMCA is characteristic of the public buildings of Jerusalem that were built during the British Mandate. The Y building is a fascinating mixture of cultures and religions as was Palestine itself: a combination of Byzantine, Roman and Muslim elements, with a touch of American influence. The tower was designed by the American architect who also built the Empire State building in New York.
Zion Square today is a poor reflection of the square during the thirties and the forties. It was then the commercial and social centre of Jerusalem, bustling with life and full of "action”, with everybody coming and going, buying and selling. Zion Square was definitely the place where one could get the most fashionable ties at a bargain price.
In a passionate ceremony High Commission Plummer opened the connection between Palestine and the world. The first airplane, aptly named "Jerusalem”, flew from London to Bombay, with a stop-over in Jerusalem.
The British army built a rail system to facilitate the transportation of supplies for the army. When civil trains started to use the rails, the British Treasury demanded a reimbursement of one million pounds sterling from the government of Palestine. And they paid!.
About 1,000 kilometers of good roads were built all over the country, but only a few people could afford the upkeep of a private car. Most of people used public transportation. However, the British police kept things running smoothly. And a propaganda film was made to encourage enlistment to the Palestine police.
The fire brigades were identical to those operating in England. One can still find British mailboxes in Jerusalem that were made in England. However, the public phone booths have disappeared from the streets of Jerusalem and the telephone operators who maintained their British politeness even when the lines were terribly busy are gone too.
Seven High Commissioners came and went and the Administration in Palestine, which started out with 2,500 employees during the reign of Herbert Samuel, numbered 30,000 at the end of the Mandate. Jerusalem’s character as a city of civil servants was determined at that time.
Many distinguished visitors came to Jerusalem. In 1922, Churchill, the Minister in charge of the Colonies, arrived, accompanied by Lawrence of Arabia. King Abdallah, who had to make do with Transjordan, also visited Jerusalem. Albert Einstein was a guest of the Hebrew University. Only a few understood the lecture he delivered on the Theory of Relativity. He also found time to play the violin in Norman Bentwich’s house.
Writers like Bernard Shaw and Rudiard Kipling, musicians like Yasha Heifetz and Toscanini visited Jerusalem. During the British Mandate cultural life bloomed. Here the rulers of the country lived in a bubble - reflecting their homeland: play tennis in the morning, sip tea at five o’clock, change for dinner, and dance the night away in lavish balls. The Zion film theatre hosted operas while the film theatres daily screened the news reels.
These were the last days of the British Mandate. While the British soldiers packed their kitbags, the civil servants gathered their souvenirs. And the children bid a sad farewell to their schoolmates.
Being the responsible bureaucrats that they were, the British could not leave behind an administrative vacuum and witness the deterioration of the administration they had carefully built for 30 years. Thus, the British administration was handed over to the soon-to-be established Jewish state. At the High Commissioner’s Residence in Jerusalem, the High Commissioner surveyed the Guard of Honor for the last time before leaving for Haifa. From there he would sail to England. The British flag was removed but the British Legacy would remain and with it, perhaps, longings for the Mandate that was and will never be again.