Jerusalem’s Russian Quarter

jerusalem mosqueJerusalem’s Russian Quarter

The peripatetic Bill Hartley reports

During the nineteenth century various European powers set out to establish a presence in Jerusalem. For example, Austro Hungary managed to squeeze a post office into the old city just opposite the Jaffa Gate. It didn’t prosper. Presumably non citizens of the empire saw no advantage in having their mail routed through Vienna.

Russia created a much larger presence and even today the district where they established themselves is still known as the Russian Quarter. It began in 1859 following the visit of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, brother of Tsar Alexander II. The building which dominates the Quarter is the Holy Trinity Cathedral. This was opened in 1872. Built in the Orthodox style, it looks as if it has no right to be there but adds emphasis to the fact that back then Russia sent the largest number of pilgrims to the city.

In 1914 life became difficult in the Quarter when Russia declared war on the Ottoman empire of Turkey, which ruled Jerusalem at the time. By 1918 it was likely that the Bolsheviks had more important priorities than to bolster the Orthodox religion in Jerusalem. As a consequence the status of the other buildings in the Quarter remained unclear right up to the 1960s, when the Soviet government sold them to Israel. Before this happened though, other uses were found for them. During the war the Ottoman military headquarters was located here and in 1917 suffered aerial bombardment by the British.

By 1918 the League of Nations mandate gave control of the city and Palestine to Britain. Throughout former parts of the empire examples of British municipal practice can be found and Jerusalem is no exception. In Britain it was usual where possible, to place the various branches of justice in close proximity and the same approach was adopted in Jerusalem. In the Russian Quarter a former hostel for male pilgrims was converted into a court house and is still used as such today. Across the road another building is Jerusalem’s main police station.

A visitor would have to look somewhat harder to find the third branch of the justice system. Israeli cops aren’t the tidiest when it comes to parking and the narrow streets of the Russian Quarter are littered with their vehicles. Hidden away at the rear of the police station lies the entrance to what was once the Central Prison of Jerusalem. A scruffy British era signpost is still fastened to the railings and admission is through an iron gate. Originally this building was the Marianskaya Hostel for female pilgrims to Jerusalem.

Grand duchesses presumably excepted, female pilgrims were provided with very basic shared accommodation. This consisted of high ceilinged multiple occupancy cells, opening out into a corridor in a single story building, set round a central courtyard. The hostel had stood empty for several years following the First World War before someone in the British administration decided that it would make a good prison. Externally this was achieved by fitting bars over the windows. Internally the former pilgrim’s accommodation was secured with floor to ceiling bars and gates. Occupancy was ten prisoners per cell sleeping on floor mats. Subsequently this evolved from being a place for holding criminal prisoners, into the British security headquarters during the last years of the Mandate and became known to the Zionists as ‘Bevingrad’ after the foreign secretary.

Originally it had operated as a typical British style prison with no distinction being made between the religions and was staffed at the lower levels by both Jews and Arabs. Whilst for much of its time under British control this worked reasonably well, by 1947 life inside the prison was beginning to reflect tensions in the city. Eventually the jail was separated into two halves with Jews in the north end and Arabs in the south. A third category was the political prisoners of the Jewish underground.

Today the building operates as the Museum of the Underground Prisoners of Jerusalem and must rate as one of the city’s more obscure tourist attractions. For anyone with a knowledge of prison security, it gives some lessons in why turning a building designed for another purpose into a prison is a very bad idea. For one thing it lacked a secure perimeter and an effective way of screening who or what came into the grounds. Former army officers appointed to senior positions in the Palestine administration did not necessarily make effective security managers. They chose to rely heavily on posting armed guards on the rooftops when prisoners were out of their cells. Little wonder then that one escape involved prisoners digging a tunnel in a corner of their cell to connect to a sewer pipe outside. Then in league with maintenance workers they made their getaway from the grounds. It illustrates how amateurish things were; that work could be have been done on a sewer pipe only feet away from the outer wall of a cell, without any additional precautions being taken.

British military courts did hand out some death sentences. A working gallows still exists on the premises but presumably was used mainly for criminal prisoners. The British did most of their executions of convicted terrorists in the town of Acre, perhaps because they were mindful of the risk of provoking riots in Jerusalem. Two men who were due to be executed on the premises chose to commit suicide the night before, using a smuggled hand grenade to kill themselves. Yet another example of how even the most important prisoners weren’t guarded properly. The British authorities executed only thirteen of the Jewish underground during the Mandate. In contrast 100 Arabs were hanged during the same period, though presumably most were for criminal offences.

The jail provides an interesting example of British prison practice exported to the Near East. All the familiar functions can be found there; clothing stores, property stores, workshops, bakery and so forth. It seems that the British also exported many of the security shortcomings which continued to plague prisons at home up to the 1980s.

WILLIAM HARTLEY is a freelance writer from Yorkshire


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