Jerusalem and the Great War

World War I, the Great War, has been in the forefront of Israeli news this fall. Starting from the remembrance of the battle of Beer Sheva to the upcoming celebrations commemorating General Allenby accepting the keys to Jerusalem on the steps of the Tower of David, these events from 100 years ago have captured interest in the Israeli tourism scene.

One myth about the events of this conflict is that Jerusalem was won without a battle. One conjures up a picture of Allenby strolling up to Jaffa Gate and knocking only to find no Ottoman’s around. The subtext here is that the Ottoman’s didn’t care about Jerusalem.

The reality is very different and does not honor the soldiers who died in her defense and capture. Once again, definitions play a large role in perpetrating the myth. According to the Ottomans and the British, “Jerusalem” consisted of the Old City only. The established neighborhoods and mountains surrounding the Old City were not considered by them to be the essence of Jerusalem. These locales, however, saw fierce battles which took place on the night between December 8/9. The sites within today’s Jerusalem: Gilo, Ein Kerem, Mt. Hertzl (including the campus of Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum), Har Nof and Har Menuchot cemetery, were all battlegrounds in the fight for Jerusalem.WWI - Nebi Samuel

The logistics of these battles were difficult and required the British to transverse on foot deep valleys and sever slopes around Jerusalem with their gear at night in the rain. The Ottomans, who were expecting the British onslaught, were well situated in entrenched positions on top of the hills. Some of the Ottoman trenches survive until today and can be easily discerned. About 2000 British soldiers and an estimated larger number of Ottoman soldiers gave their lives during these battles. With the British success in capturing Ottoman positions around the Old City, the Ottomans drew back and surrendered. The holy sites within the Old City escaped armed conflict and on December 11, 1907, General Allenby accepted the keys of the city and ended 673 years of Moslem rule.

Jerusalem has been fought over throughout her history and 100 years ago was no different. Perpetuating the myth of an uncontested capture of the city paints a one-sided vision of the reverence the Jerusalem’s holiness. In actuality, the respect for Jerusalem’s holy places by both sides in the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the British, is what kept the Old City out of the fray.

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