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European Land Purchases in the Holy Land *

Introduction – Land Purchases in the Holy Land

The Zionists were not the only colonizers in Palestine. From the late eighteenth century, various Christian denominations began make Land Purchases in the Holy Land, in general, and in Jerusalem in particular. Even today in the Jewish State, many significant areas throughout the country are owned by the various churches. Under what circumstances did the churches begin to invest in European Land Purchases in the Holy Land?

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s Land Purchases in the Holy Land

The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is considered the “Mother Church” of the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox Church is also a custodian of the Holy Places in the Holy Land. The church maintains an unbroken presence at the two most important churches: the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, saw itself as the inheritor of the Byzantine Church. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate held land in Palestine even before 1453 based on Byzantine Law, which was de facto recognized by Ottoman Sultan Mohammed II.

In 1517, Mamluk rule in Palestine was succeeded by that of the Turkish sultans based in Constantinople. The Greek Orthodox communities, taking advantage of the fact that their members were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, came streaming into the Holy Land.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the biggest private owner of land in Jerusalem. It also owns most of the land in the West Bank upon which stand Christian religious sites, including the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

The mid-19th century was a bright period of rehabilitation and renaissance for the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Results of the Greek War of Independence

At the end of The Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) the entire Orthodox Christian world was helped by the now free Greek Nation in charge. Believers contributed with gifts and considerable financial help towards the struggle of reconstruction. Moreover, monks and benefactors, members of the Patriarchate, purchased vast expanses, built churches, restored and rebuilt the ruined monasteries.

The Ottomans enabled Greek Orthodox monks (who were Ottoman subjects) to purchase land and make it available to the church.  During this same period the Ottoman authorities prohibited the sale of land to any person who was not a subject of the empire. Much land was donated to the Greek Orthodox Church by local Orthodox Christians (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Orthodox) in the late 1800’s.

The Ottoman Empire began selling off pieces of land to the Greeks, a community they had more in common with than other Europeans, in the late 1800’s. Over the course of 400 years of Ottoman rule, the Sultan sold mostly agricultural lands around Jerusalem to the Greek Orthodox Church (Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem). These lands are in what is now downtown Jerusalem, Rehavia, Talbieh, and the land around the Knesset and the Israel Museum.

Today, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s compound in the Old City includes 23 churches and monasteries. In addition they own the San Simon complex in Old Katamon, the Monastery of the Cross near the Knesset, land around the Jerusalem railway station, and more property in Talbieh and Rehavia.

Mohammed Ali Pasha took control of of Syria (which included Palestine), and advanced as far north as Adana during the First Egyptian-Ottoman War / First Turko-Egyptian War (1831-1833). The Ottoman Empire was assisted by the European powers (Britain, Russia and Austria) in expelling Mohammed Ali from Syria in 1840 at the end of the Second Egyptian-Ottoman War / Second Turko–Egyptian War (1839-1841).  England and France also assisted the Ottomans in the Crimean War against Russia (1853-1856). Now the Ottoman authorities changed their attitude to the Christian world. The European powers, particularly France, were allowed Capitulations (exemption from local prosecution, local taxation, local conscription, and the searching of their domicile).

In the mid-19th century very few churches were active in Jerusalem. Small sites within the city and on the Mount of Olives were held by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Catholic Franciscan Order, and the Ethiopian Church. The Greek Orthodox Church and various Catholic orders based in Jerusalem started buying up large plots of land outside the Old City.
It was also at that time, after the Second Egyptian–Ottoman War or Turko–Egyptian War (1839–41), that Syria-Palestine, situated in the Arab periphery of the Ottoman Empire was a host to three religions. Syria-Palestine became a battle-ground for the leading European powers’ conflicting religious and political interests.

European Powers’ Land Purchases in the Holy Land

In the 1860’s two different groups were purchasing real estate outside the City Walls of Jerusalem. The Jewish residents of the city began to construct the first residential neighborhoods outside the walls. At the same time, the Christians built hostels to accommodate pilgrims who came to Palestine under the auspices of the consuls from their countries of origin.
  • St. Paul’s Hostel was built in Mamilla by the French church (see below).
  • The Ratisbon monastery and hostel were built by the Pères de Sion
  • Terra Santa monastery and hostel were constructed by the Franciscan Order (The area now forms the neighborhood of Rehavia.)

Jewish community in Jerusalem developed and moved beyond the walls of the Old City. The first new neighborhoods were built amongst the plots acquired by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Russian religious delegation, various Catholic orders (particularly the Franciscans), and the Protestant churches and others.

To make a long story short, there was no ecclesiastical body that did not have a foothold in the Holy Land.

An approach, similar to that of the Ottomans, would be taken centuries later by the British, during the 1920s, when they inherited the situation left by the Turks. When the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate went bankrupt in the early 1920s, the British, who were then in power in Palestine, forced them to sell off pieces of land to the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community.

To understand real estate purchases in this period, one must take into consideration the Ottoman “waqf” law. The “waqf” law states that any person may relinquish land under his ownership and make it available for a “noble cause.” The Ottoman authorities recognized such “waqf” trusteeships even if they were created by foreigners, including Jews and Christians.
Many churches took full advantage of this mechanism. This situation contiued until the middle of the 19th century with the signing of the “Treaty of the Shrines” Status Quo.

Catholic Land Purchases in the Holy Land

The Mamelukes issued “firmans” (royal decrees) to the Franciscan Order recognizing the independence of the Franciscan Order and its right to hold real estate and make land purchases in the Holy Land. This situation was based in part on Catholic canon, which grants this order autonomy in holding real estate. The Ottomans reconfirmed these rights and the order was allowed to hold real estate.

In 1847, the Ottomans permitted the establishment of a Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem  – alongside the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

While losses of rights were experienced in the Basilicas of the Holy Sepulchre, the Nativity and the Tomb of the Virgin in the Valley of Josaphat, the Franciscans acquired new rights in other places.

  • In 1620, they took possession of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and were granted Mount Tabor. The two acquisitions were a result of the benevolence of the Druze Prince Fakhr-al-Din. Read about the architect Antonio Barluzzi here.
  • In 1684, the area of Gethsemane was acquired.
Gethsemane Photo: Tango7174
Gethsemane
Photo: Tango7174

Russian Orthodox Church Land Purchases

Starting at the end of the 1850s, the Russian “Palestine Committee” launched a policy of large-scale land purchases in the Holy Land, in and around the holy city of Jerusalem. Czar Alexander II reigned as Emperor of Russia from 2 March 1855 until his assassination on 13 March 1881. He became concerned about the Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land, and decided to erect the Russian Compound just north of the Old City. The “Orthodox Palestine Society” further reinforced this policy, leading, among other things, to the building of the Russian Compound “Moscobia” near the Old City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russian Compound was composed of Russian Compound pilgrim accommodations, and the Church of the Holy Trinity, which long remained a landmark in Jerusalem.

The Russians also erected a Russian Orthodox cathedral next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – The Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. At the end of the nineteenth century, Imperial Russia sent up to 7,000 pilgrims to the Holy Land every year. This greatly outnumbering the 800-1,000 Catholic pilgrims coming yearly from France, Austria and Italy.
After the Communist revolution orthodox pilgrimage disappeared.  The British changed the structures in to courthouses and prisons. The State of Israel became a state purchased the compound from the Russians by bartering oranges. Today most of the compound is owned by Israel and part by Russia.

The French Compound in Jerusalem – French Land Purchases

Renewed attention to Palestine started during the Enlightenment. It was followed later during Napoleon’s  Egyptian campaign and its inroads into Palestinian (Jaffa and Acre), by French religious revival and scientific interest in rediscovering the Holy Land. A pilgrimage trend was developing in France itself. This first major French mission was set up in 1843 in Jerusalem.

The French Compound in Jerusalem was built in stages in the last quarter of the 19th Century, under the leadership of Comte Marie Paul Amedee de Piellat. De Piellat visited the Holy Land three times. He toured both sides of the Dead Sea, participated in demographic research and help purchase land for Catholic religious societies in Jerusalem, Abu Gosh and Haifa. He was the the French, Christian Montifiori. In his second visit in 1876, he and his mother purchase the property of the French Compound. This property was chosen for several reasons:

  • Close to Jaffa and Nablus Gates (the New Gate was not yet built).
  • It blocked the view from the Old City walls to the new Russian Compound.
  • Close to Church of Holy Sepulchre
  • Identification of the this plot as the camp of Tancred of Hauteville during the First Crusade.

The French Compound in the 1890’s

The French building activity was very slow until the 1870’s and was mostly the work of womens’ societies of nuns. The compound was created between the Russian Compound and the north-west corner of the walls of the Old City, which was opened only in 1890 to create the New Gate. The compound included:

  •  St. Louis Hospital: The hospital was built on land purchased by Comte de Piellat. He donated funds to build the first two stories. The upper two floors and the church were built by the Sisters of Saint Joseph de l’Apparition, who lived in the monastery. Address: Shivtei Israel St 2.
  • Notre Dame de France Hospice (now Notre Dame de Jerusalem): The first “penitential pilgrimage” arrived in 1882. It was named  “Le Grand Caravan de Mille”. It was a pilgrimage of a 1000 rich French Catholics who made their way to Israel only to discover that they had no room to sleep. Moreover the Russian Compound already had accommodations for pilgrims. Better late than never the French hospice was built by religious French Catholics between 1893 and 1894. Notre Dame de France is named for a statue located in the Puy in the center of France molded out of lead melted down from the canons of Sebastopol. The name, a military symbol of the victory over the Russians during the Crimean War, quickly became the religious symbol. The structure contains a chapel and two tall, Baroque towers. Between them is a statue of the Madonna holding the young baby Jesus in her arms. Notre Dame de France was temporarily occupied by Israeli military forces during the War of Independence of Israel. After the Six Day War 1967  it was damaged and was completely renovated in the 1970’s.
 Notre Dame Monastry, 1948
Notre Dame Monastry, 1948
  • Monastery of the Soeurs Marie Reparatrice: The sisters built the monastery with their own funds in 1888 on land purchased by Comte de Piellat. It was destroyed in 1948.
Soeurs Marie Reparatrice during the Mandate Photo: תמר הירדני
Soeurs Marie Reparatrice during the Mandate
Photo: תמר הירדני
  • St. Vincent de Paul Chapel (Hospice Saint Vincent de Paul): The St. Vincent de Paul Chapel is a Catholic chapel that serves the Hospice of St. Vincent de Paul in Jerusalem. It is dedicated to the founder of the Daughters of Charity who also run a hospital and an adjoining nursery. The sisters are present in the Holy Land since 1884.
Hospice Saint Vincent de Paul Photo: ד"ר אבישי טייכר
Hospice Saint Vincent de Paul
Photo: ד”ר אבישי טייכר
  • The French Consulate was also nearby in a rented building which was destroyed during the construction of Kikar Safra.

The Italian Hospital – Italian Land Purchases

The Italian Hospital: The Italians erected a hospital with a chapel and a bell tower at 29 Shivtai Yisrael St. The structure was not completed untill after WWI. During WWII, it was taken by the British Royal Air Force. After independence,  Israel took the structure in 1948 and turned it over to the Ministry of Education.

German Land Purchases in the Holy Land

  • Hospice of St. Paul was the first German mission in Jerusalem. It was set up in 1842 by Prussia. 19th century Jerusalem became a magnet for European pilgrims, leading to the urgent need for hostels and accommodations. German Catholics built the Hospice of St. Paul. The compound was inaugurated in 1898, together with the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion and the Auguste Victoria building on the Mount Scopus ridge, in the presence of the German crown prince.
  • The Germans built a structure containing a small church and a dining hall on 42 Neviim Street. This is where Theodor Hertzl, the father of Modern Zionism, met with the German Kaiser on on November 2, 1898.
  • The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer was built on land given to King William I of Prussia (later 1870 Kaiser Wilhelm I) in 1869 by Sultan Abdülaziz of the Ottoman Empire. The church was constructed from 1892 to 1898. In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II made a trip to Jerusalem to personally dedicate the new church.
The Church of the Redeemer around 1900 - Land Purchases in the Holy Land
The Church of the Redeemer around 1900
  • The Abbey of the Dormition is a Benedictine community on Mt. Zion just outside the walls of the Old City near the Zion Gate. During his visit to Jerusalem in 1898 for the dedication of the Protestant Church of the Redeemer, Kaiser Wilhelm II bought this piece of land on Mount Zion for 120,000 German Goldmark from Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Wilhelm presented it to the “German Union of the Holy Land” (“Deutscher Verein vom Heiligen Lande”).
  • Augusta Victoria Church is a church-hospital located on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. The compound was built in 1907-1914 by the Empress Augusta Victoria Foundation as a center for the German Protestant community in Ottoman Palestine. This was in addition to the slightly older Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. The complex was named for Augusta Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein, wife of German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who visited Jerusalem in 1898. After the Kaiser’s 1898 visit, he commissioned the construction of a guesthouse for German pilgrims. During World War I, the Hospital served as German military hospital. Later is was as Ottoman headquarters belonging to Djemal Pasha. Next it was headquarters for the German high command of the German expeditionary corps (Asienkorps). Following this it was the headquarters of General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Finally it was the headquarters of the British Military Administration of Occupied Enemy Territory (South). From 1920 to 1927, Augusta Victoria was the official residence of the British High Commissioner of the Palestine Mandate.

Why are so many buildings in Jerusalem leased for 99 years?

The disadvantage of the “waqf” law mechanism is that waqf land cannot be sold. This explains why numerous neighborhoods in downtown Jerusalem are actually leased to the Israel Lands Administration in 99-year contracts.

Homes in these areas are leased from the churches themselves. The churches leased the lands for 99 years. At the end of these 99 years, the land and the buildings return automatically to the church’s ownership, or to whoever obtained an extension of the lease. In contrast, the State of Israel and the Jewish National Fund, which also lease land for 99 years, extend the expiry date almost automatically for a symbolic fee.

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