A Family, a Colony, a Life of Good Works in the Holy City

Founded more than a century ago, the American Colony in Jerusalem has endured hardships, wars, upheaval, and the ebb and flow of empires

American Colony in Jerusalem
American Colony in Jerusalem Wikimedia Commons

"It was December 9, 1917, the height of the First World War," writes author Jonathan Broder, "and in Palestine, four centuries of Ottoman rule were hurtling to an end." While the British general Sir Edmund Allenby prepared for the conquest of Jerusalem, "an American woman named Anna Spafford secured the Holy City with a bedsheet," supplying the Ottoman mayor, intent on surrender, with the requisite white flag.

Anna presided over the American Colony in Jerusalem, a thriving commune of expatriates who lived in a palatial villa outside the Old City walls. In 1881 Anna and her husband, Horatio, had left their Chicago home with a small group of followers to seek a simple life of religious service in the Holy Land. Since then, three generations of Spafford women have sustained the Colony and its humanitarian mission through the successive tides of Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli rule. The American colonists set up medical clinics, orphanages, soup kitchens, schools and a pediatric hospital, and ultimately turned their villa into a hostelry (known since the 1960s as the American Colony Hotel), a haven for pilgrims and politicians alike. More importantly it has served as a neutral corner and oasis of peace in the war-torn city. In May 1992, in a room just off the hotel's garden courtyard, a meeting took place that led to the secret negotiations that culminated in the historic 1993 peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization — fitting tribute to the remarkable saga of an expatriate family that devoted itself to the peace and people of Jerusalem.

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