The secrets of the spies’ favorite hotel

American Colony Hotel is a luxury hotel housed in a historic building in Jerusalem – Richard T. Nowitz

In a piece of land scarred by a century of near-constant conflict, home to three global religions and claimed by two peoples, few can agree on anything. Yet the American Colony Hotel, located just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, is by common consent a glorious haven from the Middle East’s most contentious disputes.

Perhaps that is why it has long attracted those who shape such disputes: TE Lawrence and General Edmund Allenby of the days of the British Mandate for Palestine; an ever-growing body of diplomatic and aid agencies after Israel’s birth in 1948, and subsequent attempts to end the nascent state.

It was in the Colony (Room 16, according to legend) that the architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, so near and so far, met to start talks when it seemed that Israelis and Palestinians could never shake hands. anything. And it was there that Tony Blair, who never lost his confidence, spent his first months as a peace envoy, seeking success where so many others had failed. After eight years on the job, he finally quit in 2015.

For more than a century, the American Colony Hotel has been home to diplomats, politicians, writers, romantics, and spies. Around him buzzed a constantly rotating cast of the great and the good. Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, Sir John Gielgud, John Le Carré, Alec Guinness, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, as well as Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, seeking advice on the real Lawrence of Arabia from an old scion of the family founder of the Colony, who lived in the hotel and remembered correcting Lawrence’s Arabic grammar.

Today, however, members of that founding family have fallen out among themselves. Having survived the Middle East wars in 1917, 1948, 1967 and 1973 and two armed uprisings, the family behind the hotel now ended up fighting a furious internal battle in the London courts.

Winston Churchill - Current News Agency/Getty Images

Winston Churchill – Current News Agency/Getty Images

While their ancestors managed to keep the peace in a region with constant casus belli, contemporary fighters Judith Andersson and her sister-in-law Diane Ward, both co-owners of the Colony, have spent tens of thousands of pounds in a legal dispute over a suitcase of photographs. family members who, they told the court, “have no monetary value.”

Even the presiding judge, Nigel Gerald, has described the situation as “completely crazy”.

Perhaps they should have learned a lesson from the Colony itself, a glorious honey-colored mansion built with high vaulted ceilings in the Ottoman style by a man named Khaldi in the mid-19th century. By dividing his rooms between his four wives, he knew a thing or two about dividing sentimental property.

However, despite his serial weddings, he never had an heir, so the building passed into the hands of more than 100 distant relatives, who rented it to the Spafford family, Americans who arrived at the end of the 19th century, a crossroads between pioneers and pilgrims. As Khaldi’s relatives died, the Spaffords acquired more and more shares in the building. Finally, in the 1890s, Anna Spafford, having lost her husband but acquired a kibbutz-like community of parasites, became sole proprietor.

The process took decades, but finally the American Colony was born. By the early 20th century it had been converted into a hotel, formalizing its reputation as a sanctuary from dust, heat and fighting.

No more. They are the children of Anna Spafford’s granddaughter, Frieda, who have gone to war today over the photographs, and Andersson claims that Ward has not given them to them as agreed since her husband died.

The American Colony Hotel as it was in 1950 - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The American Colony Hotel as it was in 1950 – Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ward denies that there was any such agreement between the brothers and claims that she tried to resolve the dispute by offering copies or originals of the articles. Andersson’s lawyer insists that, far from being worthless, the photographs are an “invaluable repository of her family history”, with “potential historical interest, given the family’s links to the British presence in Israel”.

It is certainly true that the Colony has repeatedly stepped onto the stage of international affairs. When Allenby rallied his men and artillery in the surrounding hills in December 1917, on the verge of capturing Jerusalem, it was Anna Spafford who pressed a sheet into the Ottoman mayor’s arms to wave as a flag of surrender, an item now in Imperial Warfare. . Museum.

And during the Six-Day War in June 1967, the Spaffords recalled that there was “a Jordanian tank in our driveway and the Israelis threw a hand grenade into the bar because they claimed there was a sniper hiding there.

“After the fighting stopped, we started to check the damage and found an unexploded rocket and a dead Jordanian soldier in the driveway. The main building was heavily attacked and we received five mortar rounds in the courtyard.”

For generations of foreign correspondents, however, the hotel was a place of retreat after a day of reporting on the war, rather than a battlefield itself. Often walking through the gate into your garden, you’re sure to find a friendly face looking up from a table in the shade of a bougainvillea.

    Tony Blair walks through the courtyard of the American Colony Hotel - Debbie Hill

Tony Blair walks through the courtyard of the American Colony Hotel – Debbie Hill

Back when I lived in Jerusalem, the Colony was downright intoxicating, and not just because of the martinis that Ibrahim, the bartender, made. The senses were aroused by the scent of flowers, the sound of the piano periodically mingling with the muezzin calling worshipers to prayer in the mosque next door, and the sight of old friends.

We weren’t just there for the alcohol. The Colony straddled the fault line of Israeli West Jerusalem and Palestinian East and, as such, was perfectly placed to cover a conflict defined by land disputes. It became a place for secret meetings, espionage and a popular place to meet with Palestinian politicians. His very address, Nablus Road, names the West Bank city where he would spend many days reporting.

The fresh lemonade was served in a glass made in Hebron, home to the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, biblical figures from the Bronze Age whose holy site triggered very real fights today.

There was always lively chatter around those garden tables, or around the little pool, as we conferred importantly to put the world in order. The more intense the fighting outside, especially during the darkest days of the second Intifada earlier this century, with its brutal Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military strikes, the harder the party inside. The front line was minutes, and a world, away.

Naturally, there was a lot of misbehavior. Rumors of adventures and betrayals, personal and professional, constantly bounced around the patio of the Colony. How could it have been otherwise with a group of expats full of adrenaline and vodka?

Your humble correspondent made few excuses, often sticking around to enjoy the gossip late into the night, guided by those two greats of the game: Patrick Bishop (formerly of this paper) and the wonderful and sadly missed Marie Colvin. Colvin remained in court even after a rocket-propelled grenade cost him the sight in one eye while covering another war, in Sri Lanka.

From then on, as he smiled and smoked and called Ibrahim in for another martini, he liked to wear an eyepatch that sparkled like a diamond, a reminder, like Cologne itself, of the glamor and hideous cost of war.

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