The rich history of the American Colony dates back to the late nineteenth century, following a series of tragic events that led Horatio and Anna Spafford, a devoutly Christian family, to leave their home town of Chicago in 1881 in order to find peace in the holy city of Jerusalem and to offer aid to families in distress.
Drawing strength through their faith and comfort from the words of the hymn “It is Well with my Soul,” written by Horatio Spafford following the loss of his four young daughters in a shipwreck, the Spaffords, together with sixteen other members of their church, calling themselves "The Overcomers", journeyed to Jerusalem and settled together in a small house in the Old City.
They were never missionaries, but aimed at living, as the early Christians did, a simple life with everything in common. With their charitable door open at all times to their Arab and Jewish neighbours as well as Bedouin from around the city and from across the Jordan River, they soon established good relations with the local population and became well known for their acts of benevolence and assistance to the community. People referred to them simply as ‘the Americans.’ Seventy Swedes living in the United States joined ‘the Americans’ in 1894, followed by another fifty five from Nas in Sweden two years later, and the now much larger group required bigger premises. The home they bought was initially built as a palace for a pasha and his four wives. That palace would soon become The American Colony Hotel.
The seeds of the American Colony Hotel were sown in 1902, when Baron Ustinov (grandfather of actor Sir Peter Ustinov), finding the Turkish inns of the time unacceptable, needed suitable accommodation in Jerusalem to house his visitors from Europe and America. Before long, the American Colony became a lodging for Western travelers and pilgrims whose expectations were not met by the establishments then existing in Jerusalem.
The American Colony Hotel has a unique place in the history of the area, having endured countless challenges and a series of wars. It was the venue from which the white flag—made from a bed sheet from one of the Colony’s hospitals, currently displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London—was taken in 1917 to initiate the truce that ended Ottoman rule in Jerusalem.
The Colony has always been known locally as a neutral island, remaining outside the turbulent politics of the land. Owned neither by Arabs nor Jews, but by Americans, British and Swedes, it has always had friends from all sectors of Jerusalem’s mixed society. An oasis where Jews and Arabs comfortably meet, it is also a favorite haven for international journalists, high-ranking officers of the United Nations and diplomats from across the world.
The original founders retained their former home in the Old City and used it for charitable purposes, providing care to needy children with services that grew over the decades. Today this building houses the Spafford Children's Center, which runs medical, infant welfare and social work departments for local children.
Although the daily management of the hotel was handed over by the Spafford’s grandson, Horatio Vester, upon his retirement in 1980, to Gauer Hotels of Switzerland, the American Colony is still owned and run by the descendants of the original founding community. Its board of directors is composed of family members who remain closely involved. The Colony is a part of their family history, just as it is a part of the history of Jerusalem.
For a fascinating historical insight containing exclusive pictures taken by the American Colony Photographic Department in the early 1900s please click on the PDF link below.