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American Colony (Jerusalem)

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Historical American Colony photo

The American Colony was a colony established in Jerusalem in 1881 by members of a Christian utopian society led by Anna and Horatio Spafford. Now a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, it is still known by that name today.


After suffering a series of tragic losses, Chicago natives Anna and Horatio Spafford led a small American contingent in 1881 to Jerusalem to form a Christian utopian society. The "American Colony," as it became known, was later joined by Swedish Christians. The society engaged in philanthropic work amongst the people of Jerusalem regardless of religious affiliation, gaining the trust of the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.[1] During and immediately after World War I, the American Colony carried out philanthropic work to alleviate the suffering of the local inhabitants, opening soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable ventures. In addition, members of the Colony were permitted to photograph behind Turkish lines to create a truly unique record of life under the constraints of war.

Although the American Colony ceased to exist as a religious community in the late 1940s, individual members continued to be active in the daily life of Jerusalem. Towards the end of the 1950s, the society's communal residence was converted into the American Colony Hotel. The hotel is an integral part of the Jerusalem landscape where members of all communities in Jerusalem still meet. In 1992 representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel met in the hotel where they began talks that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.

The Spaffords

In 1871, Horatio Spafford, a prosperous lawyer and Presbyterian church elder and his wife, Anna, were living with their four young daughters in Chicago. That year, the Great Fire erupted in Chicago, devastating the city. In November 1873, Anna and the children set sail for Europe aboard the S.S. Ville du Havre with a group of friends. Horatio stayed behind, detained by business. On November 21, the oceanliner was rammed by a British vessel and sank within minutes. Anna was rescued, but all the children drowned. Horatio received the tragic news in a telegram from Anna that read: "Saved alone. What shall I do?" Horatio immediately left for England to bring his wife home. On the trip, Spafford wrote the lyrics of the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," the music being added later by Philip Bliss.

Back in Chicago, the Spaffords tried to mend their shattered lives. In 1878, a daughter, Bertha, was born and, two years later, a son Horatio, who died in an epidemic of scarlet fever. Horatio left the Fullerton Presbyterian Church, which he had helped to build, organized a group of friends, and decided to seek solace in the holy city of Jerusalem. After the birth of a daughter, Grace, in August 1881, the Spaffords set out for Jerusalem in a group of thirteen adults and three children.

In Jerusalem

Jerusalem panorama early twentieth century2

Panorama of Jerusalem, c. 1900-1940 by American Colony Jerusalem.

Moving into rented quarters in the Old City of Jerusalem, the group adopted a communal lifestyle and engaged in philanthropic activities. Horatio took the Bible as his guide and believed that the society's work would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. As a commune, the society was suspect in the eyes of many. Members of the colony were shunned by the American consuls in Jerusalem for their unusual lifestyle.

Horatio Spafford died of malaria in 1888, but the community continued to grow. Visiting Chicago in 1894, Anna Spafford made contact with Olaf Henrik Larsson, the leader of the Swedish Evangelical Church. Inspired by Anna's words and full of messianic fervor, the Swedes from Chicago decided to join Anna on her trip back to Jerusalem. Larsson also exhorted his relations and friends in Nas, Sweden, to go immediately to Jerusalem. As a result, 38 adults and seventeen children sold all their possessions and set off for the Holy Land to join the Colony, arriving there in July 1896.

The Colony, now numbering 150, moved to the large house of a wealthy Arab landowner outside the city walls. Part of the building was used as a hostel for visitors from Europe and America. A small farm developed with cows and pigs, a butchery, a dairy, a bakery, a carpenter's shop, and a smithy. The economy was supplemented by a shop selling photographs, craft items and archaeological artifacts.

Plague of locusts

From March to October 1915, a plague of locusts stripped areas in and around Palestine of almost all vegetation. This invasion of biblical proportions seriously compromised the already depleted food supply of the region and sharpened the misery of all Jerusalemites. Djemal Pasha, Supreme Commander of Syria and Arabia, who mounted a campaign to limit the devastation, asked the American Colony photographers to document the progress of the locust hordes.

World War I

When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I as an ally of Germany in November 1914, Jerusalem and Palestine became a battleground between the Allied and the Central powers. The Allied forces from Egypt, under the leadership of the British, engaged the German, Austrian and Turkish forces in fierce battles for control of Palestine. During this time the American Colony assumed a more crucial role in supporting the local populace through the deprivations and hardships of the war. Because the Turkish military commanders governing Jerusalem trusted the Colony, they asked its photographers to record the course of the war in Palestine.

The Colony was permitted to continue its relief efforts even after the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in the spring of 1917. As the German and Turkish armies retreated before the advancing Allied forces, the American Colony took charge of the overcrowded Turkish military hospitals, which were inundated by the wounded.[2]

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought great suffering to the country. All young men were conscripted into the army, while the older men were drafted into work brigades. Food supplies dwindled as the Allies sustained a blockade of the Palestinian coast, and the Turkish army confiscated provisions. Weakened by malnutrition, people died of typhus and other epidemics. As famine, disease, and death ravaged the people of Jerusalem, the Colony, struggling for their own survival, engaged in relief work. With money from friends in the United States, the American Colony ran a soup kitchen that fed thousands during these desperate times. When the British Allied commander, General Allenby, entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, the Colony offered their philanthropic services to the new rulers of Palestine and continued to serve their fellow Jerusalemites.

After the war

The Colony also administered an orphanage to provide refuge for the many children torn from their parents during World War I. The charitable work begun by the Spaffords continues today in the original Colony house abutting the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Spafford Children's Center provides medical treatment and outreach programs for Arab children and their families in Jerusalem.

Inner tensions within the American Colony led to the final demise of this utopian Christian community in the 1950s. Since then the second home of the American Colony, outside the city's walls, has functioned as a hotel named American Colony Hotel.



  • Ariel, Yaakov, & Kark, Ruth. (1996, December). "Messianism, Holiness, Charisma, and Community: The American-Swedish Colony in Jerusalem, 1881-1933," Church History, 65(4), 641-657. This article also discusses Swedish author and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Selma Lagerlöf's positive outlook toward the commune, including the influence it had on her when she wrote her novel Jerusalem.
  • Geniesse, Jane Fletcher. (2008). "American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem." 348pp. ISBN 9780385519267
  • Vester, Bertha Spafford. (1988). Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949. Jerusalem: American Colony, 364 pp., ISBN 0405102968

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