The American Colony in Jerusalem

American Colony. Austrian Army leaving Jerusalem with the city walls behind them, ca. 1916 (30a)

This exhibition was on display at the Library from January 2–April 2, 2005

Moved by a series of profound tragic losses, Chicago natives Anna and Horatio Spafford led a small American contingent in 1881 to Jerusalem to form a Christian utopian society known as the “American Colony.” Colony members, later joined by Swedish Christians, engaged in philanthropic work amongst the people of Jerusalem regardless of their religious affiliation and without proselytizing motives—thereby gaining the trust of the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. During and immediately after World War I, the American Colony played a critical role in supporting these communities through the great suffering and deprivations of the eastern front by running 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, Colony quarters opened to the public as 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 Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel met in the hotel where they began talks that led to the historic 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.

This exhibition offers a glimpse into the remarkable history and work of the American Colony. The photographs, documents, and artifacts exhibited are drawn from a generous gift to the Library of Congress from Mrs. Valentine Vester—a portion of a collection that she has preserved for more than fifty years. This archival treasure now joins with the Library's Matson Photo Service Collection donated by Eric Matson, a former American Colony member, to provide a unique record of the history of Jerusalem and the Middle East in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The American Colony-Vester Collection is a recent gift to the Library of Congress. One of Mrs. Valentine Vester's chief concerns in designating a permanent repository for this important material was that it receive conservation treatment to ensure its survival for posterity. The Library's conservation staff has reviewed the portion of the collection currently on view. They will determine the best course of treatment and appropriate housing so that the materials can be made available to researchers and the public once the exhibition has been dismantled.

The Library of Congress is grateful to Mrs. Valentine Vester for donating this collection. In addition, the Library wishes to acknowledge Ruth Victor Hummel for organizing and curating this exhibition, George Hintlian for his support and work done with this collection, and photographer Garo Nalbandian for his help in securing some of the images on display.