American Colony in Jerusalem Collection at the LOC

Readers here are likely familiar with the American Colony in Jerusalem, a “a non-denominational utopian Christian community founded by a small group of American expatriates in Ottoman Palestine in 1881.”  Their photographic enterprise was a thriving industry serving tourists for the first half of the 20th century.  The original glass negatives were donated by the heir of the collection to the Library of Congress in the 1970s and the digitized versions were posted online about five years ago.  That formed the basis of a series of specialized collections that we created here.

Last week the Library of Congress announced the online publication of a new collection of historic documents from the American Colony.

The materials presented in the new American Memory site were donated to the Library in December 2004 by Valentine Vester and the board of directors of the American Colony of Jerusalem, Ltd. The bulk of the collection—received by the Library between 2005 and the present—comprises more than 10,000 items and is housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Many of these items were collected by Bertha Spafford Vester as she wrote her memoir Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City. The digitized version includes a selection of the full collection, namely that which was displayed in a 2005 Library of Congress exhibition. The full press release is here.  The full collection is described as follows:American Colony, April 1, 1925 entry page, opening of Hebrew University

The physical collection focuses on the personal and business life of the colony from the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, through World War I and the British Mandate, and into the formation of the state of Israel.  It includes draft manuscripts, letters, postcards, telegrams, diaries or journals, scrapbooks, printed materials, photographs, hand-drawn maps and ephemera. Most collection items are in English, with some material in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Swedish.
Items in the collection begin in 1786 and date to 2006. The bulk of the materials date from 1870 to 1968.  Included are items related to the leadership of the colony by members of the Spafford, Vester, and Whiting families.  There is information as well pertaining to the colony’s Swedish members and other residents, as well as neighbors, friends, diplomats, dignitaries, associates in Jerusalem and sponsors in the United States.

This is akin to finding an old chest in the attic full of precious heirlooms, except that in this case there are many such chests and they are available to anyone with a computer.  I look forward to rummaging through this treasure trove of fascinating information about some momentous years in the history of the holy land. 

The doorway to the attic is here, and the browse and search features will get you where you want to go quickly.  You can read more about the collection and its origin here.  The catalog record is here.


2 thoughts on “American Colony in Jerusalem Collection at the LOC

  1. In December, 1978, my husband and I left Iran, where we were working, and visited Israel. Since many well-to-do Iranians had pulled a lot of currency out of the country, we were only allowed to exchange about $100 worth of rials to dollars, so when we got to Israel, we needed to stay at hotels that accepted our credit cards. Therefore, we wound up staying at The American Colony Hotel, situated in the building occupied by the American Colony in the late 19th century – a fascinating old pasha's palace. That is how I first learned of the American Colony.
    At the time we left Iran, martial law had been in place for about 6 months and there were torchlit processions protesting the Shah. At the airport, where El-Al did not actually have its own check-in desk, the entire check-in area was packed wall-to-wall with people – mostly Iranian Jews – trying to get on a plane to Israel. El-Al normally had one flight a week, but at that time, they were just bringing in one plane after another, filling them up and flying out, just as long as there were more people to continue filling them up. People's luggage was being searched, most of which proved to contain the contents of the family business – one fellow had several suitcases full of small brass objects (just try getting that through a metal detector!) – and many people had all the family carpets, folded up and tied with string.
    We waited 7 hours to get through the crush and board our plane, even though we were among the very few who had reservations. (All the airline offices except Air France [Khomeini was then in France] had been bombed a few weeks before. To make reservations, we called our travel agent in Iran, who called a colleague in France, who made the reservation. She then sent the tickets to our agent in Iran, who brought them to us.)
    As the plane approached Israel, they began playing Israeli folk songs, and people were dancing in the aisles. It was "Exodus", all over again!
    When we came out of the terminal, there was a CBS news crew filming interviews with people leaving Iran. They stopped us and asked, "Are you Americans fleeing Iran?" We said, "Well, we're Americans who live in Iran, but we're not FLEEING – we're going back in a couple of weeks." They said, "You're going back?!"
    We watched the evening news, but, as it happened, Golde Meir had died just about the time our plane landed in Tel Aviv, so the local news was full of Golde. We didn't find out until we got back to Iran that we had been on the network news in the US, coast-to-coast!
    While we were in Israel, we went to a presentation about the history of the Jews in Iran, and learned that that was the oldest continuously existing Jewish community in the world, outside of Israel. It was a strange and fascinating experience.
    We returned to Iran shortly before Christmas, when Israel was getting far too full of tourists. El-Al had an interesting approach to searching luggage: having your bags searched was voluntary, but they asked you lots of questions like, "Did you ever leave your bags unattended? Could anyone, ever, have possibly gotten into your luggage?" I asked the airline representative, "Why aren't you insisting on searching our bags?" He just looked me in the eye and said, "You're going on the plane – I'm not!" Before long, we begged them to search out luggage!
    We left Iran Feb. 16, 1979, on the first flight evacuated out after the Revolution. Ever since, I have mentally dated events in my life as "BR" and "AR": Before and After the Revolution!

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