Spies of Jerusalem
From the cover notes of the 1991 hardback edition
It is 1917. Palestine, a starving segment of the Ottoman Empire,
is besieged by the Egyptian-based British under Lieutenant- General
Sir Edmund Allenby. Its vastly outnumbered defenders are mostly Turks,
reluctant Arab conscripts, and Austro-Hungarian artillerymen. Under
the direction of German staff officers this threadbare garrison has
twice managed to rebuff British attempts to to break through their
line at Gaza.
Yet, unlike the war in Europe, the desert campaign has retained a certain Crusader
chivalry. The Turks take their prisoners for sight-seeing trips around Jerusalem.
Among Allenbys troops are Yeomanry regiments from the English Midlands
commanded by fox hunting squires who have brought their hunting horns as well
as their own horses to the desert. Both sides make extensive use of cavalry,
though not enough for Weidinger, a one-armed Uhlan officer who longs to charge
to glory. Magnus, a Swedish prophet raves in tongues outside the Germans Jerusalem
headquarters. Maeltzer, a Swiss journalist, observes all with a sympathetic eye,
keeps a diary and writes laudatory despatches of German-led victories.
But as the odds against them increase the Turco-Germans begin to suspect that
they have enemies within to deal with. Some Iscariotical bastard is betraying
us! roars Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of the Turkish 8th Army.
And he is right. A few of the Zionist Jews the Sublime Porte allowed to settle
in Palestine before the war have long supported the British and founded an espionage
ring they call the Nili Group. Among them is Sarah Aaronsohn, a courier for the
agent codenamed Daniel, a spy so accepted in the lions den he can give
Allenby Kressensteins most secret briefing. Others, too, must dissemble
to survive. Widow Shemsi,a sensual Beiruti widow obliged to marry an elderly
Turkish officer to save her brothers life now finds it convenient to be
the mistress of Krag, the under-promoted German intelligence officer. In the
hunt for Daniel, Krag find himself competing with Von Papen, a future chancellor
of Germany. Richard Meinertzhagen, Allenbys master of deception and T.E.
Lawrence, who may have been Sarahs secret admirer, also appear.
Colin Smith weaves all this into a haunting saga as the Last Crusade unfolds,
the Yeomanry prepare to meet the Austrian artillery with cold steel in the charge
at Huj, and todays Middle East is forged in the crucible of treachery and
battle. Not since J.G. Farrells Siege of Krishnapur has a novelist
so vividly combined fact and fiction, comedy and high drama.
Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, who had recently left Hamish Hamilton to start
his own publishing company, had always been a great admirer of the Booker prize
winning Farrell, was sold the book by an enthusiastic Gill Coleridge, who had
agreed to take it on as my agent. I was fortunate enough to have Christopher
employ Jeremy Lewis (later author of outstanding biographies of Cyril Connolly
and Allen Lane) to edit it and The Last Crusade appeared in 1991 to some
gratifying reviews. It had been a long time in the making.
I had discovered Sarah Aaronsohn and the Nili Group almost ten years before when The
Observer, forever trying to find the right capital from where its Middle
East correspondent might cover the region, moved me and my family from Cairo
to Jerusalem. My Israeli landlord came from a family of German Zionists who had
settled in Palestine some twenty years before the outbreak of the First World
War. He informed me that his grandfather, a doctor, had been a member of a spy
ring for the British called the Nili Group. And he began to tell me about their
contribution to Allenbys campaign.
We lived on French Hill in one of several apartment blocks the Israelis had built
after the 1967 war in order to encircle Arab East Jerusalem with their settlements.
From one side of the flats broad terrace was a stunning view across the
drop of the Dead Sea valley to the hazy outline of Jordans Mountains of
Moab. From the other could be seen the Mount of Olives, the walls of the old
city and inside them the minarets and domes of its ancient mosques and Eastern
A short walk from my flat, on a saddle of land between the Hebrew University
and French Hill, was the most visible reminder of the campaign. East Jerusalems
Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is well tended by Palestinian gardeners who
keep the grass between its white headstones short and see that its flowers grow.
Here rest 2,500 of Allenbys soldiers (and a few German airmen) who, shortly
before Christmas 1917, caused the Turks to abandon the Holy City and ended four
centuries of Muslim domination. On long walls are inscribed the names of another
3,500 who have no known graves.
Downhill from the cemetery, on the Nablus road leading to the old citys
Damascus Gate - over which the Turks once hanged Arabs they even suspected of
pro-British sympathies - is the American Colony Hotel. The Colony, which features
in my story, is a stone built late Ottoman building with vaulted ceilings and
some of its rooms around a flagged courtyard hung with bourgainevillea. It has
long been a favourite of journalists.
Its proprietor was Horatio Vester, a British lawyer of American-German origins.
(Horatio Spafford, the devout and wealthy Chicagoan who was his maternal grandfather,
had moved with his Norwegian-born wife Anna to Jerusalem in 1881 to found a religious
community after their four small daughters perished in a shipwreck.) As a small
boy Horatio had watched the Turkish rearguard withdraw towards their last stand
at the hill of Nebi Samwil a little to the north of the Colony Afterwards he
extracted the gun powder from a grenade and cartridges he and his sister Ann-Grace
had found on the abandoned battlefield but, by enormous luck, failed in his attempts
to ignite it in the pot-bellied stove that heated their nursery during Jerusalems
cold and wet winters.
My luck too, otherwise Horatio might not have been around to allow me to examine
the Colonys remarkable photographic record of the conflict. Commercial
photography, along with a small farm, blacksmiths, butchers shop,
bakery and souvenir emporium, was one of the ways the community remained solvent
and did their philanthropic work in the days before they moved from being a hostel
to a hotel. Here in musty albums was a glimpse of this vanished world.
The studied arrogance of the fully bearded Jemal Pasha, ruler from Damascus of
all of Ottoman Syria, taken mounted on a grey on the banks of the Dead Sea, right
arm akimbo, left hand on the reins, holstered pistol on his belt, frowning and
staring beyond the camera as if something displeasing had just caught his eye.
The enormous holes blown into the German Consulate building at Haifa by French
warships. The cruel Hassan Bey, notorious as the Tyrant of Jaffa, bursting out
of his tightly belted tunic, yet the moustached features beneath the lambswool
hat benign and iconoclastic. The ruins of the mud brick houses of Gaza destroyed
in the failed British offensive earlier in the year. A three man honour guard
of Turkish soldiers with the highly embroidered standard, covered with pre-Kemalist
Arabic script, awarded to their regiment for the valour it had displayed repulsing
the Gaza attack. Jackbooted Germans emerging from freight cars at Jerusalem railway
station. Bertha Vester, Horatios mother, in her nursing uniform for the
Colony looked after the wounded from both sides. British prisoners who had just
been given a guided tour of Jerusalems Christian places staring unsmiling
into the camera. An equally solemn looking Turkish officer, wounded in the fighting
around Nebi Samwil, lying arms folded in bed, his bandaged and splinted broken
leg clearly visible. . From Nebi Samwil itself there was a picture of a bunched
line Turkish infantry lying prone on the bellies, long Mauser rifles pushed
out in front of them, possibly a unit being held in reserve and waiting to be
ordered forward. The Arab mayor of Jerusalem, and his great coated entourage
- it was December - were snapped gladly surrendering the city to
two British sergeants still wearing the shorts they have had on since they advanced
from the low lying ground around Gaza. Behind them a member of the mayors
party is holding the white flag they displayed when approaching British lines.
made out of one of the Colonys bed sheets. (It is now in Londons
Imperial War Museum.) A dismounted Allenby humbly enters the Holy City on foot
through the Jaffa Gate. Some time later T.E. Lawrence turned up and is captured
in a group photograph standing alongside the man who will become the first King
Abdullah of Jordan. He is wearing an unlikely suit and tie and looking rather
bashful, as if he feels he has no right to be there.
These then, the people, Horatios old photographs and sometimes simply being
able to visit the places where my cast, real and imaginary, played out their
various parts, were my inspiration. That and a conviction that I could put together
a story worth telling. Some of the historical characters, the enigmatic Lawrence
being the prime example, are well known. Others such as Sarah Aaronsohn, Richard
Meinertzhagen and Bertha Vester, usually only make footnotes in the better known
chronicles of those times. I have tried, in word and deed, to be faithful to
all of them.
Colin Smith, Nicosia, 2005.