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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Lost Royal Palace of Jerusalem

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Old Gymnasia Herzlia, Tel Aviv

In my childhood my parents, for a variety of reason, made a number of moves from house to house, sometimes to different neighbourhoods, and even eventually to a different country where they continued to move about several more times. I have lived through my life in a total of the 27 different houses and four countries. I often wonder what it must be like for those who live their entire lives in a single location. I imagine that it gives a certain stability, security perhaps, that I have missed out on. The first time I returned to my childhood hometown, thirty-six years after having left it, I was filled with a sense of nostalgia (in spite of the frequents changes of scenery, I experienced a generally very pleasant childhood), and I made an effort to travel around to look for the various houses I grew up in, to see how they had weathered through the intervening years. It was something of a disappointment to find that all but two of them had been demolished and replaced. I suppose this was not an entirely bad thing because the two that survived were a disappointment; one having gone to seed and both being far smaller and less enchanting than I remembered them.

All cities have their lost houses. Lost buildings in general are bathed in a not always realistic aura of mystique. Most Tel Avivians regret the demolition of the old Gymnasia Herzlia with its oriental arched windows and crenelated roof, more like an Arabian prince's palace than a school (or perhaps, more like a 1930s Hollywood film-maker's idea of an Arabian prince's palace), inevitably appearing in old photographs with a caravan of camels passing by.

Through the twelfth century the kings of Jerusalem possessed four different royal residences in the Holy City. The first of these was the Turris David (Tower of David). In 1104 it was replaced by the Templum Salomonis (former al-Aqsa Mosque), which, probably in the 1130s or 40s, was left entirely to the Templars, and the royal court moved to a new residence adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (possibly what appears on contemporary maps as the Royal Hall - Aula Regis). Finally, in the 1160s the king built a new royal residence, appropriately large, elaborate and well located, adjacent to the citadel in the west of the city. This new Curia Regis also appears on a twelfth century map and it was mentioned in 1169 by the German pilgrim, Theoderich as "the newly built solar chamber and palace."*

We have an idea of the possible appearance of this new palace from two illustrations. One appears on the famous Cambrai Map of Jerusalem. It shows a large palace with two towers and the gable-roofed solar (upper-level) chamber, and it is surrounded by its own fortified wall. It is impossible to know how reliable this representation is. Some structures on this map appear to be reasonably accurate, but others are clearly largely invented. Another possible representation of the palace is carved on a twelfth century column that is believed to have been taken from the royal court in Acre for reuse where it is now found, in the fourteenth century mausoleum of the Mamluk Sultan Hassan in Cairo. It shows a large gabled building beside a double-towered gateway.

The palace itself has totally disappeared. Only some minor fragments of it have been uncovered in excavations. It is a mystery when this very thorough destruction took place. It clearly had survived the fall of the city to Saladin in 1187, as it was still standing in 1229 when Jerusalem was reoccupied by the Franks following an agreement between emperor, Frederick II and the Ayyubid sultan, al-Kamil Muhammad al Malik. At that time Frederick gave the palace to his favoured Teutonic knights. It may have been destroyed ten years later when the city was briefly invaded by a Muslim leader, an-Nasir Da'ud, emir of Kerak, who claimed to have entirely dismantled the citadel, though he made no mention of the palace. Perhaps it was destroyed by the Khawarizmian warriors who finally reoccupied the city in 1244. In either case, the thoroughness of the destruction is remarkable. It wiped from memory what had clearly been one of the most prominent and impressive structures in medieval Jerusalem.

* Theoderich's Description of the Holy Places, trans. A. Stewart, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, vol. 5, London, 1891, p. 6.

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