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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Where Not to Build a Mill

Blowing up of the Montefiore windmill, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection [Public domain]

In 1857, a windmill was built on the hill to the west of the walled city of Jerusalem, in what would become Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the first neighbourhood established outside the city's fortifications. The mill was constructed with the support of the British Jewish banker and philanthropist, Moses Montefiore (by whose name it is popularly known today), and it operated for two decades, though not with great success as there was not enough wind to power it efficiently, and it was consequently not very effective in milling the hard local grain. However, its sails turned until 1878 when it was replaced by a steam-powered mill. The structure remained in place, abandoned and deteriorating, a somewhat pathetic Jerusalem landmark, as obsolete as its two sister windmills built further to the west in what is now the Rehavia neighbourhood. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, an observation post was set up on top of the mill by the Jewish underground military organisation, Haganah. The British authorities ordered its destruction in an operation known, with a touch of local humour, as "Operation Don Quixote." However, only the top of the structure was destroyed in the dramatic explosion that can be seen in the above photograph. The windmill remained in place, even more forlorn, and after the Six-Day War Mishkenot Sha'ananim and the surrounding neighbourhood of Yemin Moshe underwent gentrification. The mill became a popular tourist location and was recently restored to its original state. Today it houses a small museum.

Although there is no similarly dramatic photograph, the destiny of an earlier mill, located a short walk away, was harsher than that of Montefiore's mill. In 1151, Queen Melisende ordered the dismantling of a mill that had been constructed at the entrance to David's Gate (today's Jaffa Gate). Its removal was so thorough that it has left no trace at all - nothing of it was discovered in the excavations that took place outside Jaffa Gate late in the last century and early in the present one. This mill had been possessed by the leper community, part of the establishment of the order of St Lazarus. It was probably not a windmill, although windmills are recorded in the Latin East. More likely, like most of the mills supplying the numerous bakeries of Frankish Jerusalem (the canons of the Holy Sepulchre alone possessed some 26 ovens scattered in different locations throughout the city) it was powered by beasts of burden.

David's Gate was the main entrance to the city. It was used by the vast majority of people arriving at Jerusalem in the twelfth century. For the millers of St Lazarus this was at a particularly convenient location. The grain market of Jerusalem was located just inside the gate in the open land on the north and perhaps the order was able to sell its product to the crowds passing through. Even today, this is an extremely desirable location for retail activities and is now occupied by an exclusive and highly expensive shopping precinct. The queen's decision to remove the mill (an act that, had he known about it, would certainly have been viewed favourably by the "Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha") was due to its having obstructed traffic entering the city. Its removal would not have been regarded as a substantial loss to the city's infrastructure. There were plenty of other mills, and in any case, one must wonder whether anyone desiring to purchase flour would choose to do so from a mill run by the leper community.

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