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Montefiore’s Jerusalem Windmill

Windmill Windmill – renovated and restored 2012. Photo: Richard Gordon

Designed in Kent, saved by Ramsgate, now a £1M wineshop

In 1857 the English Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore built—thanks to a bequest by American philanthropist Judah Touro—a Kentish windmill overlooking the holy city of Jerusalem. Today, more than 150 years later, it is alive and kicking though not quite as Sir Moses would have expected!Here is the story:

In pursuit of his philanthropic activities, Sir Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land seven times between 1827 and 1874 and endeavoured to bring industry to the area by introducing a printing press and a textile factory. He also helped found several agricultural colonies.

By good fortune, in 1855 he was appointed administrator for a bequest of $50,000—equivalent today to over $1.5M—that Judah Touro, a phenomenally charitable American philanthropist, had willed for the benefit of the Jews of the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, Sir Moses Montefiore used some of this money, which swelled by a further $10,000 from another fund associated with Touro, to purchase land for 1000 Gold English Sovereigns from Ahmed Duzhdar Aga whom he had known for many years, just to the west of the Old City. Initially named Kerem Moshe v'Yehudit—Moses and Judith's Vineyard—it was later renamed Mishkenot Sha'ananim—Peaceful Dwellings—when Sir Moses built alms-houses for the poor there. In 1892, seven years after his death, adjacent to this area, the Yemin Moshe—Moses' Righthand—quarter was created and named in his honor.

Judah Touro himself does not seem to have been commemorated adequately.

Engraving of Judah Touro (1775-1854) whose bequest funded the windmill’s construction. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although he is very famous in North America, much of his philanthropy was made quietly, Sir Moses wanted to name the alms-houses after Touro, but this did not come about.If you look carefully, there is a small plaque in Mishkenot Sha'ananim and there is a Touro Lane and a restaurant in Yemin Moshe. Now, in April 2020 a children's picture book has been published entitled "Judah Touro Didn't Want to be Famous" chronicling his adventurous life and wonderful understated but extensive philanthropy! In the mid-19th century, the inhabitants of Jerusalem lived almost entirely within the walls of the Old City and would not remain at night outside for fear of marauders. Half the Jerusalem population - was Jewish, extremely poor and suffering from appalling sanitary conditions.The Montefiore lodging houses in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, provided a far better environment and were opened to tempt people to take up residence beyond the confines of the old city. They were initially reluctant even though Sir Moses offered them a pound sterling to move in.

Sir Moses also decided to enable the Jews to grind grain and produce their own flour by building a windmill using money from the Touro bequest. The hilly location next to Mishkenot Sha'ananim was ideal; situated on the west side of Jerusalem with a beautiful view over the old walled city and open to the easterly winds necessary to turn the sails of the mill.

In 1855 Sir Moses appointed the English specialist millwright firm of Holman Brothers of Canterbury, Kent—previously of Montefiore's country-home town of Ramsgate—to design and build the windmill in the style of Kentish mills for the sum of £1450. For the exterior of the mill they used local Jerusalem stone and local labour. The mechanism and sails however were engineered and constructed in Canterbury and shipped to the port of Jaffa via Beirut in 1857. Forty men with ropes and small boats were needed to transfer the cargo ashore. It then took four months to cart the machinery using camels and donkeys the 45 miles from the coast up to the hills of Jerusalem. Construction of the mill tower started, and the first stone was laid on the 5th of May 1857. The mill was completed between 1858 and1860. The work was supervised by Thomas Richard Holman assisted by his two brothers John James and Charles and some Kentish millwrights.

There being no local experts, in February 1857, an advert was placed in the London "Jewish Chronicle" for a Jewish miller of good moral and religious character who understands how to work a windmill!  It's unclear if anyone replied but two men from Canterbury were given the job until a local Jerusalemite could be trained.

The mill caused some trouble with the locals as until then flour production was an Arab monopoly using horse-powered mills. There are stories that the Arabs put a curse on the mill, but it was also reported that the Arabs liked the taste of the oil used for lubricating the mechanism. Before the refining of crude mineral oil, the oil used was probably animal/vegetable based, and it was thought the Arabs drank oil from the reservoir or licked the mill mechanism dry!

The mill operated for about 16 years until it ceased to function around 1876. Various reasons were given such as the unreliability of the wind, mill stones unsuitable for the hard, local grain and non-maintenance/replacement of the mechanism because of the difficulty in transporting parts from England. The most likely explanation is the competition from a steam-powered mill installed by the Templars in the nearby German Colony. Two other local windmills built by the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1850s also similarly stopped operation in the 1870s.

Parts of the reconstructed mill mechanism Photo: Richard Gordon

The Jerusalem section of the Baedeker Guide to "Palestine and Syria", published in 1876, has a map which identifies all these windmills and mentions the Montefiore windmill. As you leave Jerusalem en-route to Bethlehem it states "...and a little further on, we leave the Montefiore institution and a windmill on the hill to the right".

Until well into the 20th century the windmill was left abandoned and deteriorating. It was almost destroyed by the British army in the last days of the Mandate in 1948 but was miraculously saved by its Ramsgate connection. Following the decision of the UN to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs and before the departure of the British, vicious fighting broke out between the two sides with the British in the middle. The Hagana—Jewish defence force—installed a military post with snipers and a machine gun at the top of the mill. The British High Commissioner spotted this and ordered that the mill be blown up. The unit of soldiers given this task were from Ramsgate. When they saw the Montefiore plaques and that he was from Ramsgate they reinterpreted their orders and just blew off the very top of the mill.

Although Montefiore's mill started as a means of giving Jerusalem Jews access to their own low-cost flour, it has gradually morphed into a valued historical and artistic icon. It features in stories and poetry and provides images for Israeli banknotes, coins, and stamps.

In Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon's novel "Only Yesterday" the main character Balak, a dog, takes refuge in Montefiore's windmill.

Yehuda Amichai wrote a Hebrew poem entitled "The Windmill of Yemin Moshe" in which he poetically claims that, though it never ground flour (poetic licence), it ground holy air and now grinds us to make flour and bread as peace for the future.

Various repairs and reconstruction of the mill's tower were carried out over the years by the Jerusalem Foundation—which administers the area—and which has also arranged educational activities around the windmill and the Mishkenot Sha'ananim site.

Between 2008 and 2012, in association with the Dutch-based "Christians for Israel" (C4I) charity, the Jerusalem Foundation restored the windmill to full working order at a cost—raised mainly by C4I—of 5 Million New Israeli Shekels (~£1 Million).

To achieve an accurate reconstruction, the Foundation turned to a member of the Holman family and the archives of the Holman Brothers in Kent who found the original design plans.The mechanism was constructed with the help of Vincent Pargeter a windmill expert from England and by expert firms and engineers in Holland including Arjen Lont and Willem Dijkstra and family who moved temporarily to Israel.

The completion of the work, with the installation of the sails, took place at a formal ceremony on July 25, 2012 in the presence of some of the Montefiore family and many dignitaries, including Israel's prime minister, who spoke movingly about the windmill featuring in their Jerusalem childhood.

The mill was re-dedicated in August 2012 and the first sack of "reconstructed" flour produced in May 2013.

In a way it is appropriate that a Christian charity has backed this expensive restoration of the windmill since both Sir Moses and Touro were very generous in their philanthropy, spreading their largesse not only to  needy Jewish projects but also to Christian and secular ones.

Entrance to the reconstructed windmill wine center. Photo: Richard Gordon

Initially the Jerusalem Foundation planned to operate the reconstructed mill as both an educational resource and a commercial producer of flour and did so from 2012 until 2017. It employed an Israeli with Dutch windmill family connections, fully trained to run and maintain the mechanism. But the Foundation then decided to cease the operation for various health, safety, and other related reasons. So now via its wholly owned charity Mishkenot Sha'ananim, it has made the windmill and its site a working attraction by allowing a tourist agency to run various services such as a café, a wine-tasting boutique, and informative educational activities. The mill's sails turn for 2 hours daily and there are monthly tours of the interior mechanism which continues to be maintained by Dutch engineers with the aid of C4I. The Foundation have plans for periodic "flour fair festivals" and are developing other ideas.

Although the plan to recreate the original working mill to produce flour continually has not been achieved, C4I are happy with the current situation and even enthusiastically promote the Jerusalem Wineries visitor centre inside.

There is a strong connection between Kent, Ramsgate, and Jerusalem. When you are in Jerusalem, hopefully after the end of the coronavirus pandemic, try to see this wonderful site and the windmill. It is a beautiful tribute to Sir Moses with its magnificent view of Jerusalem's old city and a replica of Montefiore's carriage. You can enjoy an excellent cup of coffee, buy genuine Jerusalem wine and, if you time it right, see the windmill's sails turn and think of Sir Moses, Lady Judith Montefiore, and Judah Touro.

Maybe also get some Kentish-milled flour and remember, the wine-tasting shop is inside a £1million restoration! 

View eastwards from Mishkenot Sha’ananim towards Gethsemane Photo: Richard Gordon

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