One of the most interesting and beautiful exhibits at the Tower of David Museum is an impressive, 18 sq. meter zinc model of Jerusalem crafted in the 19th century. This unique exhibit was created in 1872, during the Ottoman period in Jerusalem, by the Hungarian pilgrim Stephen Illés.
Illés arrived in Jerusalem in 1864 and worked as a bookbinder in a print shop but soon began to research the city’s history. In the model he shows a detailed view of the streets and buildings of Jerusalem at the time, including doors and windows! He modelled the first houses of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Machane Yisrael neighborhoods, the French Consulate, the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives, the Russian Compound, the hills of Abu Tor and Silwan, and the city’s alleyways, valleys, gates and even its telegraph poles – all in a 1:500 scale.
Illés used a map of the British Survey of Western Palestine to create the topographic base of the model. The map was drawn by Charles Wilson, British officer, archeologist and pioneer researcher of Palestine, and for whom Wilson’s Arch near the Western Wall was named. He also consulted the Swiss architect and researcher Conrad Schick for the architectural detailing of the city’s buildings.
The model provides a detailed, unique and fascinating historical document of the city in the Ottoman period, before the significant changes of the 20th century. For example, the model shows what the city looked like before the visit of German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898. In preparation for the Kaiser’s visit an opening was made near Jaffa Gate to enable carriages to enter the Old City and this opening remains till today. Likewise, the Church of the Redeemer, for whose inauguration the Kaiser visited, was not yet built. The Illés relief, created in 1872, shows neither of these familiar landmarks. The model also documents the Jewish Quarter as it was before its destruction in 1948.
The model was first displayed in 1873 in the Ottoman pavilion at the International Exhibition in Vienna. Although the model is very accurate in its depiction of Jerusalem there are some distortions due to the Ottoman demand that the mosques be enlarged in relation to the scale. After display in Vienna the model was moved to different cities in Europe until 1878 when Gustave Moynier, president of the Red Cross, turned to the public for help to buy the model. The price was 10,600 Swiss Francs and in two weeks he managed to raise half the amount. He raised the rest of the money and, for 40 years the model found a home in Geneva in the Salle de la Reformation.
In 1899, as public interest waned, the model was stored in the Public University Library of Geneva. It continued its travels and eventually ended up at the Wilson Palace, formerly the UN Security Council seat.
In 1984 Moti Yair, a research student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, came across a reference regarding the purchase of the model. He asked Arian Litman, a Swiss student, to help him look for the model in Geneva. Litman, with the help of her father, two chief librarians, Professor Yehoshua Ben Arieh and a Geneva Library Archive staff member, managed to find the model that was forgotten in the library’s attic for 64 years. Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek, appealed to the library to send the model back to Jerusalem and after a general meeting the directors unanimously voted to lend it to the Jerusalem City Council. The model was packed in eight boxes which El-Al Airlines transported to Israel free of charge. In 1984, 111 years after it was displayed in Vienna, the model returned to Jerusalem. The model was restored and has been part of the permanent display of the Tower of David Museum since 1985.
In addition to the Illés Model of Jerusalem in the 19th century, the museum exhibits four other models of the city: the citadel model and models of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, the Byzantine age and the Crusader period.