Liberate the Illés Relief

The Illes Relief is a prized treasure that should be returned to Geneva rather than squandered in Jerusalem.

Illes Relief
The hand-crafted Illés Relief is like looking at a 19th century Google map of Jerusalem [Photo: Tower of David Museum]

Deep within an ancient citadel in Jerusalem rests an extraordinarily rare relief map. It tells an intriguing tale of two cities – Jerusalem and Geneva – a tale which deserves to be heard by a wider audience.

The model relief was made by Stephan Illés, an enterprising young Hungarian Catholic, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1864. He spent his days quietly binding books to earn a living, but escaped after dark into a marvellous miniature world of his own creation. From 1872 to 1873, he painstakingly crafted a 4.5 by 5 metre (15 by 16ft) 3D model to make what came to be known as the Illés Relief – a 19th century Google Map of Jerusalem.

Night after night, Illés and his two assistants cut, melted and shaped beaten zinc (at the scale of 1:500), then painted thousands of pieces to simulate the natural and built topography of the city. Pastel paint suggested Jerusalem stone; subtle shifts in tone gave the effect of luminous shadow on buildings. The large scale model offers rare and revealing insights into the material reality of the city that Arab speakers call al-Quds al-Sharif.  

It is a rare and revealing large scale model of the geographical, spiritual, political and administrative centre of Palestine under late Ottoman rule, and remains the envy of contemporary cartograpers and digital mappers alike – consular flags, boulders, olive trees, windows, balconies and the first telegraph poles installed in 1865 were replicated in loving detail. The model captures a moment in 1873 when the city became an important administrative centre of an autonomous Ottoman district (mudasariflik).

Although Illés’ motives have yet to be subjected to full scrutiny, the distinctive political significance of his artifact is undeniable – it serves as a highly original addition to the existing data showing that, at the end of the 19th century, before Palestine was passed on to the British Mandate and the subsequent mass arrival of waves of Jewish immigrants, swelling the existing Jewish population dramatically, Jerusalem was visibly and discernibly an Arab and Muslim city.

Upon its completion, the Illés Relief made its debut at the Turkish Ottoman pavilion during the Vienna World’s Fair of 1873, where it was the star attraction for six months. Following the fair’s closure, Illés took his model (which he’d ingeniously built in sections to facilitate transportation) on a European tour; relief models of cities were very fashionable in 19th century Europe, after all.

For five years, the relief enthralled European audiences, first on display in London, then in Germany (Munich and Cologne), and finally in major Swiss cities (Zurich, Neuchâtel, Luzern and Basel). Neuchâtel Pastor Felix Bouvet was deeply moved by it; the precise detail and topographic verisimilitude stirred such vivid spiritual and poetic emotions that he felt transported to Jerusalem. Titus Tobler, the famous Swiss explorer, physician and geographer of Palestine, was greatly impressed by its scientific exactitude and scrupulous fidelity.

A new home

After its peripatetic journey, the masterly model finally found a permanent home in Geneva. Gustave Moynier, president of the International Red Cross and major proponent of the humanitarian “Spirit of Geneva”, spearheaded the initiative for its purchase. Two appeals were launched in April 1878. Money flowed in from more than a hundred private donors, many from the most distinguished families. The people of Geneva, from a wide social spectrum, responded generously and enthusiastically. Within the month, 6,000 Swiss francs had been raised, much by public subscription. The administrative council of the Société de la Rive Gauche contributed an additional 4,600 francs, thereby permitting the purchase of the model for 9,500 francs on October 26, 1878 (estimated to be equivalent to at least $219,000 in today’s money). The remainder was designated for its installation in the Calvin Library on the first floor of the Maison de la Réformation.

For forty years (1879-1919), the Illés Relief was displayed two days a week in the Maison de la Réformation SA, a private evangelical association in the centre of Geneva that had assumed its legal ownership. In order to accommodate delegates to the first meeting of the League of Nations, it was removed to the attic of Geneva’s Public and University Library in 1920. The model’s itinerant trajectory continued – finding space always seems to have been a challenge. Following a brief exhibition at the Art and History Museum in 1963, it was relocated to a number of venues (including the Secretariat Building of the League), and eventually stationed at the Palais Wilson.

Fast forward two decades. On April 6, 1984, Rehav Rubin, an Israeli geographer on the trail of the Illés Relief, joined forces with the late David G Littman and his daughter; the model was found in its original home – the attic of the Maison de la Réformation. A month later, during a general assembly, the five members of the society’s administrative council voted unanimously to loan the relief to the Tower of David Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem.

On September 20, 1984, a convention was signed before a Geneva notary between two officials of the Maison de la Réformation and David G Littman, who represented the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolek. But the lenders expressed their obligation to protect the patrimony of the citizens of Geneva in the contract; it stipulated an initial ten-year loan to the Municipality of Jerusalem, after which renewal was automatic every five years – unless specified to the contrary.

Back to Jerusalem

The Illés Relief, which weighs a ton, was transported to Jerusalem on October 30, 1984, in eight wooden crates. It was renovated thanks to a substantial gift made by a private Genevese donor, then situated in the Tower of David Museum.    

Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kolek, has criticised the Zionist-orientated museum, not only for its attempts to erase Palestinian history, but for seeking to affirm that the foundation of Jerusalem dates from the era of King David, around 1000BCE, rather than 4,000 years earlier, as is evident from the ample archaeological record. Situated at a highly strategic location near the Jaffa Gate, the complex marks the slogan: “The Tower of David Museum – Where Jerusalem Begins.”

Hardly the case. The distinguished archaeologist, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, has read the multi-layed historical structure as an architectural palimpsest: an Ottoman mosque within a fortress that owes various architectural alterations and additions to the Mamelukes, Ayyubids and Crusaders, and whose original foundations date back to the Herodian period. The cylindrical minaret built during the 17th century is still visible and can be seen on the relief.

Back in Geneva, the Maison de la Réformation council had been assured that the relief would be seen by thousands of museum-goers. However, finding it today demands directed curiosity or deliberate intention – since it is tucked away deep in the subterranean level, where it attracts few visitors – as recently attested by a museum guide. It is the only artifact in the museum, yet it is simply described on a plaque as “a 19th century model of Jerusalem”. This near absence of curatorial documentation does not fall in line with Professor Rubin’s valuation of it as “an accurate and detailed cartographic document and therefore an important and unique source for the study of the history and georgraphy of Jerusalem in the 19th century”. Apart from Rubin’s research, there has been surprisingly little comment on the relief, except for the focused attention paid to the few Jewish monuments, especially the rebuilt Hurva synagogue that was again destroyed in 1948.

While the museum claims to tell the story of Jerusalem throughout its history, it neglects to give any serious curatorial attention to the visual evidence of the relief that Jerusalem was a predominantly and markedly Arab city.

It is interesting to note that, either through design or inexperience, the perspective taken in the museum photograph of the Illés Relief abandons the wide bird’s eye view seen in older photos. The effect is to diminish the visual dominance of the Dome of the Rock over Jerusalem, overshadowing it with the Mount of Olives. It also cuts off Mishkenot Sha’ananim – the first area of Jewish settlement founded outside the Old City walls in 1860. However, the demolished Mughrabi neighbourhood, adjacent to the Western Wall, is clearly visible.

While it is true that Illés exaggerated the height of the minarets and augmented the Dome of the Rock, he reduced the dimensions of the Aqsa Mosque. Other major landmarks have also been enlarged to visually tag their importance for the viewer: St Ann’s Church, the dome of the Holy Sepulchre and the dome of the medieval mosque within the destroyed al-Afdaliyya medrasa complex. These alterations were quite intentional to the narrative of Jerusalem that Illés wished to tell. According to Rubin, he deliberately adopted the topographic contour lines from the Wilson Ordnance Survey (1864-65), the first accurate map of Jerusalem. 

The 1864 – 1865 Wilson Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem was the city’s first scientific topographical map [The Jewish National and University Library & The Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

Both Wilson and Illés mirror the surface area and the built environment of late-19th century Jerusalem. They show a fascinating mosaic of interpenetrating quarters, called harats (an Arabic term that doubles for streets or “lanes”). Although the city was predominantly Arab in its architectonic landscape, “there was no clear delineation between neighbourhood and religion” until the tail end of the Ottoman period, as Selim Tamari has rightly observed.

Religious communities in Jerusalem generally lived together in proximity to their primary shrines and the Ottomans aimed to maintain peace among them – especially within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In response to a flare up of tensions in the Sepulchre basilica in 1757, the Ottoman sultan issued an imperial order that demarcated the status quo, that is, the rights, privileges and practices of certain communities to the Holy Places. During the British Mandate, the artifical division into four quadrants was imposed, and remains largely unchanged.  

The demographic myth that Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority since the early-to-mid-19th century is derived from inflated population figures for the Jewish population of the city provided by European and Jewish observers over a period of many years. 

As Rashid Khalidi has clearly underscored: “None of these observers counted the population, none was a trained demographer, and none cite Ottoman or other official statistics. All were considerably more familiar and culturally comfortable with European Jewish settler society than with Arab society, about which their ignorance was generally nearly total. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the only ones who can properly evaluate population numbers are those who count the population. For the Ottoman Empire, it has been shown that no population statistics but those of the Ottoman government provide usable demographic data.” 

Ottoman population registers from 1871-1872, which record only by religious affiliation, list 6,150 Muslims, 4,428 Christians, and 3,780 Jews. Late-19th century Jerusalem was “like a Tower of Babel in fancy dress with a hierarchy of religions and languages”, writes historian Simon Sebag Montefiore.

On the cusp of modernisation

Among its great merits, the Illés Relief gives us a rare picture of the modern development of the new city. It shows the colonial building boom after the Crimean War (1853-1856) that firmly implanted Europeans who built churches, monasteries, hospices and consulates, thereby ushering in a period of prosperity that endured until World War I. Tanzimât reforms aimed to integrate non-Muslims and non-Turks more thoroughly into Ottoman society and to ensure civil equality. 

This was often conveyed symbolically. Assad Effendi, the Ottoman sultan’s official architect, was commissioned to erect a neo-Byzantine domed structure over the ruins of the Hurva Synagogue, following its first destruction in 1721. After the dome’s completion and the rebuilding of the synagogue in 1864, the synagogue was the tallest Jewish landmark in Jerusalem for the following eight decades, though Illés does not accord it hierarchical status.  

When the Illés Relief was conceived in 1873, Jerusalem was a unified city. Today’s conditions have recently led the Swiss government to express its “deep concern about the destruction of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem”. It proceeded to call on the Israeli government “to end these operations immediately and to put a stop to all forms of settlement of the occupied Palestinian territory”.

Since 1993, official Israeli policies and measures have continuously maintained general closure, restricting and controlling the movement of people and goods between Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, as well as between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian residents (both Christian and Muslim) of the occupied Palestinian territories have severely limited access to their religious sites in Jerusalem – sometimes only receiving permits to visit the holy city after years of requests.

Although the Center for Jerusalem Studies takes school children on tours of the Old City, they are often delayed at the Qalandia checkpoint, and when they finally arrive, they prefer to roam the city, not go into an Israeli museum which refutes their Palestinian identity.

The Tower of David museum is inaccessible to the majority of Palestinians and their young scholars, for whom this rare historical document should be valorised as an object of study in all of its complexity – in a neutral site, as well as by means of a virtual copy that would increase its visibility. To impede access violates the right to culture under international human rights law, and is inconsistent with Swiss foreign policy priorities: the respect, reinforcement and promotion of international humanitarian law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Like Jerusalem, Geneva was also rapidly modernising during the second half of the 19th century, following the dismantling of its fortifications. During the Reformation, Calvin had cast the city as the New Jerusalem – a city of tolerance, set on a hill. The purchase of the Illés Relief was specifically intended for the edification of the youth of Geneva, spiritual heirs of The Geneva Bible (1557), regarded as history’s first study Bible. For Reformed theologians, the model also provided a first-hand document for critical biblical studies at the university. Those ordinary citizens who were unable to visit Jerusalem could instantly become avian pilgrims who visually soared over its sacred spaces.  

Back down on earth, Geneva has historically served a key international role as a valued mediator in difficult conflicts and as a unifying agent in world disorder. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the official organisation that vigilantly guards against violations of the articles of the Geneva Convention in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. 

The city is the natural arena for peacemakers and a unifying agent in world disorder. It is also the rightful owner of the Illés Relief and should spare no effort in order to repatriate this remarkable document of the history of Jerusalem and of Geneva to an international space that allows for meditation and debate, rather than renewing its lease and keeping it in a politically charged environment.

“We are counting today on a new generation to drive the peace effort forward,” former Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey told delegates at a conference in Geneva last year. This generation deserves full access to the Illés Relief, which has extraordinary documentary value for the contentious issue of Jerusalem in final status peace talks.   

Let’s liberate the Illés Relief. 2014 is the next five-year marker for the automatic renewal of the loan contract. It is therefore timely to initiate its restitution to its legal owners in Switzerland. When the relief was installed in Jerusalem in 1984, then mayor of Geneva, René Emmenegger, affirmed that: “The Jerusalem model is instructive for our time.” How much more so for our own.

Correction: An earlier published edition of this article inferred that the model had not augmented the size of the Dome of the Rock. We apologise for the error.

Dr Maryvelma Smith O’Neil is a member of the faculty at Webster University, Geneva, and lectures on the histories of Jerusalem and art. She is the founder and director of ARCH – the Alliance to Restore Cultural Heritage in the Holy City of Jerusalem. After an extended sojourn in Israel, she became an activist for Palestinian statehood. She is currently working on a book on the cultural history of Heaven.