Russian imperial hostel reopens for Jerusalem pilgrims

Sergei Courtyard Russian pilgrim hostel in Jerusalem Image copyright Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society
Image caption The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society flag already flies over the Sergei Courtyard

The Russian government is reopening a hostel for Orthodox pilgrims in Jerusalem in a hospice originally built on the orders of a Romanov grand duke, more than 100 years after it closed.

There will be a ceremonial reopening of the Sergei Courtyard next week after major renovation work by Israeli architect Uri Padan, the Israeli news site News1 reports. The imposing two-storey Renaissance Revival hospice was completed in 1890, with 25 luxurious rooms to accommodate aristocratic pilgrims visiting the Christian sites of Jerusalem. It is named after Grand Duke Sergei, an uncle of Tsar Nicholas II. He was head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which ran the Russian Compound district of Jerusalem after the Ottoman Sultans sold it to Russia.

The Russian population was expelled when Moscow and the Ottoman Empire went to war in 1914, and the various hostels became government buildings under the British Mandate and later Israeli rule. When the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was re-established after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Israeli government eventually agreed to hand back some buildings, including the Sergei Courtyard.

In contrast to its imperial heyday, the hostel will be open to all, not just Russia's much-reduced nobility. The Kremlin allocated $10m (£7.7m) for restoration work to begin once the last Israeli government institutions left the building in 2012. It promises that the Courtyard grounds will be open to the general public, who can also rent the 22 rooms if they want to, according to Haaretz newspaper. Russia also plans to open a small school and a museum about the building's history on the site.

Not everyone in Israel agrees with the idea of letting Russia own a chunk of prime Jerusalem real estate. Members of parliament and right-wing lobby groups appealed to the High Court in 2008, but it upheld the government's right to sell the former hospice. "Russian pilgrims can now walk in the footsteps of their ancestors," Boris Lemper, the lawyer acting for the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, told the Times of Israel.

Image copyright Deror Avi/Wikimedia Commons
Image caption The internal courtyard hosts a pond and gardens

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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