Yesterday, as the Sukkot holiday was coming to end with people celebrating Simhat Torah across Israel, I had the rare opportunity to visit Armon Hanatziv – United Nations Government House in Jerusalem. 99.9% of the time, that implies going to the boardwalk next to the building itself and taking in the wonderful view of Jerusalem’s Old City and its surrounding valleys and neighborhoods, but this time, it actually meant getting a special tour of the UN’s headquarters for the Middle East, courtesy of Major Chris Hughes, the United States’ official representative to the UN in Jerusalem.
The site was originally built to serve as the headquarters for the British Mandate in Palestine during the late 1920s after the original headquarters at the Augusta Victoria Church on the Mount of Olives had been heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1927. With the end of the Mandate and the eventual outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, the site became a strategic target for both the Israelis and Jordanians. After the completion of Jerusalem’s demarcation lines and eventual armistice agreement between Israel and the invading Arab countries, the site was handed over to the UN and became the body’s official headquarters for the coordination of activities across the region.
Today, it is one of the few sites across the country where access to the public is nearly impossible. You will even find many Israelis who grew up in Jerusalem and have overturned every stone in the city yet have failed to gain entrance to the legendary UN building.
Along with the legends of swanky soirees and lavish parties during the Mandate coupled with the regionally implicated decisions being made at the site while under UN control, seeing the building’s inner décor and external facade allows one’s imagination to step into the shoes of the different British High Commissioners and foreign dignitaries that have roamed through the buildings archways and grandiose chambers.
The architectural styles and interior motifs are similar to what you will find at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller museum, as both buildings were planned by Austen Harrison, the official architect for the Mandatory Department for Public Works in the British High Commissioner’s office. The same families hired by the British to refurbish the Dome of the Rock produced the wealth of Armenian Pottery lining the hallways and grand ballroom, and the roof offers one of the best views of Jerusalem while allowing you to see far off to the Dead Sea, Herodian and Bethlehem. It offers a great way to see the city’s sharp and daunting topography and the complex geographical outline that makes Jerusalem one of the more difficult cities to manage on a larger scale.
Thanks to Major Hughes for taking us around; hopefully, we’ll be able to do it again!