In 1898, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, visited Jerusalem for the first and only time in his life. His trip was scheduled to coincide with the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to gain support for the foundation a Jewish homeland in the then Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Herzl’s visit would forever change him, and in the process, he made a significant and prominent impact on the Tower of David, forever changing the iconography of this historic landmark.
Theodor Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish playwright, author, and journalist, who is largely credited as the father of modern political Zionism, who advocated for the creation of a modern Jewish state in the native homeland of the Jewish people. Despite his significant role in the foundation of the Jewish State, and his current final resting place in Jerusalem, Herzl had only visited the land once during his lifetime, but his trip remains a significant event in the history of the modern Jewish state.
On October 28th, 1898, Theodor Herzl arrived in Jerusalem in the hopes of securing a meeting with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who had been invited by the Ottomans in order to form an alliance in advance of the looming world war. Herzl had hoped that if he could persuade the Kaiser to support a Jewish state, perhaps he in turn could influence the Ottomans to do the same. At the time of Herzl’s visit in 1898, the Ottoman Empire continued to rule over Palestine, and would do so until the land was subsequently captured by the British in 1917. Perhaps the most lasting physical impact of the Kaiser’s visit were the changes made to Jerusalem’s ancient city walls. In order to prepare for the Kaiser’s visit to Jerusalem, the Ottomans decided to destroy one portion of the Old City walls, adjoining the moat around the Tower of David, in order to allow for a grand entry by the Kaiser’s horses and carriages to enter the city. Today, the breached wall adjacent to the Jaffa Gate acts as the vehicular entry into the Old City.
Reflected in his writings, Herzl’s visit to Jerusalem would forever have a profound impact on him, but just as equal was his impact on the ancient city. During his time in the Old City of Jerusalem Herzl viewed the Tower of David citadel, he wrote of the stunning beauty of the tower that overlooked the ancient city. However, the tower which Herzl referred to was not the historic tower built by King Herod, and later misnamed ‘The Tower of David’ by pilgrims, but rather, the now-famous minaret built during the Ottoman era in the 17th century. Over time, Herzl’s writings about the ‘tower’ he had seen had slowly
changed the iconography of the ancient citadel, turning an addition with only a few hundred years of history into a primary symbol of a 3,000 year old citadel. Today, one can easily find the Ottoman-era minaret reflected on Jewish prayer books and other religious art.
Ultimately, Herzl did manage to secure a meeting with the Kaiser, but could not convince him to support his ambitious goal for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Wilhelm II departed from Jerusalem on November 4th, 1898, as did Herzl, who returned to Europe following his unsuccessful mission. Herzl died six years later, on July 3rd, 1904, and never lived to see his dream come to fruition.
The simultaneous visits of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Theodor Herzl to Jerusalem remain an important and influential moment in the ancient city’s history. In 2012, The Tower of David Museum commemorated this historic event through an exhibition named “The Kaiser is Coming!”, which showcased the visit of the Kaiser and its lasting impact, which blended technology and artifacts to chronicle the Kaiser’s important visit. The museum also utilized social media to interact with fans and set up a Facebook account on behalf of the Kaiser, following his visit through Europe, Turkey, and onto Ottoman-controlled Palestine, and recording his impressions of the land upon his arrival.