A Brief Moment in Time – The Secret History of a 19th Century Model

by Community Writers

A secret is hidden inside a 1500-year-old cistern at the Tower of David. At the foot of a sixty step staircase descending into the ancient reservoir is a large and remarkable model of late 19th century Jerusalem. The model is elaborate, detailed and intricate and the story behind it is no less fascinating.

The story begins with the creator of the model, Stephen Illes. Who was Stephen Illes and how did he get to Jerusalem? Illes, a Catholic from Pressburg in Austria-Hungary, came to Jerusalem in 1864 and was captivated by the stories of the city. He found work as a bookbinder in the Franciscan Abbey in the Christian Quarter, not far from the Tower of David. Illes was one of a wave of researchers, architects, pilgrims and historians who came to Jerusalem in 19th century to explore and rediscover its secrets.  Among these researchers were Edward Robinson who discovered Robinson’s Arch in the Western Wall, Charles Warren who discovered the Warren shaft in the City of David and Conrad Schick, an architect and researcher of Jerusalem who, among other things, engaged in a popular pastime – model building. Illes, who knew Schick, was influenced by him. After Illes opened his own business, he received an order for a model from the Ottoman authorities who were preparing for an international display in Vienna. At the time, the Great Powers were demanding increasing influence in Jerusalem and the Ottomans wanted to assert their sovereignty with a very impressive model of contemporary Jerusalem to display at the Universal Exhibition.


Illes worked on the model for 5 consecutive months. Built to a scale of 1:500 the model measures 13 feet by 15 feet and weighs about a ton. It was built in 8 sections for easy transportation, and made of strips of beaten zinc mounted on a wooden platform. It was a very large and very ambitious model documenting Jerusalem at one brief moment in time.

The model left Jerusalem in 1873 for the Vienna Universal Exhibition. Although these were the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire, the city of Jerusalem was beginning to change and modernize.  The city had expanded beyond the walls of the Old City and crossed over the ridge to the Valley of Gehenna.  Residents left the safety of the walled city to make their homes and build neighborhoods on the outside. The great European Powers staked their material claims in the city – all these historical processes can be seen on the model itself.

כיפת הסלע

The area of the model stretches from the Mount of Olives in the east to the Russian Compound in the west, and from the spring of Ein Rogel in the south to beyond the Damascus Gate in the north. Included are the four quarters of the Old City, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the village of Silwan and the Tower of David. Today’s Golden Dome of the Rock was not golden then, but rather lead. It only received it gold plating in the 1960’s under the Jordanians. The Jewish Quarter also appears as it was then. The newly-built Hurva and Tiferet Yisrael synagogues, later destroyed by the Jordanians, are seen in the Jewish Quarter. Today, only the restored Hurva synagogue remains.

הרובע היהודי

The Jewish Quarter

Six gates are shown along the city walls: Jaffa Gate, Damascus Gate, Lions’ Gate, the sealed Gate of Mercy (Golden Gate), Dung Gate and Zion Gate. Herod’s Gate, missing in the model, was only opened in 1874, and the New Gate was added in 1889. The German Church of the Redeemer is marked by a solitary German flag, while the Tower of David is still surrounded by the moat which was later filled in for the visit of German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1898).

Illes portrayed the first Jewish neighborhood, Mishkenot Shaanaim, built outside the city walls complete with the famous Montefiore windmill. The Ottoman telegraph lines can be seen, snaking to the Jaffa Gate.

משכנות שאננים

Mishkenot Shaanaim

It is also interesting to note that although the model is remarkably accurate and every building, hill, site and olive tree appear in its exact place, there is a very real discrepancy in scale.  The Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock , the surrounding minarets are all significantly larger than the scale of the rest of the model and the walls of the city are three times as high as they are in reality. It is quite possible that the Ottomans wanted to display their power and prestige at this important International Fair. Perhaps this was the swan song of the Ottoman Empire that will ultimately wane until World War I when Jerusalem will pass into the hands of the British Mandate.

Illes displayed his model in the Ottoman Empire Pavilion at the Vienna exhibition, and he was so successful that, once the fair was over, he embarked on a tour to exhibit it all over Europe hoping to sell it to raise funds for the building of two more Jerusalem models. He succeeded in Geneva in 1878, when the 10,000 francs he asked for were raised by some of Geneva’s prominent families, including Gustave Moynier, one of the founders of the International Red Cross. For more than 40 years, the model was on display at the Maison de la Reformation, a private evangelical association which assumed its legal ownership.

In 1920, the League of Nations leased the building and the model had to be moved. It was transferred to the attic of Geneva’s Public and University Library, where it was stored “provisionally” for 43 years. It was briefly exhibited in 1963, before ending up in storage in the city’s Palais Wilson, where it was forgotten.

So it lay until the 1980s when Moti Yair, a young researcher from the Hebrew University came across an article mentioning the model.  His imagination and curiosity were ignited and he decided to look for the model.  By chance, he mentioned his search to Ariane Littman, a student from Switzerland. She promptly offered to try to trace the model in Geneva. Three weeks later, she was back with good news. Her father, David Littman, a keen amateur historian, had tracked it down to the storehouse of the Palais Wilson, where it had lain for many years.  He arranged for it to return to Jerusalem in 1984, to the Tower of David Museum where it has been on display ever since.

מגדל דוד. המבנים שבחצר המצודה נהרסו בתקופת המנדט הבריטי

The Tower of David (The Citadel)

But the story is not quite over. It seems that this is not the only model that Iles created. We know that he raised funds by selling the Jerusalem model and accounts relate that he worked on two other models:  one, quite similar to the one on display in the museum, was an updated model, built about 10 years after the original model. There may also be a historical model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. These two models have never been found and their fate is still a mystery.

Perhaps, like the 19th century model, one day, a young and eager historian, will find these models as well and bring them home.