Jerusalem: City of Lepers?

For thousands of years, leprosy was one of the world’s most feared diseases | Jerusalem’s “Hansen House” is known as the city’s legendary leper asylum, but a look back through time reveals a longstanding relationship between the city and the illness | On Jerusalem: city of holiness and leprosy

Shir Aharon Bram
A man and two boys suffering from leprosy, photographed at the gates of Jerusalem, 1890-1910, Underwood Brothers collection, courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi

“Near the rose garden in Jerusalem is a closed institution, where sadness prevails and isolation is everywhere to be found: the leper hospital.”


This was the opening sentence of an article about Hansen House in Jerusalem’s Talbiyah neighborhood, published in the Davar newspaper in November 1951. The building housing this institution was designed by the famous architect Conrad Schick, becoming something of an urban legend and the focus of horror stories told by Jerusalemites for many years. The late Jerusalemite author and scholar Yaakov Yehoshua recalled how the hospital reminded him in his youth of the weekly Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora – both related to leprosy. The connection he made between the cantor’s sad voice in the synagogue, describing the sick leper cursed by God, and the disfigured lepers residing at Hansen House, was a natural one. The hospital terrified residents of adjacent neighborhoods, and to this day, the old timers of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Talbiyah remember how they would look at the building with a mixture of awe and fear.

Though many are familiar with the leper asylum at Hansen House, the institution represents but the latest chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s relationship with the disease. An exploration of the untold story of leprosy in the Holy City reveals of a mysterious and powerful connection between the city and the illness, which was considered to be a divine curse all the way up to the 20th century.

The Jesus Hilfe or Jesus’ Help Asylum in Talbiyah in its early days, with the sign prominently placed at the entrance. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Leprosy, one of the world’s most notorious diseases, is mentioned already in the Bible. Like other serious skin ailments, it was considered a punishment from heaven, and those afflicted were socially shunned. The disease was caused by a bacteria which caused disfigurations of the skin and changes in the body. Leprosy has been documented for thousands of years, and the description in the Bible would appear to be one of the first documented attempts to cope with a contagious illness of this sort.

The Bible calls for expelling lepers “outside the camp”, and to a great extent, until the 21st century – treatment of lepers in Jerusalem followed suit. The Bible tells us of Uziyahu, King of Judah, who was stricken with leprosy and exiled until his death. When he dwelled in isolation in the “house of separation”, which popular traditions place in the Kidron valley east of the Old City of Jerusalem, did he imagine that an urban leper’s asylum would be built in nearby Silwan more than 2000 years later? Did the patients who collected alms at Zion Gate in the Old City in the 19th century know that the King of Jerusalem himself was a leper centuries before?

The “Lepers’ Village” near Zion Gate, Jerusalem. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


Sick With Leprosy and Not Recovering? You’re as Good as Dead

“Leprosy” has been used as a general descriptor for a whole range of serious and disfiguring skin diseases throughout history. In 1873, Norwegian researcher Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria causing this illness, and it has since been called Hansen’s Disease, after the man who discovered it. The leprosy the Bible speaks of has been proven to not be the disease we know today; historical-linguistic developments led to confusion on the subject. For centuries and millennia, the state of those suffering from leprosy in the Holy City was appalling.

The three powerful religions in the city – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all considered lepers to be cursed by God, with those not recovering from the disease even considered to be effectively dead. In Judaism, the main fear of the disease was religious, as lepers were considered impure; priests were charged with removing them from the camp or the city so that the spirit of God could dwell among the Children of Israel.

Like Judaism, the other religions – including the religions of the ancient Near East in Babylon and Mesopotamia – viewed lepers as impure beings to be separated from the healthy population. Even in our time, when leprosy is no longer the threat it once was and can be effectively treated, the term “leper” remains to mark out people who are rejected from society. A formal request was once submitted to change the Hebrew term for the disease to destigmatize the people suffering from it.

Letter sent by Prof. Feliz Zagher (Sagher), director of the Hansen Hospital from 1949, requesting the name of the disease be changed. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Things changed during the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. In contrast to the treatment of lepers in the Western Christian world, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem treated them with respect. Upon conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders came into more direct contact with lepers than they were used to, as leprosy was more prevalent in the Middle East at the time; many Crusaders were even afflicted themselves.

To deal with the lepers without expelling them, a special order was established – the Order of Saint Lazarus, named after the patron saint of lepers mentioned in the Christian Bible. Many knights afflicted with leprosy joined the order, and they were required to bear a noise-maker to announce their arrival in any densely-inhabited area. The knight bearing the noise maker became the symbol of the order, also known for its knights who fought without faceguards, in order to terrify enemies with their disfigured faces. Many of the knights knew they would not live long with the disease, and so preferred to die on the battlefield.

The peak of leprosy’s fame, or notoriety, in the city came with the rise of Jerusalem’s “Leper King”, Baldwin IV, who fought against Saladin in four battles, the last of which required he be carried by his knights to the battlefield. The Domus Leprosorum or “Leper’s Home” in Latin, the order’s center for treatment and prayer, was established outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, where the “French Hospital” stands today.

Symbol of the Order of Saint Lazarus


The Lepers at the Gate

In the modern era, even after it was scientifically proven that the Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s Disease – leprae – are not the same illness, the stigma remained. Lepers were removed from the city and healthy people refused to go near them – due to their serious and clearly visible physical symptoms, among other reasons. They were excommunicated and forced to live in an isolated community, without support beyond collecting alms. The sight of beggars at the city gates became a fixture, only increasing the locals’ disgust. Towards the end of the 19th century, most lepers in Jerusalem lived in a number of shacks next to the Old City walls, between Zion Gate and the Dung Gate. They married among themselves and lived in rickety houses made of stones taken from ruins, mud, and branches. The Ottoman government neglected them.

Lepers outside Hansen House. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Their condition improved thanks to the churches which became increasingly dominant in the city from the mid-19th century onward. In 1865, the land was visited by a German noblewoman named Auguste von Keffenbrinck-Ascheraden. Her shock at the sight of the scarred and pitiful lepers at the city gates led her to raise money to build a hospital and home for them. To that end, she recruited the aid of the Moravian-German church in an effort which would forever change the fate of lepers in Jerusalem.

Patients at the leper hospital in Jerusalem, late 19th century. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


From Mamilla to Talbiyah, With a Stop in Silwan

People had only begun to leave the walls of the Old City as the 19th century came to a close, and Jerusalem’s urban heart still lay within their confines. The German countess and the Moravian church chose a nearby location known today as the neighborhood of Mamilla. The structure was established next to its pool, one of the city’s water sources, and away from the main roads to and from Jerusalem.

In 1866, the first leper’s hospital was established, and would eventually become the Lazarist Monastery on Agron Street. It had a number of rooms, which did not fill up that quickly – the Jerusalemite lepers were suspicious of the hospital built by the church; the Jews and Muslims in particular were wary of proselytizing. Still, the hospital staff managed to win their trust over time, and it soon became apparent that the hospital wasn’t big enough for all the city’s lepers.

The first leper’s asylum in the Mamilla neighborhood, which can be seen today on Agron Street. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

In the meantime, the leper neighborhood next to Zion Gate was demolished by the Ottoman authorities between 1873 and 1975. The government had taken note of the church’s efforts to take the lepers under its wing and decided to follow suit, ordering the construction of government homes for lepers next to Bir Ayoub, south of Silwan. The urban hospital was managed under difficult conditions, without regular supervision and handling, and four patients died in its first summer. Despite this, many of the city’s patients, particularly those of Muslim faith, chose at first to go to Dir Ayoub, since the European beds and Christian nurses in the German Mamilla hospital were foreign to them. But the difficult conditions, lack of doctors, and non-separation between those with “lighter” and more “severe” leprosy led many to ultimately seek the aid of the church. This demand led the church to purchase new land southwest of the Old City to establish the Jesus Hilfe or “Jesus’ Help” hospital for lepers, which would later become Hansen House.

Lepers’ homes built in Silwan by the Ottoman government, the Schneller Orphanage Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi


From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and the State of Israel

The Jesus Hilfe hospital was established in Talbiyah on a large lot, surrounded by walls. Opened in 1887, it operated in various forms until 2002, witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Mandate, and the coming of the State of Israel. It had room for some 60 patients alongside medical staff and nurses, and was built to be a self-sustaining establishment. Trees and plants were planted around the building and a vegetable garden was set up where the lepers could work, hoe, grow fruits and vegetables and set up a chicken farm. Cedar trees were brought in specially from Lebanon to beautify the courtyard, alongside cypress and other kinds of trees.

Hansen House’s first doctor, Dr. Adalbert Einsler (the father-in-law of architect Conrad Schick) used new methods to treat the patients. They were allowed to receive visitors and take trips around the country, and they were forced to give up begging. The leper asylum went by many names among the Arabs of Jerusalem, including dar al-masaknin (“the house of the pitiable”) and “the Morafi hospital” after the Moravian church. The lepers walking freely around the hospital terrified the city’s residents, who stayed as far away as they could.

Lepers engaging in routine activity at Hansen House, late Ottoman period. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War and the start of the British Mandate, the institution’s working relations shifted away from Germany. The hospital was placed under the supervision of the Mandate’s health department, even receiving a government budget and being placed under the aegis of the British branch of the Moravian church.

In 1919, Palestinian Jerusalem doctor Tawfiq Canaan was appointed chief physician of the institution, a position he held until the ’48 war. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jesus Hilfe hospital was purchased from the Moravian church. The State of Israel turned it into a government hospital and called it “Hansen Hospital,” after the man who discovered the disease. Despite the repeated demands of neighboring residents, as well as a number of attempts to move the institution, the hospital operated on site until 2002. It was then abandoned and left in that state for years – only contributing to its mysterious image. Today it serves as a cultural center and museum.

Sign for the government hospital known as Hansen House, after it was transferred to Israeli government control after the ’48 war. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Today, leprosy isn’t the terrifying disease it once was, and effective treatment in the early stages does much to prevent it. The national – and only – center in Israel for treating lepers is in Jerusalem, located on Strauss Street in the center of town. Leprosy ceases to be contagious after initial treatment, removing the need for isolation of patients. The infection rate is very low, and some 95% of the population is naturally immune. But the once-ominous disease left its marks on Jerusalem, just like the scars it once left on the human body, reminding us of days long past.



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