The Russians have played a significant part in shaping Israel’s past and present history, leaving their mark and legacy in the country. Russians make up a quarter of Israel’s total population. So, it is not surprising that the Russian language is the most widely spoken non-official language in Israel (see the most important languages of Israel). Their influence also extends to its culture and cuisine, making up a significant part of the modern Israeli society.
When it comes to Russian landmarks in Israel, there is a scattering of mostly Russian Orthodox churches. But probably the most famous Russian landmark in Israel is found here in Jerusalem – the Russian Compound.
Located off Jaffa Road in central Jerusalem, the Russian Compound is one of the oldest quarters in the capital and was one of the first structures to be built outside the Old City of Jerusalem. It is home to the massive and conspicuous Holy Trinity Church and other buildings.
The Russian Compound was originally built between 1860 and 1890. When the construction was completed, the compound eventually consisted of men’s and women’s hostels, a Russian consulate, a mission (known as Duhovnia), a hospital, and the impressive Orthodox cathedral.
Until around a century ago, the Russian compound played host to the Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Many of the pilgrims stayed in the compound’s accommodations. In 1860, the magnificent Holy Trinity Church was constructed as the compound’s centerpiece. The people of the Russian Empire donated the funds for the construction of the church. The edifice was consecrated in 1872.
In 1903, the Nikolai Pilgrims Hospice was added to the compound.
It was good while it lasted. However, when World War I broke out, the Ottoman authorities expelled the Russians. When the British invaded and captured Jerusalem, they used the compound for several administrative functions.
Following the establishment of State of Israel in 1948, the Israeli government returned the compound’s ownership to the Moscow Patriarchate. But in 1964, the government purchased the entire compound back, except for the cathedral and one other building.
What’s in the Russian Compound?
Visitors can explore the Russian Compound freely on their own or visit it with a professional tour guide.
For many years, the Russian Compound was the hub of Jerusalem’s nightlife, featuring bars with names like Cannabis, Glasnost, and Putin. Today, the compound is the home to various government offices, including the Ministry of Agriculture, the courts, and the city’s police headquarters. It is also a vibrant restaurant and shopping district.
As of this writing, the Bezalel art school has announced its plans to relocate to a new campus in the Russian Compound.
The Russian Compound has left historical treasures. Apart from the buildings themselves and their striking architecture, the compound also has unexpected treasures lying beneath it.
- Holy Trinity Church (also known as Holy Trinity Cathedral) – It is one of Jerusalem’s most beautiful and distinctive churches. The church was built as the center of the compound. Its main hall, dome, and two aisles are painted celestial blue with salmon-colored accents and include depictions of saints. It also features four octagonal bell towers.
- Duhovnia – The compound’s mission building, built in 1863 originally as a hospice. It later housed the offices of the ecclesiastical mission of the Russian patriarchate. Many decades later, now under the State of Israel, the building was home to all of Jerusalem’s courts (including the Supreme Court) until 1992. Now it houses the lower courts and the magistrate court.
- Southern Gate – Originally located between Duhovnia and the hospital on Safra Square, built in 1890 as part of the Russian Compound’s perimeter wall. It was later relocated to Safra Square, where it has since remained.
- Hospital – Located on Safra Square 13.
- Russian Consulate – The building housed the school of pharmacy, and later laboratories, of the Hebrew University from 1953 to 1973. One of the compound’s original buildings, it displays a combination of European and local building techniques.
- Elisabeth Courtyard hospice for men – A courtyard structure built in 1864 to serve the male Russian pilgrims in the Holy Land. It is now home to Jerusalem’s police headquarters.
- Sergei Building – It was built in 1899 in honor of the Grand Duke Sergei, brother of Tsar Alexander III, who was then President of the Russian Orthodox Palestine Society. It served the pilgrims from the Russian nobility. In recent years, the building was host to the offices of the Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites until 2008, when the building’s ownership was transferred to Russia. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel also held its offices there until 2012. The Russian government plans to restore the site as accommodation for the Russian pilgrims.
- Northern Gate – Located opposite Sergei Building.
- Marianskaya Courtyard hospice for women – It was built in 1864 as a women’s hostel. It was converted into a central prison, where the British forces once imprisoned the Jewish underground resistance fighters during the years leading up to the 1948 War of Independence. The building now houses the Museum of Underground Prisoners, which commemorates the activities of the Jewish resistance against the British.
- Nikolai Pilgrims Hospice – One of the later buildings added to the compound, the Nikolai Pilgrims Hospice is another courtyard structure. Built in 1903, the hospice was named after Tsar Nicholas II. It served as the British intelligence quarters during their mandate in Palestine. During the Jewish resistance against the British, the building was blown up twice by the Jewish underground fighters.
In recent years, many archaeological treasures have been excavated from this compound, including:
- A colossal monolithic column, which suggests that Jerusalem’s ancient “Third Wall” may have reached all the way to where the Russian Compound stands. An uncovered section of the wall was constructed with large ballista stones and smaller sling stones.
- Ancient Roman pottery.
- Remains of an ancient watchtower, also discovered along the Third Wall.