Kaiser Bill in Jerusalem
His spiked helmet glistened in the sun as he crossed Jaffa Gate astride a white stallion. On October 29, 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II became the first German Emperor in 670 years to enter Jerusalem. Escorted by spike helmets, bearded Prussian and Turkish cavalry, and heralded under a large Prussian cross, the Kaiser seemed as if he was heading a new crusading army. He believed he was. The German settlers in the Holy Land greeted the imperial couple as modern Templars and the kaiser visited familiar crusader haunts from Constantinople to Beirut, inaugurated a church, and praised the spirit of the Templars.
The visit was frantically covered by a large contingent of journalists and photographers the kaiser brought along. As he visited the city’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities and reviewed the honor guard under a gigantic fireworks in front of the new church he consecrated, it seemed — however briefly — that peaceful religious coexistence in the Holy Land was not beyond reach.
In fact, he came at the apex of the Ottoman peace, under which a significant degree of religious freedom was granted to non-Islamic faiths. In 1900, Christians and Jews combined made up 30 percent of the total population of the Ottoman Empire. Jewish communities thrived, especially in Baghdad (which German companies were trying to link Berlin with in an ambitious rail project. In fact, while the Kaiser’s visit was largely apolitical, he hoped to strengthen diplomatic connections with Constantinople for rail concessions). Wilhelm himself, for all his pompous penchant for Templars, was an Islamophile; he called himself ‘Hajji’ Wilhelm, and claimed he would be the Protector of Islam in a future Germanic Levant. (Punch lampooned him as answering to Saladin’s calls to save Crete from the ‘horrible’ British and French).
That dreamworld was soon to be swept away, first by the First World War and by the Scramble for Middle East that ensued afterwards. In the early 1900s, Christians made up 20% of the Middle East’s population. In 1970s and 80s, many left; today Christians make up no more than 5% of the population even as continuing conflicts in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon dwindle this percentage even further.